Friday, February 29, 2008

You wouldn't dream of doing this

Imagine, for a moment, that you have been invited to a banquet at Buckingham Palace. You are treated to the finest of foods, prepared by world class chefs, in the most sumptuous of surroundings, and in the presence of your most gracious host.

Toward the end of the evening you beckon over one of the royal servants attending the table. Reaching into your pocket for a twenty pound note, you quietly whisper "I wondered whether you could pass this to her majesty. A small contribution toward the evening."

That would be a great insult. It would also be a pathetically inadequate gesture in the face of overwhelming riches. Not for one moment would you think that such an act would be intelligible or appropriate.

Why then in the face of overwhelming riches of grace and wisdom in Christ, and the total sufficiency of his finished work in obtaining for us righteousness, pardon and acceptance, would we ever think that our works could be included in the basis of our being right with God?

The tragedy is that the analogy of a banquet at Buckingham Palace is an infinitely weak, pale and insignificant comparison of what God does for us in the gospel. Our boast is in the Lord, and in the Cross, to the praise of his glorious grace.

The particular temptation of the seminary student

Sound advice from Archibald Alexander:
Guard solicitously against inward decays of grace. Be alarmed when your private devotions become formal and uninteresting. Neglect not the devout perusal of your Bibles. You need this exhortation even more than if your daily office did not lead you to daily familiarity with them.

The labourer, who has only a few moments at noon or in the evening to look into his Bible is not so likely to read it carelessly as the theological student, who does nothing else than turn over its leaves and examine its contents.

Never consider piety as in a prosperous state in your soul unless your exercises be accompanied with a penitent sense of your own sins and a humble sense of your unworthiness.
Quoted in Garretson, Princeton and Preaching, p. 40-41

Thursday, February 28, 2008

God and Preaching

It is an awesome privilege and responsibility to teach the Word of God, and to hold out the gospel to men and women bound for heaven or hell. Week by week the Word of God preached awakens the dead and builds up the living. It accomplishes what God has sent it for. It brings life to some the stench of death to others.

A few years back I wrote a chapter on preaching in Keeping Your Balance: Approaching Theological and Religious Studies (Apollos, 2001) available here or here.

The chapter, "God, Theology & the Pulpit: Perspectives on Preaching," is available as a pdf file here.

The sovereignty of God and the piety of the minister in preaching

I found this comment helpful:
Truths, found in Scripture, and affecting my own mind, freshly, strongly, and as it were newly, I mean coming to me, after frequent perusals, as living words of God, verifying themselves in my experience, are those which, when simply spoken or preached, seem to reach other people. growing judgment is, that the utterance of such truths will accomplish God's end on his elect: 'for they know his voice'. Surely in our craving for effect, we lose the value of such remarkable passages as John 10:27; 2 Cor. 4:2; 2 Thess. 2:10. Simplicity, in following Christ as a teacher, is worthy of our consideration.
James W. Alexander, quoted in James M. Garretson, Princeton and Preaching, p. 1

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

"They just don't get it" or the dynamics of dismissing critics

Ever wondered what to make of the complaints that critics fail to even understand what they are criticizing? Ever been amazed when those critics can be counted in double figures and teach at a pretty high level? Ever thought that there is something quite fishy in the response that says "they just don't get our position"?

It is not a new problem.

Here is John Owen on the undermining of the supernatural work of regeneration by the Holy Spirit by Pelagius and his latter day spiritual offspring:
Pelagius, whose principal artifice, which he used in the introduction of his heresy, was in the clouding of his intentions with general and ambiguous expressions...Hence, for a long time, when he was justly charged with his sacrilegious errors, he made no defence of them, but reviled his adversaries as corrupting his mind, and not understanding his expressions.

And although those who at present amongst us have undertaken the same cause with Pelagius do not equal him either in learning or diligence, or an appearance of piety and devotion, yet do they exactly imitate him in declaring their minds in cloudy, ambiguous expressions, capable of various constructions until they are fully examined, and thereon reproaching (as he did) those that oppose them as not aright representing their sentiments, when they judge it their advantage so to do.
John Owen, The Holy Spirit, p. 212-3

The Person and Work of the Holy Spirit

From 16th-18th June this year Dr. Michael Haykin will be speaking on the person and work of the Holy Spirit at the EMW ministers conference held in Bala, North Wales. This is a residential conference and contact details for a brochure can be found at the bottom of the page here. Bala is less than two hours drive from Manchester and Liverpool airports.

