Sunday, March 08, 2009

Risking the Truth: Interview with Ligon Duncan

I recently interviewed Ligon Duncan about justification, the New Perspectives on Paul, and the Federal Vision for the book Risking the Truth: Handling Error in the Church. The interview is informative, stimulating and pastorally astute. I think it is particularly valuable for pastors, elders and theological students. You can find the full list of contributors (including Greg Beale, Mike Horton, Mark Dever, Carl Trueman) here.

If you would like to read the full version then you will need to buy the book, but here are some extracts to whet your appetite:

[Martin Downes] When engaged in polemics it does not take too long before strong words can be spoken against your character. The great New Testament scholar Gresham Machen was often vilified and subject to personal attacks. Why does this happen and how should you handle it?

[Ligon Duncan] Expect it. Those who teach aberrant doctrine successfully are always, always possessed of two qualities – pride and intelligence. Both of these will often feature in their defense against critiques of their work.

Be determined to know their view (and to be able to articulate it) better than they know it themselves. If you cannot to state the position of your opponent, in your own words, in a way in which they can recognize themselves, then you do not yet understand your opponent’s position and you are not yet ready to enter into polemics with it. Following this counsel would, by the way, cut out 99% of theological discussion on the internet!

Refuse to take the insults thrown back at you personally. You are a servant of the word. And if a servant, you must be prepared to be treated like a servant. The only thing that matters is the glory of God, the vindication of the word, the upholding of the truth, the faithful proclamation of the Gospel and the good of souls. Let them cast what aspersions they may. You only crave the affirmation of One.

[Downes] Heresy is rarely presented in its true colours. Advocates always stress that their view is both biblical and pastorally beneficial. What principles should we follow to avoid being taken in by these schemes?

[Duncan] Ask yourself questions about their view of Scripture. Whether they claim to have a high view of Scripture or not, do their views tend to undermine the final authority of the Bible.

Ask yourself questions about their doctrine of God. Do their views tend to undermine some aspect of his sovereignty or trinity?

Ask yourself questions about their doctrine of Christ. Do their views tend to undermine his claims of full humanity and full deity, or compromise the sole sufficiency and absolute necessity of his saving work?

Ask yourself questions about their doctrine of sin. Do their views deny original sin, or tend to undermine or scale down the sinfulness of humanity?

Ask yourself questions about their view of the Gospel. Do they teach or imply a universalism? Do they compromise the sovereign initiative of God’s grace in salvation? Do they find ways to incorporate man’s deeds in his acceptance with God?

Ask yourself questions about their view of the church. Do they view the church as over the Bible or equal to the Bible, or do they realize that God’s word brought the church into being and thus rules over the church? Do they view the sacraments as justifying or sanctifying? Do they acknowledge that the church has both visible and invisible aspects (that is, that there is an external and internal aspect to the church, and that the church is both local and extended in space and time)?

Ask yourself questions about their view of the end? Do their views promote escapism and retreat, or triumphalism and worldliness? Do they believe in literal return of Christ? Do they believe in heaven/the age to come? Do they believe in the bodily resurrection and final judgment?

Ask yourself questions about their life. Do they show signs of humility or of spiritual pride? Do they bear the marks of the fruit of the spirit? Has their teaching made them more humble, Christ-exalting, Scripture-obeying, world-denying, Gospel-loving, people-serving, truth-treasuring and evidently submissive to proper spiritual authority.

Finally, (1) know your Bible; (2) know your church’s confession or statement of faith; (3) know about the heresies of the past (because Satan is unoriginal).

Roger Nicole and John Frame both offer good advice on how to engage in polemics.

[Downes] If the doctrine of justification by faith alone is still the doctrine by which the church stands or falls what are your hopes and fears for evangelicalism and for confessionally Reformed churches on this very point?

[Duncan] I do not fear and I am deeply concerned.

I do not fear. The Lord will build his church, and even the very gates of hell will not be able to resist the onslaught of the kingdom.

