Just for my own sake, I would like to index my commentary recommendations. To access this post in future, one only needs to go to the indices category, and this will be there. I’ve also updated both the layman’s guide and the regular commentary guide.
There is no more distressing trend in the church today than the general disregard and distaste for sound doctrine. Not only do people think of doctrine as inherently impractical, but the issues of error in the church as a whole are not on people’s radar screen.
The general reason for the first part of this trend is the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment separated the noumenal realm from the phenomenal realm (a la Kant). As a result, the only things that are real are the things that we can sense with our five senses. Hence, everything became either intensely practical or intensely philosophical, and never do the two realms meet. Hence, doctrine is seen as being part of the noumenal realm, far removed from the everyday phenomenal realm. This bifurcation is largely unconscious on the part of modern day churches. Nevertheless, it is extremely prevalent. People in the pew therefore have an aversion to doctrine, because it is seen as far removed from daily life. This is not a biblical picture. If Jesus is our Immanuel, and has come to earth, lived an earthly life, died an earthly death, and told His disciples that the Holy Spirit would lead them into all truth, then doctrine matters for the Christian life. We are not to separate doctrine from life.
The reason for the second part of the trend (the issue of disregard of error) is that truth has become more and more relative. If there is no such thing as absolute truth, then there is no corresponding error to refute. No one wants to say that anyone else is wrong today, in a doctrinal sense. And so the boundaries of truth are broadened. Corresponding with this broadening of the boundaries is an equal and opposite shrinking of the essentials of the Christian faith. As the boundaries of truth are broadened, so also does there need to be a shrinking of the core truths of the faith in order to make room for as many views as possible. Hence the trend away from the fuller-bodied confessions of the Reformation AS our confession of faith to a more anemic catholic-creed-only type of faith. Issues such as Scripture and justification will inevitably come under attack in such an environment, since they were not fully formulated in the early catholic creeds, but most definitely were in the Protestant Reformation.
The connection between these two halves of the attack on truth lies along these lines: if doctrine is impractical, then the pursuit of error is also impractical. Hence people don’t seem to feel the need to interact with either truth or error. A perceived over-emphasis on truth will then result in “divisiveness,” a very impractical result. What is practical is unity. What is impractical is truth. Hence, the “doctrine” (oh, the irony!) that God is love trumps the equally important doctrine that God is light. But we cannot separate the love of God from the truth and the light of God, for God is a simple (indivisible) being. Therefore, truth and unity are equally important. Neither should be sacrificed if possible. But the key here is that true unity can only be achieved around the truth, and this cannot be the anemic truth, but the full-bodied truth. This is where the confessions come into their own, because they define where the church thinks the boundaries of truth really are. The church thinks that these doctrines in the confessions are the core truths of Christianity.
So why should we care about truth and error? Ultimately, because God cares about it. The Bible speaks over and over and over of the importance of truth and the equal importance of rejecting error. Some of the Bible’s strongest language comes in these discussions (Galatians comes to mind).
None of the above should be construed as looking down on what is practical. If Christian doctrine does not result in changed lives, then it is not true doctrine. However, the definition of what is practical needs to be reformulated. What we believe is every bit as practical as what we do. Our mindset informs our choices; doctrine informs practice, and is itself practical.
I just finished reading (somewhat belatedly!) a book that a friend of mine sent me. He was the editor, in fact. He assembled a whole bunch of interviews, which he then published in his book. The result is a fascinating window on how the church should be dealing with error. There are interviews here with a very impressive list of names: Carl Trueman, Tom Schreiner, Michael Horton, Mark Dever, Ligon Duncan, Greg Beale, Derek Thomas, Scott Clark, Tom Ascol, Guy Waters, Kim Riddlebarger, Ron Gleason, Sean Lucas, Iain Campbell, Gary Johnson, Conrad Mbewe, Geoffrey Thomas, Joel Beeke, Robert Peterson, and Michael Ovey.
Downes asks such questions as these: “Were they any deviant theologies to which you were ever attracted?” “How should a minister keep his heart, mind, and will from theological error?” “What would you consider to be the main theological dangers confronting us today and how can we deal with them?”
I’ll share some of the highlights, as they struck me. Trueman notices that the root of theological error is pride (p. 31). He says that “their (that is, the false teachers spoken of in 1 Timothy 1:5-7) focus is on their own status, not on the words they proclaim.”
Derek Thomas has some wise words for pastors: “Ministers can so easily develop grudges and become angry and allow that anger to show itself in the pulpit justified as ‘righteous anger’, of course. The cause may be legion: pent-up frustration over poor remuneration, a bad marriage, a secret life of unmortified sin and pulpit anger is a smokescreen of anger at oneself, the Elijah syndrome (‘I only am left’) that ends up (unlike Elijah!) justifying majoring on minors (tertiary issues, if truth be told). I think this is the peculiar temptation of those who maintain an unapologetic Calvinistic theology” (p. 67).
Scott Clark says, with a self-deprecating note that he hasn’t always done this, and quoting Derke Bergsma, “Gentlemen, when you go heresy hunting, be sure to use a rifle, not a shotgun” (pp. 73-74).
Tom Ascol notes that “One of the Puritans said that the temptations that accompany controversy are greater than those that accompany women and wine” (p. 91). Our goal should thus be “to win people and not arguments” (p. 91).
