Thursday, October 21, 2010

When the Gospel gets personal

Martin Downes (TUESDAY Evening Acts 24 : v 24 - 27) EMW ABERYSTWYTH Wales 2010 from Evangelical Movement of Wales on Vimeo.

This summer I preached one evening at the Evangelical Movement of Wales Aberystwyth Conference.  The text is from Acts 24.  There were around 1 500 in the Great Hall that evening, hence the shifting camera angles as I look up to the galleries.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Not even half baked: Breshears & Driscoll on Christ being the eternally begotten Son

I'm returning to an issue previously discussed at Against Heresies.  You may wish to read the following posts in addition to this one:

Begotten before all worlds?  Is Driscoll right to reject the eternal generation of the Son?

The Unbegotten Son?  Is Driscoll right to reject the the eternal generation of the Son of God?

Discussing the creedal, catholic, doctrine of the eternal generation or begetting of the Son of God, Driscoll and Breshears (in their book Vintage Jesus) say the following:
There has been a raging controversy in the church about this term.  Many see it as referencing the Trinitarian relation between the eternal Father and the eternal Son.  The emphasis is that the Son is begotten not made.  When I beget a son he is of the same essence as I am.  But if I were to make a son, like a robot, he would certainly be entirely different from me. (p. 102)
We are not told when this raging controversy took place, what the different parties believed, and who those parties were.  What we do know is that the formal stating of the doctrine of the full deity and distinct personality of the Son of God, and of his eternal relationship with the Father, can be found in the ecumenical creeds.  These symbols freely describe the Son as eternally begotten of the Father:

The Nicene Creed states that we believe in:
One Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds; God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God; begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made.
The Athanasian Creed follows this:
For the right faith is that we believe and confess that our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is God and man.  God of the substance of the Father, begotten before the worlds; and man of substance of His mother, born in the world. 
The same teaching is upheld by the Definition of Chalcedon which in addition distinguishes the begetting of the manhood of Jesus from Mary from the eternal begetting of the Son by the Father:
As regards his Godhead, begotten of the Father before the ages, but yet as regards his manhood begotten, for us men and for our salvation, of Mary the Virgin, the God-bearer; one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, Only-begotten, recognized in two natures, without confusion, without change, without division, without separation.
All of which gives the distinct impression that this is a settled controversy, as far as orthodoxy is concerned.

Unlike these creeds the doctrinal statement of Mars Hill Church has no affirmation of the eternal generation of the Son.  Nor for that matter is there an affirmation of this doctrine in the statement of faith and teaching position document of Western Seminary where Gerry Breshears teaches systematic theology.

Driscoll and Breshears then add the following comments:
But if the Son is really begotten, it certainly sounds like we are headed into a cultish, Mormon-like understanding of a God who fathers children.  Worse yet, it would also mean that rather than being eternal, the Son had a beginning, which is a core tenet of the Jehovah's Witness cult.
Perhaps we would be heading into a cultish direction if the Son were in fact a creature, if he were not the eternal Son of God.  Maybe we would be well on the way to Cultville if we ignored the Creator-creature distinction and thought that the terminology of 'begetting' applied to the Father-Son relationship in the Godhood in exactly the way that it applies to human father-son relationships in time and space.

For the cults the very fact that he is called the Son reduces his status, and not the fact of his eternal generation.  If he is called the Son doesn't that somehow, by sheer possession of the title, make him less than the Father?  Does it not imply creation, that he has a beginning?

I fail to see how claiming that he is 'begotten' makes any difference when it comes to those who seek to diminish the ineffable glory of the Son of God. Why isolate the language of begetting and generation and quibble over it when it belongs to the same category of language as father and son.  Why is 'begotten' problematic when 'Son' isn't?  For the cults all of these words are taken as indicative of creaturehood.  And of course they are wrong to do so.

