Don’t We All Worship the Same God?

This is a fairly common occurrence. The person you meet who has been in about 5 different denominations tells you that all those denominations worship the same God. The implication (stated or unstated) is that we should stop fighting anything, since we all worship the same God. To them, no other doctrines seem to matter except the doctrine of God. Now, there is a grain of truth to this plea. We should never ignore common ground that we have with people from other denominations, as that is usually a good place to start, and shows good will. However, the unity that is usually (and rightly!) desired by people who believe in the same God cannot be achieved by simply stifling debates and lowering other doctrinal matters to the status of insignificance. This unity cannot happen by simple fiat. It is in fact naive to think this way. In fact, the emphasis really ought to be in focusing on our differences, so that the Biblical record can be examined once again to see if these things be so. A book I read fairly recently by a Roman Catholic author quite convincingly argues that ecumenical endeavors that focus entirely on common ground will inevitably stall. Instead, our attention should rather focus on the areas of disagreement. People these days seem to be allergic to disagreement. Folks, disagreement does not equal hatred!

It is not true that the doctrine of God is the only doctrine of importance. It is quite obviously of central importance. However, we cannot reduce Christianity to our doctrine of God. What about our doctrines of Scripture, Christ, man, salvation, Holy Spirit, church, and sacraments? Are they now to be completely ignored in the interests of ecumenicity? Honestly, many of the early heretics of the church would have claimed to worship the same God we do. And some of them would have been correct. Just because one is correct in one’s doctrine of God (posit, for instance, that a person is orthodox in his doctrine of the Trinity) does not mean that one is orthodox in all other areas. One could have a correct view of God, but a heretical view of Christ’s natures, for instance.

Lastly, it is not always true that these denominations have the same view of God as the other denominations. We have said before that it is not enough to state the truth in a positive way. The wrong views must also be refuted and denied. Many mainline denominations may have correct statements about the doctrine of God. However, functionally speaking, they will not discipline a minister who holds to a heretical view of God. If a denomination states an orthodox view of God, but then does not discipline their ministers for heretical views of God, then that denomination is not holding to an orthodox view of God. The reasoning for this is simple: the denomination, by failing to discipline heretical views, is stating that a variety of views on God’s person is acceptable. That is their functional position. People have forgotten just how important the denial of errors is (especially in today’s theological climate!). Of course, this also underlines the importance of church discipline for the church. I would argue against those who exclude discipline from the definition of the true church. Without discipline, the church stands for nothing. Without discipline, the church is like parents who never spank their children: they are abusing their children! It is, in effect, not parenting at all.

We really need to think much more carefully about this ecumenical business. It does need to be done. However, we need to be wise in how we do it. We can never shove differences under the rug. Otherwise, a superficial unity will result that pleases no one, least of all God, who wants a church unity that is characterized by the truth.

Tribal Congregationalism and future of the PCA

Posted by Bob Mattes

I have used the term “tribal congregationalism” several times in recent blog posts and comments. I stated the basic definition most succinctly in this post as:

The PCA [Presbyterian Church in America] has become a tribal congregationalist denomination where particular errors find toleration in specific presbyteries that remain unaccountable to the denomination as a whole.

I have been asked to expand upon that definition, hence this post.

Amongst the important elements of good leadership are empowerment and accountability. Empowerment includes the idea of delegation, wherein I assign a task or function to a person or group. When empowered, that person or group then has the tools and authority to accomplish the assigned task or function, along with clear expectations and desired outcomes.

With empowerment must also come accountability to the leader who assigned the task or function. Accountability can include things like deadlines, progress reports, specific intermediate goals, etc., as well as the actual final outcome. A good leader delegates tasks and functions, empowers those assigned to those tasks and functions with the tools and authorities necessary, provides clear expectations and desired outcomes, and holds the empowered accountable for the results.

We see these principles generally at work in the PCA’s Book of Church Order (BCO). We have three levels of church courts, each with specific tasks and functions assigned, specific expectations, and each empowered to carry out their tasks and functions as delineated in the BCO (BCO 1-1, 1-5, 3-2, 10-1, 10-2, 11-4). Through review and control (BCO 11-4, Chapter 40), each court is held accountable to the broader courts. That is, sessions are held accountable to presbyteries through the review of their minutes and general knowledge of their activities. Presbyteries, in turn, are held accountable via the same tools to the General Assembly. That’s Presbyterianism 101.