That being said, I am deeply concerned. The spirit of the age is compromise and defection. What is required of ministers in times of spiritual unfaithfulness and doctrinal downgrade and defection is steadfast, unyielding devotion to the truth. We must stand fast. And we must out-live, out-rejoice, out-love, out-preach, out-serve and out-die the false teachers and errorists.

And I am cautiously optimistic. Even in the short run. The so-called “young, restless and Reformed” crowd shows many evidences of resisting the “justification downgrade.” Hang in there, brothers!


Anonymous said...

Ooh, if you're going to whet our appetites like this (a full 3 months before publication) then at least you need a countdown counter like the London Welshman has. Looking forward to this...

Paul said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Paul said...

Ouch. Ligon Duncan of PCA Study Report on NPP and FV fame?

Regardless of whether or not FV is Biblical, orthodox or heresy, the report failed to "state the position of your opponent, in your own words, in a way in which they can recognize themselves".

I have no doubt that Ligon is a man of God who has done great work, and I agree with every word on this page, but it does make you think...

The book looks very interesting.

(reposted and deleted old comment to subscribe to comments thread)

Martin Downes said...

Hello Paul

I'm assuming that you have read the report and could, if necessary, show that it did in fact fail in this regard.

Paul said...

I've read parts of it, listened to the debate on it at the GA. I'm not claiming to have worked the issues through to either conclusion. But it's a matter of fact that the men whose views are criticised have not recognised their own positions in that document, and claimed misrepresentation.

Now, there are three possibilities as far as I can tell:

1) They keep on changing their minds about all of these things, being blown around by winds and waves of doctrine.

2) They are lying, and do recognise their own positions in the report.

3) They are telling the truth, and the report does not represent their views accurately.

Considering there has been critical interaction with FV in which the FVers *have* recognised their position (eg. Mike Horton's interview/debate with Doug Wilson) I'm inclined to go with 3 (and have seen evidence to point me in that direction).

We could go further with this, but enough's been written on the controversy and I would add very little of use. But surely you recognise that the position the report claimed the FVers had was unrecognisable to the FVers and is firmly denied by them?

Anonymous said...

FWIW, this was the part of Ligon Duncan's response that seemed untenable to me. It provides a wonderful ideal, but it seems unworkable simply because one of the most popular responses to critique in our day is the claim that the position has been misrepresented. I suppose I would modify the objective to "present their position in a way that is recognizable by a third party."

It is not ideal, but it does guard against the (too prevalent) tendency to dislodge debates from the actual words used and move it into the subjective murkiness of what somewhat intended to mean.

Paul said...

Yeah, you might be right there. The "you don't understand us" defence is very commonly used as a cop-out. There is, of course, a third party who is the triune God, who is the completely just judge. But since we can't just beam his judgment down to suit our timing we'll have to wait and see in some cases.

The "you don't understand us" cop-out tends to be used by liberal/postmoderns and is followed by no attempts at clarification, defence or argument to back them up.

If Steve Chalke came out now and said "I never meant to attack penal substitution, just caricatured versions of it" (as N.T. Wright thinks he means), we ought to be very glad he's clarified himself and rejoice that he's done so. He should face the repercussions of what he's written, but we should nevertheless believe his words at face value.

Martin Downes said...

Dear Paul and Dave,

Thank you for your comments.

I think Dave is right in saying that it may be untenable. It is certainly something that we ought to strive for, but some theological issues can involve using words in unconventional and ambiguous ways. The potential for misunderstanding is significant.

The FV has been a rolling conversation with plenty of tweaks along the way. I think that the joint statement, which came out after a number of denominational study reports that raised concerns and rejected the FV (did they all misrepresent the FV?), was a help. Lane Keister has done a stellar job working through that document.

Paul said...

Agreed, and as has Doug Wilson from the FV side. I think those posts (from both sides) have been enjoyable and fruitful, unlike some other contributions from both sides. Praise God for the gospel of grace.