Look again at the first sentence:
But if the Son is really begotten, it certainly sounds like we are headed into a cultish, Mormon-like understanding of a God who fathers children.
What does 'really' mean in that sentence?  Are we to suppose that 'really' in this sentence is synonymous with literally?  'Really' as opposed to what?  'Metaphorically' perhaps?  Is 'begetting' only real if it done by creatures?  What about divine Sonship?  Has he always been the Son?  Is God really a Father if he has always had a Son?

It sounds as if to be 'really begotten' is only conceivable to Driscoll and Breshears if it applies at a creaturely level.  Can Christ not be eternally begotten and that count as a real begetting?  Samuel Miller, one of Princeton Seminary's first professors, remarked, on this precise point:
No one, I suppose, ever thought of contending for the literal sense of these terms, in reference to the persons of the Trinity; that is literal, when measured by their common, earthly sense.  Their meaning, on this great subject, is not natural, but supernatural and Divine, and, of course, beyond the reach of our minds.
I fear that what is missing with Driscoll and Breshears, in terms of approaching this subject, is the right starting point for thinking about God.

We must begin with God.  We must begin with what God has said.  We must remember that although he is infinitely exalted above all that he has made, and that the finite cannot comprehend the infinite, God has stooped down to speak to us on our level.  We must remember that all and not part of God's verbal revelation is anthropomorphic, or else we could not grasp any part of his communication to us.

The point is surely clear, and this is why I find their squeamishness about Christ being the eternally begotten Son so half baked.  When God tells us about himself, the paternal and filial language that he uses applies to himself as God in a way that is does not apply to us as creatures with direct equivalence.

Surely we are not tripped up by the free use in Scripture of God's arm, hand, eye, ear and mouth being referred to as if those words carried direct equivalence when used of God and man?  When God smelled the aroma of Noah's sacrifice are we to think that he really has a nose?  Why would we stumble then at 'begotten'?  Why do Driscoll and Breshears isolate it and make it into a special case?

Furthermore, we will not fall into the error they warn us about in their second sentence, 'Worse yet, it would also mean that rather than being eternal, the Son had a beginning, which is a core tenet of the Jehovah's Witness cult', if we are clear about the right starting place for thinking about God, the Creator-creature distinction, and how we are to understand the proper application of analogical language.

The eternal begetting of the Son of God does not mean that he has a beginning,  and it lends no support to Arian ideas ancient or modern.  The words of protest on this point, written by Samuel Miller in 1823, are worth repeating:
I will...once more say that I protest utterly against attaching to the terms in question, any of those carnal and grovelling ideas which the same terms excite when applied to the affairs of men.
I hope to return to this issue by interacting further with the reasons for rejecting the eternal generation of the Son in Doctrine: What Christians should believe, and by taking up the exegetical case for this creedal truth.  I'm also hoping, time permitting, to take a look at John Owen's exposition and defense of eternal generation, against the Socinians, in Vindicae Evangelicae (vol. 12 in the Banner edition of Owen's works), and also at the Princetonian Samuel Miller's work Letters on the Eternal Sonship of Christ.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

The ineffable glory of the Son of God

Some brilliant comments all the way from the fourth century, courtesy of Hilary of Poitiers in Book Three of his De Trinitate:
A virgin bears; her child is of God.
An infant wails; angels are heard in praise.
There are coarse swaddling clothes; God is being worshipped.
The glory of his majesty is not forfeited when he assumes the lowliness of flesh.

He who upholds the universe, within whom and through whom are all things, was brought forth by common childbirth;
He at whose voice Archangels and Angels tremble, and heaven and earth and all the elements of this world are melted, was heard in childish wailing.

The Invisible and Incomprehensible, whom sight and feeling and touch cannot gauge, was wrapped in a cradle...He by whom man was made had nothing to gain by becoming man; it was to our gain that God was incarnate and dwelt among us.

...the proper service of faith is to grasp and confess the truth that it is incompetent to comprehend its Object. 
On understanding the eternal relationship between the Father and Son he says:
If anyone lays upon his personal incapacity his failure to solve the mystery, in spite of the certainty that Father and Son stand to each other in those relations, he will be still more pained at the ignorance to which I confess. 
I, too, am in the dark, yet I ask no questions.  I look for comfort in the fact that Archangels share my ignorance, that Angels have not heard the explanation, and worlds do not contain it, that no prophet has espied it and no Apostle sought for it, that the Son himself has not revealed it.