When that process breaks down, we have processes for church discipline (BCO Chapters 29 to 40). Individual courts hold their members accountable through investigations, counseling and, as a last resort, trials. Each court’s execution of the discipline process is reviewed by the next broader court for their fidelity to our Constitution – the Westminster Standards together with the BCO. That’s Presbyterianism 102.

Unfortunately, while the theory is sound, the execution is found lacking in the PCA these days. We created an outlier judicial commission, the SJC, which as constructed differs from the actual church courts (BCO 15-3) in that it is not directly accountable to the General Assembly (which created it) for its specific actions or decisions (BCO 15-5). Therefore, the three court structure, the courts being one (BCO 11-3), is broken in the PCA because of an unaccountable judicial commission (BCO Preliminary Principle 7).

The breakdown of the above basic leadership elements and processes that implement them has been manifest in recent decisions in the PCA. The Committee for the Review of Presbytery Records rightly called out a specific presbytery’s decision accepting officers who hold to paedocommunion (the unbiblical serving of communion to infants and toddlers in violation of 1 Cor 11:27-29; WCF 29, WSC 96, 97; WLC 168-177) to the General Assembly, but the latter decided not to hold that presbytery accountable. The General Assembly permitted, by inaction, officers that practice of intinction, which also violates the Scriptural model for communion (Mt 26:26-28; Lk 22:17-20; 1 Cor 11:23-29) as well as the Westminster Standards (WCF 29.3; WLC 169) and the BCO (58-5). The SJC gave a pass to the teaching and practice of Federal Vision errors by church officers in the Leithart and Meyers cases by choosing to decide those cases based on technicalities rather than directly addressing the underlying heresies (Mt 23:22-24).

Perhaps just as bad, progressive political parties now operate freely but in secret in the PCA, outside of any accountability to the church courts. The National Partnership and Original Vision Network seek to turn the PCA into a “broadly Reformed” denomination without defining “broadly Reformed.” Given their tolerance of intinction, paedocommunion, female deacons, etc., I think that we can guess which way they lean. I sincerely believe that the word “confessional” is used as an byword in their secret emails and meetings. Secret hearts and sorry tales will never help love grow.

The net result of this lack of accountability for officers and presbyteries tolerating, holding, teaching, and/or practicing serious errors has been the creation of a system which I call “tribal congregationalism.”

The tribes refer to presbyteries that tolerate officers holding, practicing and/or teaching specific errors within their boundaries. I witnessed first hand that seminary graduates know which presbyteries are likely to accept their paedocommunion views, for example, and in which presbyteries to avoid even attempting ordination. Federal Visionists have a very good idea of which presbyteries they shouldn’t bother transferring into (Leithart obviously isn’t as smart as some folks think he is). And so on with intinction, theistic evolution, female deacons, etc. Each erroneous officer or candidate seeks out safety in his applicable tribe. Some tribes overlap or tolerate multiple errors, others do not. Safe conversations seek out supporting tribes.

The congregationalism part of the term comes from the lack of accountability outside the tribe. We nod and wink at specific presbyteries that tolerate officers who practice or teach Federal Vision, paedocommunion, intinction, female deacons, theistic evolution, et al. A majority of the commissioners at General Assembly have apparently consistently desired to avoid offending or judging deviant officers. Net result = no accountability. Specific errors thrive within the bounds of each tribe without accountability to the denomination at large. That’s what I call tribal congregationalism, and ultimately it will destroy the PCA.

Sound too drastic? Consider PCA congregants who travel or transfer around the country, which describes many in our mobile society. I have seen families bring their little toddlers up for communion, only to be refused by faithful officers who take the Scriptures seriously. Even when reached out to after the service, these families rarely return to a PCA church in a faithful presbytery, usually winding up in the Communion of Reformed Evangelical Churches (CREC). On the flip side, I get emails from families traveling or moving to questionable presbyteries, wanting to know which churches are faithful to our Constitution, and hence to the Scriptures since PCA officers swear that our Standards contains the system of doctrine taught in holy Scripture. Sadly, sometimes I point them to the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC) or Reformed Church in the United States (RCUS) or other more consistent denominations because I cannot name a faithful PCA church in their area of interest. The PCA is sowing division and confusion in the wind, and will reap the whirlwind (Hos 8:7).