Dr. Haykin is the author of numerous books including Jonathan Edwards: The Holy Spirit in Revival (the image at the top of the post is Darrin Brooker's cut up version) and Defense of the Truth: Contending for the Faith Yesterday and Today. He has recently written The God Who Draws Near: An Introduction to Biblical Spirituality, which has been reviewed by Guy Davies. A sample chapter from the book is available here. Dr. Haykin is Professor of Church History and Biblical Spirituality at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

I'm due to give the closing conference address on What Really Matters in Ministry from Paul's farewell address to the Ephesian elders in Acts 20.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

God's Word in Servant Form

God's Word in Servant Form: Abraham Kuyper and Herman Bavinck on the Doctrine of Scripture by Richard Gaffin

This book is due out soon. Chapter 1 is available here.

The book carries the following endorsements:

". . . urgently needed to respond to a resurgence of historical nonsense. . . careful with his primary sources, avoids claiming too much, and sets a standard for evenhanded historical theology on this question that deserves to be the norm and not the exception."
-D. A. Carson, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School

". . . can only have a positive impact on the present generation's thinking about both the character of Scripture and proper theological reflection."
-Moises Silva

". . . historically rigorous, intellectually stimulating and spiritually re-assuring."
-Donald Macleod

". . . Gaffin mines these stalwarts of the Reformed tradition for wisdom and insight in the inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture. . . a must-read for pastors, students, theologians, and laymen alike!"
-Sean Lucas

"Dr. Gaffin shows that Abraham Kuyper and Herman Bavinck believed in organic inspiration and also in an errorless Bible because of its ultimate divine authorship. . . "
-Ric Canada

Closer to God, further from the Truth

Being in error and knowing that you are in error are two different things.

The former involves an objective position in relation to the truth (see 1 John, passim, for the antithesis between truth and error but especially 4:1-6). The latter involves a subjective awareness of your position in relation to the truth. This difference between an objective reality (e.g. Arius and Athanasius on the deity of Christ) and a subjective knowledge of that reality, leads to some perplexing questions:

Do heretics know that they are heretics? If they don't know that they are heretics why don't they know it?
From the perspective of pastoral theology this is an acutely important problem. At the very least we ought not to think that embracing serious theological error and knowing how serious that situation is will be self-evident. In fact the very opposite conclusion can be stated, as ludicrous as this may at first appear to be. Those in error claim to feel much closer to God than they were before, even though they are now much further away from the truth. There are several reasons for this.

1. False teaching is plausible and attractive

Mysticism and heady spiritual experiences are intoxicating. Legalism is a powerful wonder-drug. These avenues to experiencing God get results (never mind the downside which is an overweening pride that displays itself as elitist and therefore divisive). Look at Paul's contrast in Colossians 2:18-23:
Let no one disqualify you, insisting on asceticism and worship of angels, going on in detail about visions, puffed up without reason by his sensuous mind, and not holding fast to the Head, from whom the whole body, nourished and knit together through its joints and ligaments, grows with a growth that is from God.

If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations— "Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch" referring to things that all perish as they are used)—according to human precepts and teachings? These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh.

Claims like these are not to be confused with reality as Paul makes very clear.

2. We have the capacity to be deceived and to self-deceive

At one point we have imbibed the teaching, and its benefits, and then we are off advocating and spreading the good news. Along with the ideas we have the testimonies as to how the teaching has changed our lives. Every cult under the sun does this, it is never a proof for the divine authenticity of our views. Just as it is possible to be under God's wrath and mistake this for a sign of his absence and irrelevance in the world (Rom. 1:18-32) so it is possible to think that we are now much closer to God when in fact we have been taken in by a lie (Eph. 4:14-15).

3. We can move the locus of authority away from Scripture to the self

This need not be ourselves as the locus of authority ("the Lord has told me") but also our infallible leaders who have mediated the new teaching to us (see the disaffection with Paul created by the false teachers fawning over the Galatians, Gal. 4:12-20). The status of leaders and their control over the opinions and attitudes of believers is a perennial problem (see 1 Cor. 1-4 and read every blog that gives news about a church subculture: Emergent, Emerging, Evangelical, Anti-Emergent, Federal Vision, Reformed, Baptist etc.).

4. We mistake the Jesus of our experience for the Jesus of the Bible

Paul preached Jesus, the super-apostles preached "Jesus." The difference was not indicated by the use of speech marks. A fake "Jesus" will always get a following, a ready entourage who find his message conducive to their aspirations and desires, theological, ethical and social. Could there be a greater con trick in the history of the world than to put your trust in a "Jesus" who seems real to you but proves to have been the figment of someone's imagination?