Time then itself is His [Christ's] creature

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Hills on which to die

The latest edition of the Founders Journal contains an interview that I did with Dr Tom Ascol.  The interview is taken from Risking the Truth: handling error in the church (Christian Focus, 2009).

Here's a taster:

How should a minister keep himself from bitterness and pride when engaged in controversy?

First of all, a minister ought to try to avoid controversy. Sadly, there often is a perverse desire to battle that tends to well up in a minister who is fully committed to proclaim and defend the truth of God's Word. When that is coupled with the abundant distortions of truth that prevail today, a man very easily could find himself doing little else than engaging in controversies. A minister must learn to distinguish those hills on which he is prepared to die from all others and choose his battles carefully. Prayer, Scripture and godly counsel help in this effort.

Secondly, a man must recognize that in the heat of any controversy his greatest challenge lies within his own heart. One of the Puritans said that the temptations that accompany controversy are greater than those that accompany women and wine. Bitterness and pride are only two of them. John Bunyan recognized this and addressed it very graphically with his character, Valiant for Truth, in Pilgrim's Progress. Study the account of that man's bloody battle and remember that the three enemies that left him bruised and battered all resided within his own soul!

On a practical note, I try to remember that the truth for which I am contending commands me to love the one with whom I contend. It does not matter if he is a Christian brother or not, since Jesus tells us to love even our enemies. If I allow myself to become vengeful or bitter or arrogant toward my disputants then I am violating the very truth which I profess to defend in the controversy. It would be better for me to remain quiet and let others better suited to represent Christ and His cause take up the battle. It would be best for me to become such a person.

Also, I try to remember that in controversies my goal should be to win people and not arguments. It is easy to hang people on their words by pointing out every misstatement and accusing them of meaning what they genuinely did not intend to communicate. If I see something more clearly and accurately than my "opponent," then it is only by the grace of God and I should not allow myself to believe or act like it is because I am smarter or better in any way than he is.

Finally, I ask my wife and a few trustworthy men to watch me carefully when I am engaged in controversy and to point out to me where I am exhibiting pride, thoughtlessness or lack of love. God has used them to help me see what I would not have seen otherwise.

What practical steps should be taken by preachers to "watch their life and doctrine closely"?

Recognize that this admonition is given to us for a reason. Every preacher should remember that better men than we will ever be have fallen into grievous sin and error. Ministers need the gospel as much as anyone and we must learn to live by the grace of God in Jesus Christ every day. We need to deal with our sin daily and trust Christ for forgiveness daily. We must fight against every tendency to resign ourselves to professionalism in ministry. As Robert Murray M' Cheyne said, "My people's greatest need is their pastor's personal holiness." Dealing daily with our hearts before the Lord is not optional. This work does not compete with my ministry, it is a vital part of my ministry.

Using trustworthy catechisms and confessions can help guard our doctrinal commitments. Such documents are not infallible, but they provide guardrails which we should overrun, if ever, only with great caution and clear biblical warrant.

You can read the whole thing here

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Beauty & the Beast: This is why rugby is such a great game

Two clips from last weekend's Heineken European Cup.

The sublime skills of the Scarlets back division (it pains me to say this being a Cardiff Blues fan, but Mrs Downes is a Llanelli girl and her team scored what must be the try of the season).

And the caveman Chabal with a hit that makes your eyes water

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Heresies and the interpretation of Scripture: Socinus and substitutionary atonement

"When it is said that Christ died for our sins, 
it means that He bore their punishment."
George Smeaton

If we are to think clearly about heresies we must come to terms with that fact that although some movements explicitly place a rival locus of authority alongside or above Scripture (e.g. Tradition, The Book of Mormon, reason, mystical experiences and revelations) many heresies simply involve the incorrect handling of Scripture. 