I hear, especially from young officers, that the PCA must reach out to and welcome the diverse cultures in our country, because we won’t survive if we don’t do so. I agree. You won’t find a more diverse cultural settings than the greater Washington D.C. area in which God planted the church in which I am honored to serve. I see first-hand every week that the gospel of Jesus Christ knows no cultural boundaries. People around the world share one overarching characteristic – they are all sinners in need of salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, because of Christ alone, with the Scriptures as the only inerrant and infallible rule for faith and practice. That sentence is the most missional statement that you’ll ever see outside of Scripture itself.

That welcoming of sinners from diverse national, ethnic, economic, etc., backgrounds won’t break the PCA. Rather, by God’s grace that people-diversity will strengthen His Church. What WILL break the PCA is the diversity of theology and worship beyond the bounds of our Constitution and the regulative principle, both firmly based on Scripture, now found and growing in the PCA.

The empowerment and mutual accountability of Presbyterianism is fundamentally incompatible with tribal congregationalism. So, I’ll say it again: The PCA is sowing confusion in the wind, and will reap the whirlwind. We need to decide if the PCA will follow the church in Sardis (Rev 3:1-6) or the church in Philadelphia (Rev 3:7-13) and act now on that decision. May God give us the wisdom to take after that faithful church in Revelation 3:7-13.

Posted by Bob Mattes

Ivory Tower Theology

A man named Wheeler MacPherson has just written a post critical of my blog. It was a very interesting post in many ways, and therefore I thought I would interact with it a bit. He raises some very important points about the nature of the church, the nature of theology, and what pastors need to be doing.

He first relates an experience he had while waiting for a congregation to exit the church premises. It was a megachurch that rated three policemen to help with the traffic jam. In rather cynical tones, he relates how they couldn’t possibly be expected to delay their egress from the church on behalf of other people. While waiting for the traffic to lighten up, he reminisces about work as a younger man, and how carefree that life seemed. He realizes that he is just as content now, and asks the reason for it. His words are that “I realized that its genesis is tied to the church building. I am no longer a slave to churchianity, and this fact made me, deep down in the true place, more carefree than a beardless bony boy with a lungful of cheap Mexican weed.” One wonders what he means by “churchianity” at this point, whether that includes all forms of organized Christianity, or only some that really seem to get under his skin. More on that later. The next paragraph needs to be quoted in full, as it is rather important:

On his now-defunct blog, a friend of mine wrote recently with power and precision about the absolute foolishness of elevating the bible to a paper idol, and about how a dearth of the Holy Spirit leaves men to “search the Scriptures” without inward or divine understanding. This is an important observation for this desert age. Christians make fun of pagans for chanting prefabricated prayers at their dumb deities, but it’s been my observation that almost all Christians do the exact same thing with their bibles. They force themselves to sit and choke down a portion of Scripture on a semi-regular basis, and yet this diet never seems to nourish them, never seems to make their muscles grow, never seems to bring the glow of spiritual health to their spiritual cheeks. Christians chirp to each other their favorite verses (almost always lifted out of context and appropriated in the most grossly inappropriate ways) and remain utterly ignorant of what those verses actually mean. They can’t be bothered with the heavy lifting. Instead, they prefer to farm out the actual learning and insight to the paid professionals – and why not? After all, they pay their pulpiteers quite handsomely to churn out their little talks.

What Wheeler says here is something I also have noticed, and I like it almost as much as he does! I would describe it this way: Christians reading the Bible always to confirm their own ideas, and never allowing the Bible to challenge what they believe, or how they live. Their conception of the Christian life is determined entirely by what they learned in Sunday School 50 years ago, and the Bible hasn’t changed their thinking on anything during that whole time. This is probably not the only scenario in which people’s thinking becomes reified, but it is a very common one.

What follows is a sustained critique of the general content of my blog. I will try to concentrate on the substantive points that he makes, and ignore the rhetoric, which is quite strong. The first point he makes is that I identify myself as a “reverend,” when Jesus tells his followers not to give themselves titles. He tries to preempt any kind of a response by saying that if I were to defend myself on this point, I would be “explaining away” the text. I would respond by making a few points about titles. Firstly, Jesus does not condemn all titles, or else He wouldn’t have allowed the disciples to call themselves “apostles” later on in the epistles. Also, what about elders and deacons? It seems to me that Wheeler has absolutized one text and has not seen it in the context of the rest of Scripture. When Jesus ridicules those who arrogate titles to themselves, He is telling us several things: 1. that we should not give ourselves titles; 2. that no title should ever be used as a way of puffing ourselves up by means of pride. Jesus says nothing in those contexts about using titles that other people have given us. If He did, then He would directly contradict Himself when He gave the title “apostle” to the twelve apostles! Jesus gave the titles to the apostles. In my case, I did not give myself the title “reverend.” It was given to me by the denomination in which I serve when I was ordained. Furthermore, the only reason I mention the title in the page is so that people will know something of my background as a minister of the gospel as an ordained minister in the church. I certainly do not intend to use that title as a way of self-aggrandizement.

