Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Heretics and Schismatics

Augustine eventually came to define heretics as those who "in holding false opinions regarding God, do injury to the faith itself," as distinguished from schismatics, who "in wicked separations break off from brotherly charity, although they may believe just what we believe."

Basil's distinction was only slightly different: heretics were "men who were altogether broken off and alienated in matters relating to the actual faith," and schismatics were "men who had separated for some ecclesiastical reasons and questions capable of mutual solution."

Pelikan, The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition, p. 69

Political heretics

You can find heretics and heresies everywhere.  In the church, outside the church, on the internet, in books, under rocks, inside donuts, the list is almost endless.

There are of course heresies and heretics in the political realm.  Their identity is determined by those who define, control, regulate and uphold orthodoxy. A point made by Peter Hitchens.
Russia is no longer an ideological state, externally or internally.  It no longer seeks global power, and in some ways is less interested in the minds of its citizens than are 'Western' countries which demand increasing obedience to the formulas of political correctness.  In Russia, you may hold what private opinions you like.  Just do not challenge the state.  In Britain, your private opinions may be reported to the authorities and get you into trouble, even if you believe your actions are part of normal life and you have no wish to challenge the state.
Peter Hitchens, The Cameron Delusion, p. viii

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Is there a 'Problem of Forgiveness'? Dissonant voices

Four voices.  Only one of them resembles the tone and accent of the Master.

Faustus Socinus (1578)
As we saw elsewhere Paul likewise instructs us to be imitators of God: just as he forgave our sins through Christ, we should forgive each other, but if God so forgave our sins through Christ, that he yet demanded the punishment of them from Christ itself, what prevents us from seeking satisfaction for ourselves for the offenses of our neighbours?
Brian McLaren (2006)
The traditional understanding says that God asks of us something that God is incapable of Himself. God asks us to forgive people. But God is incapable of forgiving. God can’t forgive unless He punishes somebody in place of the person He was going to forgive. God doesn’t say things to you—Forgive your wife, and then go kick the dog to vent your anger. God asks you to actually forgive. And there’s a certain sense that, a common understanding of the atonement presents a God who is incapable of forgiving. Unless He kicks somebody else.
Steve Chalke (2004)
Is it not strange for Jesus (God incarnate) on the one hand to say ‘do not return evil for evil’ while still looking for retribution himself? Similarly wouldn’t it be inconsistent for God to warn us not to be angry with each other and yet burn with wrath himself, or tell us to ‘love our enemies’ when he obviously couldn’t quite bring himself to do the same without demanding massive appeasement? If these things are true, what does it mean to ‘be perfect…as your heavenly Father is perfect’ (Matt 5:48)? If it is true that Jesus is ‘the Word of God’ then how can his message be inconsistent with his nature? If the cross has anything to do with penal substitution then Jesus teaching becomes a divine case of ‘do as I say, not as I do’. I, for one, believe that God practices what he preaches!

John Stott (1986)
'Why should our forgiveness depend on Christ's death?'...'Why does God not simply forgive us, without the necessity of the cross?'...'After all', the objector may continue, 'if we sin against another, we are required to forgive one another.  We are even warned of dire consequences if we refuse.  Why can't God practise what he preaches and be equally generous?  Nobody's death is necessary before we forgive each other.  Why then does God make such a fuss about forgiving us and even declare it impossible without his Son's "sacrifice for sin"?' 
For us to argue, 'We forgive each other unconditionally, let God do the same to us', betrays not sophistication but shallowness, since it overlooks the elementary fact that we are not God.  We are private individuals, and other people's misdemeanours are personal injuries.  God is not a private individual, however, nor is sin just a personal injury.  On the contrary, God himself is the maker of the laws we break, and sin is rebellion against him. 
The reason why many people give the wrong answers to questions about the cross, and even ask the wrong questions, is that they have carefully considered neither the seriousness of sin nor the majesty of God.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Character is plot

Sebastian Faulks' Introduction to his emotionally overwhelming World War I novel Birdsong is full of fascinating insights.  He makes a telling remark about 'sitting for hours in small cemeteries' unsure as to what he was looking for but soaking himself in this world 'hoping perhaps to acquire the authority to write about it'.