Monday, February 25, 2008

An Interview with Carl Trueman (the Welsh Calvinistic Mafioso would like to know of his whereabouts)

Above: News reaches RTS Jackson that Trueman has been up to his old tricks again.

My friend Guy Davies recently interviewed Carl Trueman of Westminster Seminary, Philadelphia, here.

Carl has uttered one too many foolish jibes about the Welsh and, according to Derek Thomas, will soon be sleeping with the fishes.

And you can find an introduction to the Welsh Reformed Taffia here.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Apologetics and the authority of Scripture

Here is an absolute gem from Herman Bavinck:
Revelation in Scripture assumes that humanity is...corrupted in its religious disposition and needs re-creation. It would therefore deny itself if it recognized the "unspiritual" person as its rightful judge.

If Christianity is a religion of redemption in the full and true sense of the word and hence seeks to redeem human beings fom all sin, from the errors of the mind as well as the impurity of the heart, as much from the death of the soul as from that of the body, it in the nature of the case cannot subject itself to the criticism of human beings but must subject them to its criticism.

The revelation that comes to us in Christ through Scripture in fact takes that position toward us. It does not put itself on a level below us to ask for our approving or disapproving judgment on it but takes a position high above us and insists that we believe and obey.

The revelation of God in Christ does not ask for the support or approval of human beings. It posits and maintains itself in sublime majesty. Its authority is normative as well as causative. It fights for its own victory. It itself conquers human hearts and makes itself irrestistible.
Reformed Dogmatics Vol. 1: Prolegomena, p. 505

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

The duty and danger of dealing with heresy

A great piece of advice given to young ministers is that they should make a particular subject, or theologian, a deliberate focus for long term indepth study. By accident, rather than design, I have for the last ten years returned again and again to the subject of heresy. I say by accident because it was a footnote referencing a book on heresy, and a chance spotting of that book in a place that I would not have expected to see it, that initiated my interest in the subject.

One of my aims has been to think about heresy in its broadest dimensions and not only in the particularities of heresies from A-Z. Surprisingly what at first might appear to be a very narrow subject turns out to be remarkably comprehensive. Heresy is the dark side of orthodoxy, by which I mean that heresy is what happens when people depart from orthodoxy but still seek to hold to a form of Christian doctrine and practice.

Heresy has massive implications for exegesis, hermeneutics, the question of authority, all areas of systematic theology, confessionalism, historical theology, morality, psychology, pastoral ministry, ecclesiology, and eschatology.

In my thinking and writing on the subject I have tried to take a step back in order to survey the landscape and inscape of heresy as well as entering in, on occasion, to particular skirmishes on points of contemporary controversy. These are not my only interests, and they do not dominate my life as a working pastor privileged to serve Christ Church Deeside in North Wales [that said a colleague in the ministry cheekily referred to me the other day as the Witchfinder General].

Nevertheless, there is a particular danger in polemics that is faced by those who seek to discharge the duty of prosecuting error and proclaiming the truth. False teaching can become a preoccupation for ministers, and for discerning Christians.

Because of the dynamics of controversy, Christians with a concern about the danger of error are quickly labelled as negative, judgmental, arrogant, unloving, pharasaic, narrow etc. Those terms go with the territory even if they are inaccurate. They are powerful rhetorical weapons that can prejudice minds and derail good arguments. That said, they are not so wide of the mark that they never apply to those seeking to confront error. Don Carson has some very helpful words on this subject:
...persistent negativism is spiritually perilous. The person who makes it his life's ambition to discover all the things that are wrong--whether wrong with life or wrong with some part of it, such as exegesis--is exposing himself to spiritual destruction.

Thankfulness to God both for good things and for his sovereign protection and purpose in bad things will be the first virtue to go. It will be quickly followed by humility, as the critic, deeply knowledgeable about faults and fallacies (especially those of others!), comes to feel superior to those whom he criticizes.

Spiritual one-upmanship is not a Christian virtue. Sustained negativism is highly calorific nourishment for pride. I have not observed that seminary students, not to say seminary lecturers, are particularly exempt from this danger.
D. A. Carson, Exegetical Fallacies, p. 19

Friday, February 15, 2008

The difference between truth and error is a razor's edge

Theological controversies can appear to be so intricate, so involved in minutae, that they amount to the splitting of hairs. It is no doubt the case that they can be written off as a waste of time and energy, perhaps even as the product of argumentative personalities whose default setting is to be combative in conversation. Onlookers can find it exasperating, with so many points of agreement, that such commonalities as exist are held hostage by an overweening scrupulosity about tiny details where disagreement remains.