Still less am I defining myself by that title, contrary to his assertions. It is a formal title. When I introduce myself in person to someone, I do not use that title. I just say “I’m Lane Keister.” Wheeler is therefore reading into my page what is not there.

Next, he quotes something from a blog post I wrote last year, paraphrasing someone else’s comments (!). He attributes the quotation to me, when the thought is not actually mine. It is Joel Beeke’s thought, somewhat paraphrased by me. What follows this quotation in his post is something I am frankly mystified by. I don’t know what he means when he accuses the church as a whole of racism. Nor do I understand his reference to my graduating from a seminary that celebrates MLK Jr. Day. Maybe I’m just dense, but I don’t follow his point here.

The next point he makes is basically the “ivory tower” accusation: that this blog exists to debate irrelevant, unimportant theological points, and does not address what is really important in life. He says, “Real enemies and real lessons to be learned, real challenges that require real effort on the part of men who face real, individual dangers every real day.” It would be nice for him to give us some examples of what he is talking about. It must be pointed out here also that he can’t see my day-to-day ministry. He can’t see me counseling people with marriage problems, or drug problems, or depression, or anger management (all of which are present in the church I serve). He can’t see me visiting the sick in the hospital, or the elderly in their nursing homes. And so he makes the assumption that because this is a blog about theology, that therefore it is an example of unrealistic, ivory-tower theology, and that I’ve effectively got my head buried in the sand.

This brings us to the definition of theology, which I think is a very important point in the discussion. Is theology relevant to our lives or not? I follow the Puritan definitions here and claim unequivocally that theology is always relevant to our lives. The problem here is that Wheeler has a much narrower definition of theology and what is relevant than I do. He seems to be defining what is relevant as what is practical, and by that he (probably) means something that will help with the “real enemies and real lessons…real challenges.” Let me ask him this question: has he ever stopped to think about what kind of impact a proper appreciation of the Lord’s Supper could have on his spiritual growth? Or has he ever stopped to think that the proper understanding of justification can lift infinite weights off of people’s souls? Has he stopped to think that even the doctrine of the Trinity (often considered the least relevant doctrine of all) is actually the most relevant according to Jesus in John 17 and according to Paul in Ephesians 1, that it is the Trinity as Trinity that accomplishes our salvation and applies it to us? The problem here is not that my definition of theology is too ivory-tower, but that his definition of “relevant” is way too narrow. If the Bible talks about it, then it is relevant. Period. I like to talk about the Bible and what it means. I do this on the blog all the time. That is the heavy lifting he is in fact talking about without realizing it.

I suspect that Wheeler has been hurt by the institutional church greatly some time in his past. I know many people like this. My heart goes out to them, because I know exactly how ugly the church can be. It has been quite ugly to me, in fact, and on many occasions. The church has warts and blemishes all over the place. However, Revelation 21-22 invites us to look at the church as she will be in all eternity: like a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. This is the true church. Here is a question for Wheeler: does he believe that we can truly love Jesus Christ and not love the bride that He loves so much, and gave Himself for?

Growing in Devotional Discernment

C.S. Lewis once said:

For my own part I tend to find the doctrinal books often more helpful in devotion than the devotional books, and I rather suspect that the same experience may await many others. I believe that many who find that “nothing happens” when they sit down, or kneel down, to a book of devotion, would find that the heart sings unbidden while they are working their way through a tough bit of theology with a pipe in their teeth and a pencil in their hand.