There is also this vivid remark about his last journey to the continent before setting home to write:
I stood beneath the great arch at Thiepval, where the names of the missing -- not the dead, just those of whom no trace was found -- are like small print footnotes in the sky.
I found his comments about the order of the major elements of the novel thought provoking.  He wrote that the major theme was 'How far can you go?  What are the limits of humanity?...the answer seemed to be that there were no limits to humanity' (by which he means human depravity).  Then came the following about the process of writing:
This is the ideal sequence, I think -- from theme, to event, to character -- though it is seldom this orderly.
And then it struck me that when it comes to the universe we begin with character, or to be precise we begin with three persons, and what follows in the eternal counsels, and through the works of creation and providence in time and space, in the Fall and work of redemption, and stretching forward into eternity, is the outworking of character.

Character is plot on the biggest stage of all, beginning with the pactum salutis and the eternal decrees and from creation to new creation.  For upon all his works is impressed and embedded the wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness and truth of the Triune God.

The poignant epigraph that Faulks chose for the book he took from Wilfred Owen's final letter to his mother before he returned to the front lines, where he would die one week before the signing of the Armistice.  Owen  had chosen some words from Rabindranath Tragore:
When I go from hence, let this be my parting word, that what I have seen is unsurpassable
Now we see in a glass darkly, now we see his glory by faith, then we will behold his glory world without end.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

The Meaning of the Cross

According to the SCM's (the Student Christian Movement) 1919 "Aim and Basis" this is what the cross means:
It is only as we see on Calvary the price of suffering paid day by day by God himself for all human sin, that we can enter into the experience of true penitence and forgiveness, which sets us free to embark upon a wholly new way of life...This is the meaning of the Atonement.
Reading these words afresh it struck me that this statement resonates with several, shall we call them 'Emergentesque' for want of a better word, affirmations of the cross.

This is hardly surprising since the SCM statement is the impulse of a certain caste of heart and mind, and it rests on specific presuppositions concerning God and man, and concerning the breakdown in divine-human relations and how they are to be restored.  If those presuppositions are shared we should expect contemporary authors to assemble, using Biblical vocabulary, a message about the meaning of the cross akin to that of the non-Evangelical SCM.

John Stott offered the following observations on this statement in the preface to his book The Cross of Christ:
But we have respectfully to respond that the meaning of the atonement is not to be found in our penitence evoked by the sight of Calvary, but rather in what God did when in Christ on the cross he took our place and bore our sin. 
This distinction between an 'objective' and 'subjective' understanding of the atonement needs to be made clear in every generation.
Whilst I agree with what he wrote back in 1986, we should be able to see that the SCM statement has an objective element ("the price of suffering paid day by day by God himself") as well as a subjective one ("we can enter into the experience of true penitence and forgiveness, which sets us free to embark upon a wholly new way of life").  In fact we can say that the SCM statement acknowledges that the objective act of God precedes the subjective response on our part.

The crux of the matter is not the distinction between the objective and the subjective aspects of the atonement but the nature of the objective understanding of the atonement, the meaning of what God did at the cross, why he did it, and why it was necessary for him to do it in the first place.

On this point the SCM position and that of the classical Evangelicalism with its roots in the Reformation really represent two different religions both using the same stock of language.  Look at what they are saying about God and his nature, man and his fall, sin and its effects, and you begin to see that no amount of verbal similarity can compensate for the fact that they represent diametrically opposed theologies.

Friday, April 08, 2011

A sort of idolatry

One of the main deficiencies in writings about hermeneutics is the failure to include a chapter on Satanic interpretations.  The devil is after all an interpreter of reality, his words are offered as an alternative explanation of the things that are made (including human nature), and a better explanation of how things work.