A little patience is needed here. Why work on the assumption that the difference between truth and error is always as plain as the nose on your face? Is it right to presuppose that differences will always be clear and evident to all? If these are our assumptions as we approach this issue it is time to enrol on a Church History 101 course.

There are lots of things that we ought to include into the mix when thinking about the dynamics of theological controversies. There can be the desire to find a form of words that will make the resulting document a compromise statement, the kind that is not really satisfying to either side but which will quell some troubled waters.

Of course, this can never hold up for disputants with a real concern for truth, but it is desirable for those seeking to preserve institutional unity or regional peace. At this point the inclusion of single words, and the meaning of those words as understood by all parties is a critical issue.

A statement of faith so vague that it can be read in mutually contradictory ways will always prove to be a failure of conviction and clear thinking. What each party is willing not only to affirm but also to deny can reveal what real disagreements actually remain.

James Buchanan made this acute observation:
We learn another lesson from what occurred at the Diet of Ratisbon [MD: the 1541 discussion of justification by Roman Catholic and Protestant theologians].

It shows the possibility of appearing to concede almost everything, while one point is reserved, or wrapped up in ambiguous language, which is found afterwards sufficient to neutralize every concession, and to leave the parties as much at variance as before.

It has been justly said that, in controversies of faith, the difference between antagonist systems is often reduced to a line sharp as a razor's edge, yet on one side of that line there is God's truth, and on the other a departure from it.
James Buchanan, The Doctrine of Justification, p. 136

Thursday, February 14, 2008

The Dividing Line: Prophet, Priest and King?

The departure into error can be charted at any number of points. Some of the more obvious ones concern the authority of Scripture, and the person and work of Christ. Moreover, the departure may involve the open denial of certain doctrines, the de facto denial of them by radically reinterpreting doctrines (i.e. "I know you say you believe in justification by faith but your version is radically different to the biblical one that has been historically confessed), or the marginalising of them by the addition of extra doctrines.

If we are wise, we will allow for human error and frailty in these matters as well as motives that are malignant. There can be a lack of balance, a carelessness of wording, an overemphasis in expression. These things can be kept in check by peer review and discussion, before we are ready to press the nuclear button and drop the "H" word.

Errors, of course, abound when we fail to present the person and work of Christ in their true biblical proportions. He is both God and man, Saviour and Lord, the Christ of the cross now gloriously raised and ruling over all things. How easy it is to present him as desperate for our response and not as the mighty Lord who deserves our total allegiance, or to preach the cross and neglect the resurrection.

I daresay that a snaphot of our views, captured from a few sermons or blog posts will not necessarily reveal the full picture everytime. The temptation can be to rush to criticise when we see imbalance and suspect error, instead of pausing to ask for clarification.

On the other hand it is possible to discern a pattern of thinking in the books and sermons of particular individuals, or movements, that do signal a departure from the truth and a move toward error.
What we emphasise most often surely reveals what is most important to us. What we omit, or treat in a cursory way, reveals, to our readers and listeners, that those subjects don't really matter at all.

Of course some authors will specialise in particular areas, and this will be reflected in their books and speaking schedules. But when they are talking about the Gospel, and essential Christian doctrines, what are they saying? What is being left out or skirted over?

William Cunningham made some straightforward observations about errors connected to the offices of Christ. The contrast, in the following extracts, is between the Reformers and their arch-enemies the Socinians. Even though their views were plainly antithetical when it came to the person of Christ, it was also clear that the way they stressed the work of Christ (what he came into the world to do) was also radically different. Or, to put it another way, if you listened to some sample preaching, what was said about the work of Christ in both cases would not match up.

Here is the Reformed view:

I have said that it has been the general practice of theologians since the Reformation, to expound the work of Christ as Mediator, in the way of ascribing to Him the three distinct offices of a Prophet, a Priest, and a King. (Historical Theology, p. 241)
And the Socinian:
It may be described in general, as the characteristic of the Socinian system of theology upon this subject, that it regards Christ merely as a Prophet,--that is, merely as revealing and establishing truths or doctrines concerning God and divine things, while it denies that He executed the office of a Priest or of a King. (Historical Theology, p. 242)
The Reformed view incorporates the work of Christ for us as our substitutionary sacrifice and interceding advocate (his Priestly work), his rule over us and for us (his Kingship), and his work in revealing truth to be believed and commands to be obeyed (his Prophetic ministry).