What I wish to talk about today is discernment in reading Christian books so that we will grow. There is a large tendency in evangelicalism and also in Reformed circles, to read nothing but “devotional” literature. By this I mean books like “Chicken Soup for the Soul” or Rick Warren’s book “The Purpose-Driven Life.” I am not going to disparage such books completely, although Warren’s book has some serious theological problems with it. Devotional books can indeed lift our spirits heavenward on occasion, especially the better ones, and by the better ones, I mean primarily the Puritan devotional literature. There is, however, one big difficulty with devotional literature, and it can be illustrated by an analogy. Supposing someone told you that in order for you to experience the emotion of joy, you had to pursue the experience of having the emotion joy. “Just feel joyful” they might say. The problem with this is that it doesn’t work. If you just lost a loved one, for instance, joy may be hard to come by, and it might be even harder to achieve if someone tells you that you need to pursue it. Because then you pursue it in ways that do not tend to bring joy, but rather despair, because when you pursue something and don’t get it, then the pursuit becomes quite counter-productive. The same thing can be said about devotion to God. Telling someone directly that they must be devoted to God emotionally and spiritually is often counter-productive.

It can be much more productive to try an indirect way. Ask yourself this question: what are some reasons why I should love God? Well, look at who God is. You can’t look at God very long before you realize just how beautiful He is, with all His marvelous Trinitarian attributes, dazzling in their multi-faceted unity. Similarly, look at what He has done, and you can’t help but love a God who loves us that much, and has shown us that much grace. But do you notice what we just did in asking those questions? We have moved out of the realm of most devotional literature, and instead entered the realm of systematic theology. We asked questions about who God is and what God has done. Those are the primary questions that systematic theology seeks to address. The answers to these questions give us reasons to sing. The promote what my father lovingly calls “doxological didacticism.” This brings us back to the quotation by C.S. Lewis. What Lewis was getting at was that the indirect approach to devotion (getting at devotion to God through theology) is often more effective than trying to do it directly.

The problem is that most Christians are absolutely terrified of “systematic theology.” They think that they cannot understand any of it. They think that it is irrelevant and impractical. What I would say to that is that any theology that is not understandable, or that is irrelevant and impractical is not good theology, but rather bad theology! The Puritans used to define theology itself as the science of living for God. That obviously has a very strong practical component in the very definition of theology itself. I would go even farther. A systematic theology that is impractical is not even theology at all. All true theology is practical and useful. Theology that is not understandable is not theology but gobbledy-gook.

Here is another way of thinking about systematic theology. Systematic theology asks one question many times, and that question is, “What does the Bible as a whole say about x?” You can fill in “x” with any theological topic you want. The process of comparing Scripture to Scripture will result in a larger picture of what the Bible says about God, man, sin, Jesus Christ, redemption accomplished, redemption applied, the church, the sacraments, the last things, and other topics. Systematic theology is something that we do all the time, even though we may not call it that. Whenever you ask a question about who God is or what He has done, you are engaging in systematic theology. The word “systematic” simply means that after you have compared Scripture with Scripture, you will wind up with a system, or a pattern. The Bible itself commands us to do this. “Hold fast the pattern of sound words which you have heard from me, in faith and love which are in Christ Jesus.” (2Ti 1:13 NKJ) This passage tells us that there is a pattern, or system, to what Scripture teaches, and that we are to hold it fast. Obviously we cannot hold it fast, unless we know what it is. It is not a system or pattern that we impose on it from outside the Scripture. Rather, it is the pattern that the Scripture itself suggests. Jude tells us to contend for the faith once for all given to the saints. There is a special sense given to the words “the faith.” The Faith in that sense is what we confess, a body of doctrine. Whether you look at Jude’s way of putting it or Paul’s way of putting it, the Bible commands us to engage in systematic theology. It commands us to search the Scriptures to see what the Scripture says about various things.

All this to say that if we as teachers in the church are not growing by asking these questions, then we risk several unmitigated disasters: 1. We will not pass on this pattern of sound teaching to our children, and their knowledge of the Christian faith will be very fragmented, and they will therefore be unable to cope with all the challenges they will face in a secular world (they will be swept away by people who have a more coherent system of thought!). 2. We ourselves will not have discernment when it comes to new books and ideas that come out. Systematic theology gives you a core of knowledge to which you will always be adding, and to which you can compare any new thing that comes along. If you don’t have that core, you will have almost no discernment whatsoever. 3. Our teaching itself will be fragmented, disjointed, and illogical. It will have a much more “stream of consciousness” feeling about it. We do not want Faulkner theology. 4. We will stagnate in our growth as Christians, because we will not be learning how to read our Bibles better, and we will not be challenged by anything. We will want everything spoon-fed to us. We will be dipping our toes in but never learning how to swim.

