Thursday, May 15, 2008

From the archives: Clear and Present Danger (1)

There is a book in my study that is the spiritual equivalent of arsenic or cyanide. If it was in liquid form it would be in a bottle with an orange hazard label. It is the most dangerous book that I own. It is so dangerous that in 1618 it was publicly burned by order of the English Parliament. It is called the Racovian Catechism. It contains teaching and reasoned arguments that contradict the gospel. It specifically denies and attacks the deity of Jesus Christ, his atoning death, and the doctrine of the Trinity. And a copy of it sits on my bookshelf in the church where I pastor. Can it do people any harm? No. Unless of course someone reads it, is persuaded by its arguments, and then seeks to convince others to accept them.

There were people like that in Ephesus. They, as well as their teaching, needed to be dealt with. Paul homes in on the teachers themselves because ideas shape lives, and these false teachers had corrupt characters to match their teaching. It is not just the teaching that concerned him. People were promoting these ideas. They must be stopped. These false teachers were a “clear and present danger” to the churches.

What were they teaching?

James Buchanan wrote some very wise words about truth and error:

It has long been my firm conviction, that the only effective refutation of error is the establishment of truth. Truth is one, error is multiform; and truth, once firmly established, overthrows all the errors that either have been, or may yet be, opposed to it. He who exposes and expels an error, does well; but it will only return in another form, unless the truth has been so lodged in the heart as to shut it out for ever. (Doctrine of Justification, p. 15).
Errors are specific. Timothy has to deal with specific distortions, denials and differences in doctrine that we will probably not be dealing with in an identical way today. That said, there are some generic features of the false teaching found here that every age has to deal with. Paul refers to these errors as “different” doctrine. Different from what? From the apostolic gospel, from “the faith”, from the “sound words of the Lord Jesus Christ and the teaching that accords with godliness” (6:3). So this teaching is different in its nature, content, and effects, to the apostolic gospel. Like the Galatians they were being presented with a different gospel (Gal. 1:6).

This choice of different doctrine, this heretical imperative, involved two things. It denied the true gospel and promoted a different one. It was of sufficient seriousness to change the content of saving Christian truth and to overturn the unity and peace of the church.

All errors are not equal. Every error in doctrine leads to undesirable pastoral consequences because we will then think, live and worship in a distorted way. The last two hundred years give ample evidence of this concerning the doctrine of sanctification. Well meaning Christians have tried to live holy lives based on ideas that are not biblical (Higher Life, “let Go and let God”, and various forms of perfectionism). Here are errors that call for correction and clear teaching. These ideas were at times promoted by preachers who were unsaved. They were also promoted by preachers who were saved but badly mistaken. But Timothy here is called here to deal with errors that change the very nature and content of the gospel message.

There are two generic features of the false teaching in 1 Timothy:

i. There are errors connected with revelation.

There are “myths”and “genealogies”. By myths he means an unreal tale that only the gullible believe. Extra-biblical revelation is in view. Whatever these myths were about, the issue at stake is plain. Where does the authority lie? Where does the buck stop in the realm of ideas? Made up stories and human imagination or the Word of God? They stand in direct contrast to the knowledge of the truth in the apostolic gospel (2:4-7).

It is clear that the Word is not sufficient for these teachers, they have turned away from it in preference for legends. There is rejection of the truth and error fills the gap that is left. As one man put it our response to revelation is either the “bowed head or turned back”.

ii. There are errors of interpretation.

They are ignorant about the relationship of the law and the gospel. They don't understand that the law's primary function is to expose sin and not to produce speculative legalists.
Perhaps errors in interpretation will be the kind of thing that we will be more familiar with. Is it true that at the micro level our exegesis is always 100% correct? No preacher would claim that. Paul has in mind here the macro level, the very structure of redemptive revelation. These enthusiatic teachers of the law are devoid of understanding (1:8), they don't know what they are talking about. The lawful use of the law is to expose sin. In this the law and the gospel agree. The Socinians held to sola scriptura but they were in gross error when it came to interpreting the Bible. The false teachers in Ephesus were guilty of both errors.

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