My contention is that those who deny and undermine penal substitution reduce the offices of Jesus largely to that of being a Prophet. The good news becomes what he tells us to do. This is not of course to deny that we are also offered the forgiveness of sins (the Socinians believed that), but it is to say that the connection between Christ's death and our redemption is radically different from the Reformed/Evangelical view.

A representative example of this reductionism can be found in Brian McLaren's views (although it would be fair to say that the questioning and outright rejection of penal substitution and the stress placed upon the message of, not about, Jesus is a distinctive of Emergent church thinking). For him the Kingship of Jesus is quite powerless and passive, working by exemplary moral persuasion. His Jesus is strong on the call to accept his teaching and follow his new way of life. All that traditionally has passed for an understanding of sin, wrath, and future judgment has been reinterpreted. I think this captures his emphasis neatly:
“The time has come! Rethink everything! A radically new kind of empire is available—the empire of God has arrived! Believe this good news, and defect from all human imperial narratives, counternarratives, dual narratives, and withdrawal narratives. Open your minds and hearts like children to see things freshly in this new way, follow me and my words, and enter this new way of living.” (from Everything Must Change)
This is Socinianism revived for a 21st Century audience.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Relearning our grammar

I have sometimes heard the complaint that publications aimed at church members are too theological. On the whole I don't think that this is because they are too technical, or that they are dealing with subjects that require previous indepth knowledge to be able to access the discussion. My thesis is that there is another dynamic at work that accounts for the gap between what is considered suitable for the minister, or the theology student, and what is considered appropriate for church members. This dynamic has been the neglect of the Reformed confessions and ecumenical creeds in the life of churches.

I need to add an important caveat here. The neglect that I have in mind is primarily by those who would identify themselves with Reformed theology and practice, and whose churches still formally ascribe to one or other of the Reformation and post-Reformation confessions in some way. In my neck of the woods churches adopt smaller statements of faith as well as holding to larger confessions. But neither the longer or shorter versions seem to have much functional use in the week by week life of the churches.

Of course for many people new to the vitality of Reformed theology these treasure trove documents are full of unexplored riches. For others, they belong to a lost heritage and need to be recovered. The loss is reflected in how people think and speak about the faith they profess.

Let me give an example from language study. I learned Welsh until the age of 14, and French until the age of 16. Looking back I now consider it to have been very unwise to neglect these languages and to allow them to wither and die. They are not completely lost, but they are functionally at a low level of usefulness. My children, however, are fluent in Welsh and English, having learned one language at home and the other everyday in school. You can see the point. It is a case of "use it or lose it." So it is with theological language. If these things were, once again, a normal part of church life and Christian experience, we would begin to recover the very grammar that belongs to the church.

The Reformed churches had the foresight to provide summaries of the faith that were clear, comprehensive and substantial. The truth was given clear expression and definition, distinguished from error, held out to the world (this is what we believe), used as a basis for unity, and given forms that were helpful to the health and growth of the church. They were more then just lists of abstract doctrinal niceties with no "bonding glue" to hold the various items together. Rather they were structured around the redemptive revelation of the Triune Sovereign Creator, who he is, what he has done, and how we are to live in gratitude before him.

Furthermore, these doctrinal documents were composed in forms highly suited to teaching the faith. That is to say in crisp, clear, comprehensive, and memorable phrases, set down in the natural way that we all think about issues (through questions and answers).
What appears archaic to 21st century churches is actually the tried and tested way that previous generations benefitted from.

The situation is retrievable. Theological language is not dead, but it is dying out. Sadly this leaves churches today disconnected from their roots, having to reinvent the wheel, and without a proper framework for thinking and living. What a difference it would make to adults and children in our churches to benefit weekly from learning, and relearning, the very grammar of the faith once for all delivered to the saints. Theology is not just for ministers and students, it is for the life, health, strength and comfort of the whole church.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

These aren't the doctrines you're looking for

Whether done in sincere ignorance, that shows itself willing to be corrected, or out of perverted sincerity that counts what is heterodox as the very truth of God, wrong doctrines can be read out of the text of Scripture. The guilt, when this happens, to quote Hilary of Poitiers, is that of the expositor not of the text.

This can happen when we see the right doctrine in the wrong text. It also happens, with graver consequences and indicating troublesome presuppositons, when we see the wrong doctrine in the text altogether. This problem is exacerbated when the hermenutical method being employed forces Scripture to say, or to say in a certain way, what we are looking for.

A predetermined approach, built on the foundation of certain non-negotiable beliefs that are not derived from special revelation, will always force specific conclusions to be drawn from the data of Scripture. John Wesley's approach to the Bible's teaching on predestination was, strangely, predetermined to reach definite restricted outcomes. Whatever the Bible taught, he thought, it could not teach this. No amount of evidence then would make any difference. To quote, in a modified way, Obi Wan Kenobi "these are not the orthodox doctrines that you are looking for."