Genesis 1-3 is all about interpretation.  God interprets reality (1:10, "God called the dry land earth...And God saw that it was good").  The man and the woman are to acquiesce in the interpretation of God concerning the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (2:15-17).  The serpent offers a rival interpretation of what God has already interpreted (3:1, 4-5), and so on.

There are plenty of other examples in Scripture of both the link between Satan (and his demons) and heresies, and also the manifestation of Satan's activity in the preaching of false Christ's and false gospels (2 Cor. 11; Gal. 3:1, 1 John), or in other words, false interpretations offered by malevolent interpreters (they shudder at God's existence but oppose his rule and have no love for him).  We also need to bear in mind that when Christ is tempted in the wilderness the successive attacks of Satan focus on questions of interpretation ("If you are the Son of God...")

Why has this dimension of hermeneutics failed to get any coverage in evangelical writings about interpreting Scripture?  And it really is a failure, this aspect is almost entirely ignored.  Does this neglect shed any light on the loss of nerve concerning our confidence in there being a God-given right interpretation accessible to us?  Is the Serpent not still whispering "But did God really say"?  If we neglect his presence in our thinking on this subject would he have it any other way?

If we confine our thinking about interpretations and interpreters to those offered by mere flesh and blood we are being desperately naive about the whole subject.  We need to go back to the beginning and read Genesis with a bit more care.

Here is what Tertullian had to say on the matter:
The same being, possessing still the same genius, both set his heart upon, and succeeded in, adapting to his profane and rival creed the very documents of divine things and of the Christian saints--his interpretation from their interpretations, his words from their words, his parables from their parables. 
For this reason, then, no one ought to doubt, either that "spiritual wickednesses," from which also heresies come, have been introduced by the devil, or that there is any real difference between heresies and idolatry, seeing as they appertain both to the same author and the same work that idolatry does. 
The consequence is, that every lie which they speak of God is in a certain sense a sort of idolatry.
Prescription Against Heretics, Ch. XL

Monday, April 04, 2011

Straight from the pit of Bell

It is worth watching Rob Bell's promo video for Love Wins and this sparkling rejoinder from Canon Press back to back.  It would be remiss of me not to mention that you really should avoid swallowing Federal Vision theology, it will just have you coughing up blood.

Video 1: Straight from the pit of Bell

Video 2: Wring that Bell

Robbed Hell - C.A.S.T. Pearls Presents from Canon Wired on Vimeo.

Can you sing about retributive justice?

The Bible contains songs about salvation and songs about judgement (Rev. 15:3-4; 19:1-3).  Not of course that they are held far apart, or that you can sing the one and go mute on the other because you only want to sing the nice ones.  You can't skip verses about judgement when you sing Exodus 15:1-18. 

God's acts of retributive justice are praiseworthy because he is just (Rev. 16:5-6), and because he is just in his holy character we can say 'true and just are your judgements' (Rev. 16:7) and worship him because his 'righteous acts have been revealed' (Rev. 25:4)..

Where did we learn to sing songs about judgement? Surely it is because we have joined the choir that sings a 'new song' about the Lamb slain, who bore the wrath in our place and purchased men for God (Rev. 5:9-10).  If you don't want to sing God's praises for his true and just judgements you will also find yourself departing from the original lyrics of that 'new song'.

Our trouble, if we refuse to sing these songs, is that we are like the failed applicants at the audition stage on the X Factor or American Idol.  We think we know enough about sin, and the judgement that sinners deserve, that we don't need to be corrected when we are off-key.  We think we are pitch perfect already.  

Listening to these discordant notes is not an expert behind a desk, but the Composer, Lyricist and Conductor of heaven's songs and heaven's choirs.  And he is seated upon a throne.

When it comes to singing and speaking about judgement don't think that you have the right to judge the Judge when you are hitting all the wrong notes.

Today is the day of salvation.  Earnestly, winsomely, prayerfully, we plead with people to face up to the reality of judgement and to come to Christ.  Their lost condition grieves us and moves us.  We long to have them join us in singing the song of the Lamb.  But, this day of opportunity will end, and our God will not be unjust when Jesus judges the living and the dead.. 