Sean Lucas says, “The greatest danger comes from those who are simply not willing to be troubled to care about the denomination, who are content in their own smaller networks (whether formal presbyteries or informal affinity groups), and who will not engage in the issues of the day…I believe that utter indifference to the plight of denominations is the major danger we face today. Because when doctrinal challenges do come from ministers who are doctrinally deviant (edited by LK here), many ministers, elders and laypeople simply tell themselves, ‘Well, it doesn’t matter; we can do our own thing over here, use the denomination as a branding and credentialing agency, and not be affected'” (p. 127). I believe that this quotation especially, is relevant for any church, classis, or Presbytery that finds itself in the middle of nowhere geographically. The temptation to comfortable isolation is extremely strong. Lucas also says, helpfully, “it is always the unwritten creed that operates in a more powerful and exclusionary fashion than the written creeds” (p. 128). Quoting Machen, “All real doctrinal advance proceeds in the direction of greater precision and fullness of doctrinal statement” (p. 129).
Geoffrey Thomas says, “If you depart from the confessions of faith then find the strongest arguments why our fathers resisted the path you are taking and seek to answer them. Wait until you are forty before coming down on the side of a position different from historical confessional Christianity (and wait until you are fifty before you use powerpoint!)” (p. 164).
Joel Beeke says, in a characteristically Puritan-saturated mold, “Develop the hide of a rhinoceros so that you won’t be tossed about with every criticism and wind of doctrine while maintaining the heart of a child, so that you will be a tender undershepherd to the needy” (p. 166). He also says that “ignorance always serves the cause of error” (p. 168).
Greg Beale says, “Our doctrine of inerrancy does not depend on our being able to solve every problem in the Bible” (p. 227).
These are just a few of the wonderful things you will find in this book. These were the most “quotable” of the lines, but everything in the book, and every entry, is helpful.
December 16, 2009 at 10:51 am (Theology)
Is the following true scholarship? Or is true scholarship something else?
And Jesus said unto the theologians: “Who do you say that I am?”
They replied: “You are the eschatological manifestation of the ground of our being, the ontological foundation of the context of our very selfhood revealed.”
And Jesus answered them, saying: “Huh?”
I have huge problems with the idea that scholarship is simply a huge vocabulary. Nowadays, someone can some up with something that sounds scholarly simply by using a digital thesaurus. In this post, I want to challenge specifically the idea that true scholarship consists in writing for other scholars. It simply does not consist in that. What is merely the outside packaging of something does not constitute what is inside.
True scholarship, in my opinion, consists of mastery of the material. It consists of a specific kind of mastery, as well. It means that a true scholar can explain his field in such a way that a middle-schooler can understand it. That has to be a fairly complete mastery. There has to be understanding of the concepts, not just of the words. In the quotation above, for instance, there is a sentence where the words are so obscure that the meaning is not obvious. If there is any meaning in the sentence, it has been hidden by the difficult words.
However, there is an opposite extreme, as well. There can be a reaction against false scholarship which is equally problematic. The problem then is that people can think that there can be no true scholarship at all. And, as a result, in the interests of making people understand, the content is dumbed-down. There can be a pride in simplicity for simplicity’s sake. It manifests itself when people say “Well, I’m not going to give a lecture now, I’m going to give something that people can understand.” Now, that kind of thinking does not always result in this dumbing down. However, it often can.
To apply this to pastors, I believe that the best route to go here is to have a mastery of the content. One can also say it this way: that a pastor ought to be completely mastered by his content. He ought to be mastered so completely by the deep things of the Gospel, that he can make anyone understand it. He ought to be able to use simple words to describe difficult concepts. Of course I am not saying that the Gospel is inherently difficult to understand. However, as Peter says, there are some things in Paul that are difficult to understand (it’s a good thing that understatement is not a crime!). These difficult things are still valuable for the sheep to learn. If they are to learn them, then we need to be able to explain difficult things in a way that is easy to understand.
This decision has been made by the panel of the SJC.
I know I’m a bit slow to comment on the Manhattan Declaration, but I wanted some of my fathers in the faith to speak out first before I said anything. I had some initial impressions, but wanted them debated before I stuck out my neck. I shall stick it out now.
On each of the three issues, I issue a hearty amen to the position of the declaration. It would be difficult to do otherwise, when these issues are of such paramount importance, and the stance taken so completely biblical. I have picketed abortion clinics in the past, and support doing so now and in the future (as long as it is done legally). I firmly stand for marriage as God has defined it, not as how man wants to redefine it. And, in our context, where the freedom to worship God has been constantly eroded by humanistic thinking, what Christian wouldn’t be eager to say that he wants the freedom to worship the God he loves?
However, the concerns of Sproul, MacArthur, Horton, and Challies have all raised some very important issues about particular words and ideas used in the effort to create a monolithic Christian coalition on these issues. And there is where the rub lies. How is the word “gospel” and “Christian,” among other words, being used in this document? Is it a wax nose, twistable by any signer or reader into the shape he wishes? I was forced to come to this conclusion: those words are empty vessels, into which anyone can pour what meaning he chooses. I would much have preferred language like this: “Although we do not agree on the definition of “gospel” or “Christian” or “justification,” we can agree on these social issues.” This, I think, would have allowed folks like the ones linked above to sign this document in good conscience. It is really too bad that these flaws are deal-breakers for the men listed above, and for myself, especially when SOO many men I deeply respect have signed it, and when I yearn to say yes on the particular issues.