William Cunningham made this insightful observation on the matter: is very common for men, even when professing to be simply investigating the meaning of Scriptural statements, to be greatly, if not chiefly, influenced by certain previous notion of a general kind, which whether upon good grounds or not, they have been led to form, as to what Scripture does say, or should say; and is thus fitted to impress upon us the important lesson, that if we would escape the guilt of distorting and perverting the whole word of God, and of misunderstanding the whole scheme of salvation, we must be very careful to derive all our views, upon matters of religious doctrine, from the sacred Scripture, in place of getting them from some other source, and then bringing them to it, and virtually employing them, more or less openly and palpably, to overrule its authority, and to pervert its meaning.
William Cunningham, Historical Theology, p. 240-1

Losing Christ in your ministry

A friend and I were once discussing a frank admission that he had once heard. It came from a pastor who said "I lost sight of Jesus in my ministry." It was a remark tinged with sadness, and we took it as an ominous warning. Did this man set out to do this? Not at all. And that is precisely the danger. What choices do we make day by day that undermine communion with Christ? What subtle steps remove our dependence upon the glorious Son of God? What pressures, opportunities and challenges hinder the gaze of faith upon his finished work, present reign, and glorious return?

I came across this helpful comment by William Cunningham:
The incarnation of the second person of the godhead,--the assumption of human nature by One who from eternity had possessed the divine nature, so that he was God and man in one person,--is, as a subject of contemplation, well fitted to call forth the profoundest reverence, and to excite the strongest emotions.
If Christ really was God and man in one person, we may expect to find, in the object thus presented to our contemplation, much that is mysterious--much that we cannot fully comprehend; while we should be stirred up to examine with the utmost care everything that has been revealed to us regarding it.
William Cunningham, Historical Theology, p. 237

Saturday, February 09, 2008

The Exiled Preacher interviews the new principal of LTS

My friend Guy Davies has recently interviewed Robert Strivens the principal-designate of London Theological Seminary here.

Rev. Strivens will follow in the footsteps of Phil Eveson and Hywel Jones.

If you are not familiar with LTS here is the potted guide from the interview:
GD: Give us a (very) potted account of the origins and history of LTS.

RS: LTS was founded in 1977, under the leadership and vision of Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones. It was set up to provide a training-ground for men planning to enter pastoral ministry. There was a belief that the training available for men in non-Anglican situations needed strengthening. The vision was for a seminary that would serve the evangelical community in this country, by focussing on the need for sound, biblical gospel preaching and the study of the great truths of the Reformation.

Friday, February 08, 2008

5 areas that Liberal theology corrupts

Liberalism: Ancient and Post-Modern

1. In relation to the church

Even though its ideas originate outside the church, it seeks to remain within the church even as it actively redefines the faith.

Even though it is antithetical to historic orthodoxy it entrenches itself in the church by accusing opponents of not displaying the Christian virtues of love, peace and a concern for unity. It confuses the priorities of churches by attacking the weak point of a perceived lack of love, whilst showing no love for the Church or world by perverting the gospel.

2. In relation to the truth

It quickly kills essential doctrinal affirmations but avoids detection by the use of pietistic language and behaviour. Even though decisive steps are taken to destroy orthodoxy, the effect of those decisions are revealed through a slow process of decay because they are masked by pseudo-piety.

It claims to be intellectually honest but is anything but when it comes to occupying teaching positions in seminaries and churches.

3. In relation to confessions of faith

It dresses up new ideas in old language. Older confessions are relativized as expressing Christian experience in historically bound forms. Confessional language is thereby retained but is reinterpreted for today.

4. In relation to money

It takes hold of institutions and endowments belonging to orthodox groups and claims them by a process of reinterpreting statements of faith.

5. In relation to evangelism

It cannot produce offspring. It grows by corrupting the good, feeding off host bodies, and by appealing to the disaffected.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

The Minister and his Idols (1)

The human heart, wrote Calvin, is a perpetual forge of idols. By definition idols replace the true God as the new, and unfitting, object of our worship. Whilst this is true of all idols, and all human hearts, there is also a diversity of expression, a grotesque plurality of forms, that idols possess. I want to ask what forms idols take as they are forged in the hearts of pastors.

An illustration that I often use to portray a lack of self-awareness concerning our own sins is that of the blind spot. Every driver knows that there is an area of road that cannot be seen by looking into the rear view or side mirrors. That area is large enough to fit a car into. You have to turn your head and deliberately check the blind spot.