So read books that will make you stretch. Read books where you will not automatically understand everything that is said, but where you have to grow in order to understand. Read books where you might need a dictionary of theology terms handy. Read Calvin’s Institutes, Berkhof’s Systematic Theology, Shedd’s Dogmatic Theology, and get what you can out of it, which is a lot more than you might think. Then ask questions so that you will grow. If you are not growing, then your students won’t grow either. So work through that tough bit of theology with a pipe between your teeth and a pencil in your hand! You might find your heart singing the praises of God more often than you might think.

Great interview with one of the prosecutors in Meyers’ Federal Vision Trial

Posted by Bob Mattes

Dr. R. Scott Clark, church historian, pastor, and Westminster Seminary California professor, interviewed Rev. M. Jay Bennett for the Heidelcast. Jay was the lead prosecutor for the TE Jeff Meyers’ Federal Vision trial in Missouri Presbytery. The interview comes in two parts, with the second part slated for next week. In the first part that’s posted now, Dr. Clark covers Teaching Elder Bennett’s background, a bit of Federal Vision (FV) background, and the timeline leading up to the Meyers trial. The latter provides some insight into how the discipline process in the PCA proceeds. As usual, Dr. Clark conducts an informative and engaging interview which I highly recommend. Scott and Jay discuss a few anomalies in the case history, but so far haven’t mentioned the big one in my opinion.

In the trial record of case, on page 872, you see that Missouri Presbytery (MOP) was basically pushing TE Bennett out of the presbytery, which would, of course, make him unable to complain against the decision in the Meyers case. In the end, MOP succeeded and the PCA Standing Judicial Commission apparently let MOP get away with this ploy without even reading the record of the case. The bigger story is that MOP had kept men like TE Mark Horne, another Federal Visionist like Meyers, without call for over 3 years. Yet, TE Bennett, who opposes the unreformed FV, was being bounced almost immediately. The politics is pretty clear when looking at the bigger picture.

To be totally up front, I signed the original letter of concern mentioned in the interview and was a witness for the prosecution in the Meyers case, flying to St. Louis on my own nickle (i.e., at no cost to MOP) for the trial. I worked with Jay on my testimony, and found him a fair, honorable, and confessional teaching elder who deeply loves the Reformed Faith and understood the unconfessional nuances in the Federal Vision. The PCA owes TE Bennett a great debt of gratitude for standing firmly for the gospel in the face of overwhelming opposition.

Don’t miss part 1 of the interview, and check back next week for part 2. And you could benefit greatly by following Dr. Clark’s Heidelblog as many of us do.

I would be remiss without adding that Jeff Meyers, after being acquitted by MOP, now teaches with all the FV heavyweights at an FV school. I couldn’t make this stuff up.

Posted by Bob Mattes

Announcing the New Covenant

(Posted by Paige)

Here is a curious question that arose in our Hebrews study recently (starting our second year at ch. 8!):

We understand that the Old Covenant was inaugurated with blood (Ex. 34) and its terms were verbally established for God’s people through the giving of the Law. If the New Covenant was similarly inaugurated with blood (Luke 22), when was its content verbally established?

I suspect possible answers might include one or all of these: at the articulation of the Abrahamic Covenant; in Jeremiah 31; whenever Jesus preached that the Kingdom of God is at hand; whenever the gospel was/is proclaimed after the resurrection of the Son. More? How does the NT itself fit into this picture?

Just curious how any of you would frame an answer, and what you would choose to emphasize as the verbal establishment for God’s people of the terms of the New Covenant. Thanks!

Hints of Cessationism in NT?

(Posted by Paige)

A perennial puzzle that arises as we rub shoulders with our neighbors in the wider church is how we are to understand the claims of “continualists,” who attest that signs and wonders and special manifestations of the Spirit are (and ought to be) normative parts of Christian experience today. As this is a live question in my neck of the woods right now, I recently started thinking through the NT’s teaching, both implied and direct, on the temporary nature of these “special effects.” I’ve come to some interesting, tentative conclusions based mainly on a close study of Hebrews; but before I set these out for scrutiny, I thought I’d offer a question for your consideration and see what good thoughts I get back. Here is my basic query:

Can you identify in the NT any evidence of a shift, whether anticipated or inaugurated, from faith supported by words, sacraments, and miraculous signs to faith supported by words and sacraments alone? (Assume inspired words and the illumination of the Holy Spirit in both cases!)