In doing so these rival authorities may well arbitrate on what Scripture can and cannot teach.  The interpretation of Scripture is thereby harmonized with Tradition (written or unwritten), reason, the teaching of The Book of Mormon, or with new revelations from God.

Rather than arising from a true interpretation of Scripture, many heresies impose upon the text of Scripture artificial and unwarranted explanations.  At times this problem is exacerbated by the presence of translations that exclude historic orthodox doctrines on dogmatic grounds (e.g. the New World Translation used by Jehovah's Witnesses). 

This kind of sleight of hand by translators is, however, a minority report in the story of heresies.  It is far more common for the words of Scripture to be given novel interpretations that radically diverge from their actual meaning. 

This use of sound words to support unsound ideas is not an exclusively post-canonical phenomenon.  One encounters this semantic confusion in 2 Timothy 2:17-18 where Hymenaeus and Alexander believe, teach and confess the doctrine of the resurrection, but not the same resurrection that the Apostle Paul believes, teaches and confesses.  The same holds true in the Johannine letters where faith in the real Christ (God incarnate, man divine) is insisted upon by John, and where the false Christs, who retain the right title but not the reality, are exposed and rejected.

The stable nature of the text of Scripture and its individual units (e.g. God, Christ, the Spirit, sin, justification and so on) do not need to be deleted by heretics and other false teachers in order to legitimise their claims.  The verses and words of Scripture become carriers of doctrines imposed upon them. 

This is why the conflict between truth and error will primarily focus on the exegesis and interpretation of Scripture, dealing with the individual words of Scripture and their location within the units of thought where they are found, the books that they are a part of, the type of literature that they belong to, wider matters of their canonical place, and finally of their harmony with the whole counsel of God.

As an example of this it is a plain fact of history that the seventeenth century Socinians who violently denied the penal substitutionary atoning work of Christ did not argue on textual grounds that the phrase 'Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures' in 1 Cor. 15:3 was an interpolation (n.b. in the debates between gender egalitarians and complementarians one of the key texts, 1 Corinthians 15:34-35, is not considered to be part of the original by NT scholar Gordon Fee ). 

The Socinians ascribed to this verse a meaning totally at odds with the interpretation that understands its plain meaning to be that as a substitute, the sinless Christ bore the penalty due to his sinful people.  In place of this explanation the Socinians claimed that the preposition used by Paul denoted the final and not the meritorious cause of Christ's death.  That is to say, 'Christ died for our sins' means that Christ died to remove future sin.  The aim of his death was to abolish our future sins, and not to suffer vicariously the punishment for the guilt of our sins.

The Socinian and evangelical interpretations of this text are so widely different as to put before us radically incompatible explanations of the nature of Christ's death, and perceptions of the relationship between his death and our sin.  When we think of what it means for Christ to be the Saviour from sin we are no longer on the same page. 

Not only do we have divergent and incompatible views of Christ's work but we also have markedly differing views of what it means to have faith in Christ crucified.  You cannot alter the doctrine of his cross work without at the same time changing the nature of the subjective response on our part to him.

The Socinians denied the deity of Christ as well as his atoning work.  Even if they had affirmed it, as some do who also deny penal substitution, there would still be such a difference between the two conceptions of the saving work of Christ that they would be as alike as night and day.

Driving this Socinian exegesis, as the nineteenth century NT scholar George Smeaton noted, was not an impartial handling of Greek prepositions but a hermeneutic that was fundamentally unwilling to accept that any text in Scripture taught the satisfaction doctrine of the atonement:
To show, however, that it is not simply a matter of interpretation with them, but a forgone conclusion, it may be mentioned that Socinus explicity declared, that were the doctrine of vicarious sin-bearing, and the punishment of one for the sins of another, mentioned not once, but many times in Scripture, he would not believe it; because it could not be.
The open declaration is candid at least; but it is an appeal to reason, not to revelation, and an admission that Scripture is not made the ultimate judge, but only to be interpreted as seems best suited to confirm or dress out a preconceived hypothesis.
The Apostles' Doctrine of the Atonement, p. 208