It is like that with our sin. There are sins that we are aware of, and some that other people need to point out. Have you ever wondered why some Christians seem blissfully unaware of attitudes and actions that are wrong? You can see them and you wonder why they do not. Are we free such blemishes? What idols lurk in that blind spot for us? What idols are being forged, masked by our own self-deception, as we are busy carrying out our roles as unashamed workmen?

I have often thought of Augustine's description of inordinate desires. Things that are themselves acceptable, or good, if received with thanksgiving and viewed in light of our love to God and his Word, become corrupted by our grubby self serving lusts. So it is with leadership. To aspire to the office of an overseer is a noble desire (1 Timothy 3:1). But it becomes an inordinate desire when we pursue it out of ungodly motives. Do we love being out the front? Do we want to be the one in control? What really is motivating us? Peter has some counsel for elders on these matters (1 Peter 5:1-3).

Of course there is a true and proper godly ambition, just as there is a true and proper exercise of leadership. Ministers who are passive in the direction and welfare of their churches will not fulfill their ordained responsibilities. God gives gifts to be used for the building up of his church and the extension of his kingdom. There are prominent ministries that God had blessed which are for the benefit of the churches. It is in this context that right concerns and desires can become inordinate desires. And this is why ministers must be self-aware and ruthless with the particular idols that they are prone to forge.

If we fail to be self-aware then we will meet our idols head on in a car crash. There will be times when we are overlooked, times when something we wanted is given to another, times when the church down the road succeeds and our own patch is like a garden in the Winter. At those points our desires are exposed for what they are. We begin to see that we have held on tightly to the wrong things. Our hearts have become wrapped around our dreams so much that we do not want to let them go. We realise that in serving God we have secretly been serving ourselves. As we have been feeding God's flock we have also been feeding our own lusts.

Disappointments like these are God's timely reminders of our indwelling sin. How we handle disappointment in the ministry is a real indicator of own own hearts. The weeds of pride, self-love, bitterness, envy, rivalry, and conceit grow in the dark. Once exposed they must be destroyed again and again.

Ministers, like all believers, are men who face temptations. They face the same temptations as other believers, and they face some peculiar to the calling and office that they have received. Temptations and idols general to the Christian life, are twisted into particular forms because of the nature of the minister's life and work.

What then are the idols that ministers forge? We will look at them in part two. But for now you can note them down in the comments if you so wish.

Monday, February 04, 2008

On novelties, theological development and Madonna

Godly counsel is a wonderful thing.

Phil Johnson made a remarkable comment some time back in one of the discussions at Pyromaniacs. He referred to the short life-span of theological views held by the people in their twenties. Every eighteen months or so some people go through a revolution in their thinking, a paradigm shift that leaves behind one view and is off touting a new one. I think this was a very shrewd observation.

Hence, some people change their theology more often than Madonna changed her image in her illustrious pop career. The point at issue is not of course the exact time frame involved but the short term exposure to, and grasp of, a particular view or church tradition.

At one level it begs the question about the depth of thought, learning, meditation, and understanding that lies behind what we believe. Whatever view you take on baptism, for example, what is transparently clear is that great men of God, with great learning, have written on the subject extensively in the past. One ought to be familiar with the best arguments for a position, and the best books on the subject, before changing sides. Shallow learning, frequent shifting of convictions, and the readiness to promote our new views with all the zeal of a fresh convert, are quite revealing indicators of our theological gravity.

The impact of this is seen in the democratization of Christian teaching. You can read all about it in the blogosphere, and hear all about it in the small group Bible studies.

Whether it is the cause, or the consequence, of the problem, there is no doubt that a minimalist view of doctrine is a factor in the a-historicizing of Christianity. Or, to put it another way, evangelicalism undermines a sense of the breadth and depth of orthodox Christian thought. A minimalist approach to statements of faith weakens the connection between the 21st century and the past. Of course some newer traditions have to scrabble around for historic roots because they haven't got any (the was true of the UK charismatic interest in the Celts that surfaced in the mid to late 1990s). A lack of awareness of historical theology also leaves room for novelties to pose as orthodoxy, and biblically established and historically believed truths to be accused of being innovations.