Note please that I am only interested in NT support for this shift, not what the ECFs had to say about it. I’m also already familiar with the basic cessationist arguments, so no need to repeat Warfield or Calvin on this. What do you see in the NT that suggests a transition from an era that included wonders/sight to an era characterized by words/hearing?

Thanks in advance!

Update:My own contribution can be found in this comment.

PCRT Seminar: Major Approaches to Creation, Part 1 (Derek Thomas)

(Posted by Paige)

[I owe this to Lane in return for a delicious Italian meal, good company, and the privilege of hearing him sing “And Can It Be” – just amazing. Sorry this one wasn’t live; I still don’t know how he does that, even after watching!]

I chose Derek Thomas’s seminar because I’d just finished reading his Job commentary with my 14-year-old, and I only belatedly realized I’d assigned myself to write up what Thomas dubbed a particularly “complex, difficult, divisive issue.” (That is a short “i” in the middle there; he’s Welsh.) So, here goes. Please don’t shoot the messenger. Please do read everything with a Welsh accent.

There was a lot of content in this presentation, so this will take two parts.

To begin with his endpoint: as the PCA study committee also affirmed, there are several views of creation that can be held without threat to inerrancy. While Thomas would personally subscribe to about 1.5 of the views he presented (on which see part two), he acknowledged that several other views were the convictions of scholars he respects. That said, there are lines in the sand past which inerrancy is no longer viable. The three non-negotiables he mentioned were creation ex nihilo, the special creation of man, and the historical, biblical individual named Adam. (I suspect there may have been more examples in his mind, but he didn’t get to them before Q&A time.)

Before describing any particular views of creation, Thomas dwelt on the tension that exists between biblical and scientific worldviews regarding the nature of the universe. He noted that evolution was not really a scientific theory, but rather “a philosophy, a worldview, an epistemology that affects ethics, morals, and standards.” Even the Big Bang theory moves beyond science and into theology when it tries to address origins (i.e., what happened before this singularity?). “Theologians should get antsy when scientists do theology – generally they do it pretty badly.”

Still, as the church we don’t want to commit another embarrassing error along the lines of geocentrism; it may be healthy to be skeptical of science, but “not to the extent we look foolish.” Thomas acknowledges that we trust science for many things (e.g., “If they’re going to cut me open and remove bits of me, I am going to have to trust the science”). Yet there is no way to reconcile even a generous 7-Day-Creation age of the universe (50,000 years ago? 200,000?) with scientific claims – 13.77 billion years – without doing something radical to the biblical account. And this we may not do.

In any case, “we need a degree of modesty when talking about these issues.” Science may be wrong; it is changing, not a constant. And theology may be wrong – the Bible is inerrant, but its interpreters are not.

Thomas also cautioned us to remember that there is a distinction between the Neo-Darwinian viewpoint (represented by Richard Dawkins) and the worldview of Darwin himself. Darwin’s deism was “ungodly, he had no gospel”; and yet he posited that God creates a few primal forms and always assumed a fixity of species (i.e., he did not advocate trans-species evolution). “That is 13.77 billion years away from Neo-Darwinism,” which has no fixed point of origin and traces “an unbroken line from mollusk to man.” This view is now the most dominant philosophy in modern thought…and it introduces the absorbing question, What might man ultimately become??

Speaking of evolution, we must remember that any so-called Christian view of creation that calls into question the historical, biblical Adam has dropped away from inerrancy. Thomas stresses the adjective biblical here because there are those who suggest that “there was a [historical] dude called Adam that God singled out from other hominids” to endow with the divine image. He referenced Dennis Alexander [dates??] who believed that hominids were around for a couple hundred thousand years (and had acquired language!) before any one of them was singled out by God for homo divinus status. John Stott unfortunately adopted this view. It introduces the conundrum of whether Adam & Eve’s parents were human – or a source of food. (And what happened to all those other hominids? What did they become? Hmmm.)

Closer to home we have Peter Enns asserting that Paul’s endorsement of the historical, biblical Adam can be disregarded because Paul was an ancient man, a product of his times…and we know so much better now about human origins. In Derek Thomas’ wry assessment, “That isn’t just a slippery slope – that’s an Alpine slope!”

Stay tuned for part two…

The Devil in his Redemptive-Historical Context

(Posted by Paige)

Here is a pair of theological questions related to the “fear of death” topic and deriving from the same pair of verses, Heb. 2:14-15. One of my curious laypeople asked about it in our Hebrews study:

In what sense did the devil ever hold “the power of death”?