The final judgement is not a final act of cruelty but an awesome, public, display of justice.  Or, in other words, sinners will be treated as their sins deserve -- 'they were judged, each one of them, according to what they had done' (Rev. 20:12, 13; 'He will render to each one according to his works' Rom. 2:6; see also Psalm 62:12; Prov. 24:12; Job 34:11; Jer. 17:10; 32:19; Matthew 16:27).

Here is Augustine's take on the matter:
Now the reason why eternal punishment appears harsh and unjust to human sensibilities, is that in this feeble condition of those sensibilities under their condition of mortality man lacks the sensibility of the highest and purest wisdom, the sense which should enable him to feel the gravity of the wickedness in the first act of disobedience.
Luther was singing from the same hymn sheet:
Since God is a just Judge, we must love and laud his justice and thus rejoice in God even when he miserably destroys the wicked in body and soul; for in all this his high and inexpressible justice shines forth. And so even Hell, no less than Heaven, is full of God and the highest good. For the justice of God is God himself; and God is the highest good. Therefore even as his mercy, so his justice or judgement, must be loved, praised, and glorified above all things.

Is your universalism big enough to include the devil and his angels?

If you lean toward universalism, because you are so compassionate, just how tender-hearted are you?  Will you extend salvation beyond the worst infidels in the human race?  Is Satan himself doomed to be saved?

That is the question that Augustine asked of Origen and those like him:
I must now, I see, enter the lists of amicable controversy with those tender-hearted Christians who decline to believe that any, or that all of those whom the infallibly just Judge may pronounce worthy of the punishment of hell, shall suffer eternally, and who suppose that they shall be delivered after a fixed term of punishment, longer or shorter according to the amount of each man’s sin.

In respect of this matter, Origen was even more indulgent; for he believed that even the devil himself and his angels, after suffering those more severe and prolonged pains which their sins deserved, should be delivered from their torments, and associated with the holy angels.
But the Church, not without reason, condemned him for this and other errors, especially for his theory of the ceaseless alternation of happiness and misery, and the interminable transitions from the one state to the other at fixed periods of ages; for in this theory he lost even the credit of being merciful, by allotting to the saints real miseries for the expiation of their sins, and false happiness, which brought them no
true and secure joy, that is, no fearless assurance of eternal blessedness. 

Very different, however, is the error we speak of, which is dictated by the tenderness of these Christians who suppose that the sufferings of those who are condemned in the judgment will be temporary, while the blessedness of all who are sooner or later set free will be eternal. Which opinion, if it is good and true because it is merciful, will be so much the better and truer in proportion as it becomes more merciful. 

Let,then, this fountain of mercy be extended, and flow forth even to the lost angels, and let them also be set free, at least after as many and long ages as seem fit! Why does this stream of mercy flow to all the human race, and dry up as soon as it reaches the angelic? And yet they dare not extend their pity further, and propose the deliverance of the devil himself. Or if any one is bold enough to do so, he does indeed put to shame their charity, but is himself convicted of error that is more unsightly, and a wresting of God’s truth that is more perverse, in proportion as his clemency of sentiment seems to be greater.
Augustine, De Civitas Dei, 21:17

Friday, April 01, 2011

Lloyd-Jones diaries to be published

Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones was one of the most famous preachers of the twentieth century.  In addition to the many published works of his still available, most notably his expository series on Ephesians and Romans, his previously unpublished diaries will soon become available in three volumes.

The first two volumes cover his early years as the minister at Westminster Chapel after the retirement of Campbell Morgan, and continue up until the late 1950s.  The third volume, due to published first, covers the crucial controversial years of the 1960s and early 1970s and carries his reflections on the parting of the ways with J. I. Packer and the public controversy with John Stott.

This third volume is being transcribed and should be available twelve months from now.  No publisher has been announced but I understand that several large evangelical publishing houses are interested in this project.  They would be fools not to be.