In addition it is all too easy to apply words to our views without sufficient care or warrant. So, we call ourselves "Reformed" or "Calvinists" quite happily, whilst having no acquaintance with the Westminster Standards or the Three Forms of Unity (and if you think you are Reformed but wonder what the Three Forms of Unity are then it is high time to do some homework). Whatever you make of Reformed theology the last thing it could be accused of is being lightweight. The heritage of writing (exegetical, systematic, confessional, pastoral) is one of the wonders of the world. Standing before such works leaves one feeling very small. It is great to be a sapling in the Reformed forest because however small you are in stature the land is firm and the soil is rich.

Novelties and innovations appear to be such when we have done our homework on the things that we believe. Without that homework our claim to be biblical, evangelical, or even Reformed, simply masks a shallowness of thought. No wonder then if we get dazzled by the wrapping paper of wayward doctrines.

Seven Habits: 5. They are uncorrectable

[Last week was too busy for blogging. Here is part five from my paper The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Heretics]

The Christian world is filled with churches that promote idiosyncratic interpretations of Scripture. Such novelties will always be damaging and unhelpful. They may arise out of a sincere but limited knowledge, a failure to see a particular text in context or in proportion to the whole counsel of God. These aberrations need correcting. And at this point the intellectual and pastoral dimensions of handling truth and error are woven indelibly together.

When you arrive at a point of doctrinal understanding, a point where you have become convinced that Scripture teaches doctrine X, there is a desire to articulate, explain, disseminate, and defend that view. But what happens if our understanding of doctrine X is wrong? What if there is no doctrine X at all? At this stage what we need, obviously, is correction.

This task is all the more difficult if we have become quite persuaded of the truth of our wrong interpretation. The plausibility of error then is no longer a passing matter for us but something that has been set in concrete. In fact it can become an obsession, the sun around which the Christian life now orbits.

There are other factors that can exacerbate this problem. Is it not the case that errors can gain traction when the alternative is never offered? Are they not bolstered when the truth is dressed up like a straw man? Don't you know that Calvinism discourages evangelism? Have you not heard that absolute sovereignty makes God an aloof monarch playing with robots?

There are two things to note here:

1. It is vital for us to understand that one of the functions of Scripture is to correct us (2 Timothy 3:16). If our thinking is wayward then it will be Scripture, rightly understood, that should bring our theology back online. This is why it is so important that those who preach the Word are properly equipped for their work. Training is necessary in didactic and polemical theology.

Pastoral wisdom is also needed. We need to assess the errors and the people who hold to them. This will involve us making assessments about character and behaviour. Are they humble? Teachable? Submissive to Scripture? The way in which bad theology can entrench itself in someone's thinking (and praying, and influencing of others etc.) can be exasperating for the pastor. Nevertheless, correction is to be done with gentleness and prayer.

2. It is also vital for us to understand that being wrong views, and uncorrectable attitudes, are an indication of moral corruption. Timothy (who was of course not timid), is not only warned of the false views of his opponents in Ephesus (1 Timothy 1:3-7) but also of their perverse behaviour. Their failure was not only hermeneutical, wrongly relating law and gospel, but involved devoting themselves to myths and endless genealogies that promoted speculation. They desired to be teachers (not to teach but to have the status of teachers?) but did not understand what they were saying or "the things about which they make confident assertions."

Paul draws out the moral dimensions of error in 1 Timothy 6:3-5:
If anyone teaches a different doctrine and does not agree with the sound words of our Lord Jesus Christ and the teaching that accords with godliness, he is puffed up with conceit and understands nothing. He has an unhealthy craving for controversy and for quarrels about words, which produce envy, dissension, slander, evil suspicions, and constant friction among people who are depraved in mind and deprived of the truth, imagining that godliness is a means of gain.
What would you rather deal with, a church member who has sincerely misunderstood a particular doctrine, but who is teachable and open to correction, or one who has misunderstood and stubbornly holds on to those views?

The answer is a no brainer.

Saturday, February 02, 2008

Carl Trueman, you have my sympathies (not)

Wales haven't beaten England at Twickenham since 1988...until today. After the first half I thought we were in for a hiding. But in the second half England collapsed. The final score was 26-19 to the men in red.

Now, the esteemed church historian professor Carl Trueman, is known for his crowing about the Welsh. Nay, his verbal jousts are legendary (and we might add Derek Thomas is a model of Christian patience with him). Perhaps we can look forward to a humble ackowledgement from him at Ref 21 of the Welsh rugby team's victory at HQ.

Here's an interesting remark from The Guardian, "The Six Nations is naked nationalism, unashamed full frontal, and it's wonderful...The Six Nations has to be one of the most gloriously, overtly, tribal tournaments in European sport."

There is lovely innit.


I see that Derek Thomas sprinted to the keyboard as soon as the whistle went ;-)