How was this power altered by Christ’s defeat of the devil?

We are looking for a way to speak accurately about the “Before” and “After” of the devil in redemptive history. Any insights?

The Hebrews verses again are:

“Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery.”

Dependence on Sources

There are a variety of views on how we should treat sources: 1. There are those who believe that the only real source we should use is the Bible. 2. Others think that the Bible should be the main source, and we should use only a few other sources. 3. Still others believe that the Bible is the only infallible source, and that we should nevertheless use lots of non-inspired sources. 4. There are also those who believe that some sources are just as important as the Bible, assuming that the Bible is infallible. 5. Lastly, there are those who think that the Bible should almost never be used as a source, and that most other sources are more reliable. There are probably a few more that could be mentioned, but for our purposes in this post, I want to focus on views 1, 2, and 3.

Views 1 and 2 (which are sometimes indistinguishable in practice) are actually untenable. We cannot avoid dealing with uninspired sources even when we treat the Bible. For instance, if we use a translation of the Bible, we are dependent on a fallible translation of an infallible book. If we want to take the source back to the Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek original, then we will be dependent on the grammar books and lexicons that help us to understand the ancient languages. This does not derogate in any way from the infallible authority of the Bible. Rather, it is simply an indication of how weak our understanding is, and how much help we need to understand. Does this mean that a person who only reads the Bible in English, and no other books, will be cut off from understanding the Bible? Of course not. Even in translation, God’s Word is God’s Word, and even in translation, the authority and clarity of God’s Word still gleams through with regard to the things we need to understand for salvation. Also, we have the Holy Spirit, who has promised to lead us into all truth. Many people have to rely on translation to have access to God’s Word. This is not a problem. But it is a factor that we have to recognize.

The point I wish to make is that some people have a “me and my Bible and Jesus” mentality which is thoroughly unhealthy, not to mention inconsistent. They will rely rather dogmatically on a very few (usually bad, unweighed, non-mainstream, and often downright sectarian) non-biblical sources, all the while claiming right and left to be holding to the Bible alone. The lack of self-awareness is usually quite stunning. They tend to look down on people who rely on lots and lots of sources, claiming that such people are not dependent on the Bible, but on what everyone else thinks.

The irony of it all is that the one who depends (and I use this word loosely of someone who holds that the Bible is the only infallible rule of faith and practice) on many sources is actually much less dependent on any one source than the person is who claims to be relying on the Bible alone. Take commentaries as a concrete example. Many people seem to despise commentaries. They will claim that people who rely on commentaries are just parroting what other people say. Now, it is, of course, quite possible merely to parrot what other people say. However, it is equally possible to peruse the vast range of commentaries, and critically take what is good, and spit out the bones. In this way, a person makes critical use of sources. The difference between these two views is that the person who claims to hold only to the Bible is actually highly reliant on a very few sources in a way that is non-critical and non-self-aware, whereas the person who reads lots of sources critically is able to avoid dependence on any of them. Personally, I appreciate commentaries on the Bible more than any other kind of theological book. In commentaries, I get to have a very long-running discussion with dozens of people about what the text of Scripture means.

The first two views are actually unbiblical, ironically. The Bible says that just as iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another. The Bible understands that we need one another. Furthermore, nothing about that verse in Proverbs limits the sharpening to people who are alive. Why should I avoid having dead people sharpen me through their books? Which is more humble: to think that I don’t need this sharpening? Or to think that I need all the help I can get? The problem with views 1 and 2 is that extreme arrogance and over-confidence in one’s own views and a supreme reliance on one’s own understanding are the result (and this is also unbiblical!). A person then speaks only with one’s own voice. Allowing the voices of the past to sharpen us means that we can speak with many voices all at once. Can the vast majority of church history be mistaken? Surely, for we are fallible creatures. Nevertheless, to deny that we need anyone from the past to correct us is the very height of arrogance. Also, we need to respect the majority of church history, and not shove it under the rug. Did God give gifts of understanding and teaching to the giants of the past? Did they understand themselves to be reading the Scriptures? Did they have anything valuable to contribute to our understanding? What makes us think that our theologizing is of a fundamentally different nature than the giants of the past? If we will not stand on the shoulders of the giants of the past, then we will not see past their knees.

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