Archive for the ‘Theology’ Category

Trinitarian Reflections, Ancient and Modern

March 14, 2013

No part of theology delights me as much as the doctrine of the Trinity, with all its implications for our salvation, sanctification, and glorification. Here is a list of some of the works I’ve worked through, or become aware of, as helpful texts for the study of this supremely sublime doctrine. This is a list of books which concern themselves directly with the Trinity, for which reason I’ve left out those systematic theology volumes in which the Trinity is treated as part of a larger body of doctrines. It’s also a mixture of theological, philosophical, and devotional works.

The Athanasian Creed. This condensation of orthodox trinitarianism is the essential starting place for us all.

Against Praxaeus – Tertullian. The first to use the word persona in this debate, Tertullian charts a course between tritheism and Sabellianism.

An Unpublished Essay on the Trinity – Jonathan Edwards. Edwards lays out how our fellowship with God consists in the Holy Spirit Himself, who is the delight of the Father and the Son in each other.

The Deep Things of God – Fred Sanders. Sanders seeks to show how evangelicals are (or should be) functionally trinitarian, but need to become more explicitly cognisant of and delighted in the doctrine of the Trinity.

 Jesus In Trinitarian Perspective (several) Here is a satisfying exploration of Christology in light of trinitarianism on several levels: the relationships within the Trinity (a defence of eternal generation), the person of Christ being the Logos, the defence of Christ’s person having one will, the relationship of the Trinity to the atonement, and Christ’s relationship to the Father and the Spirit during the Incarnation being our model of spirituality.

Communion With God – John Owen. Owen unpacks the distinctive offices of the three Persons, written to aid devotional communion with each Person.

 Mere Christianity – C.S. Lewis. In the later chapters, Lewis seeks to explain trinitarianism, perhaps coming closer than any other to supplying a helpful analogy.

 Making Sense of the Trinity – Millard Erickson. A short, layman’s guide to understanding the doctrine. Unfortunately, Erickson is a believer in the incarnational Sonship of Christ, and so needlessly denies eternal Sonship, and eternal generation.

The Hymns of Frederick Faber. Faber’s Romanism did not impede his ability to write superb verse, particularly on the Trinity.

The Psalms and Hymns of Isaac Watts – Doxologies. At the end of Watt’s collection are at least twenty hymns, of which Watts writes:
“I cannot persuade myself to put a full period to these Divine Hymns till I have addressed a special song of glory to God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Though the Latin name of it, Gloria Patri, be retained in our nation from the Roman church, and though there be some excesses of superstitious honor paid to the words of it, which may have wrought some unhappy prejudices in weaker Christians, yet I believe it still to he one of the noblest parts of Christian worship. The subject of it is the doctrine of the Trinity, which is that peculiar glory of the Divine nature that our Lord Jesus Christ has so clearly revealed unto men, and is so necessary to true Christianity. The action is praise, which is one of the most complete and exalted parts of heavenly worship. I have cast the song into a variety of forms, and have fitted it, by a plain version, or a larger paraphrase, to he sung either alone or at the conclusion of another hymn. I have added also a few Hosannahs, or ascriptions of salvation to Christ, in the same manner, and for the same end.”

 The Holy Trinity: In Scripture, History, Theology, and Worship – Robert Letham. I have not read this, but this is supposed to be one of the best contributions to trinitarian theology by an evangelical.

Product ImageEnlightenment and Alienation: An Essay Toward a Trinitarian Theology – Colin Gunton. Gunton was one of the twentieth century’s most renowned trinitarian theologians, and saw trinitarianism as an answer to much of the barrenness of modernity.

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Towards Conservative Christian Churches – 15 -The Centrality and Nature of the Religious Affections

July 8, 2011

Restoring a right view of the affections may take many years of teaching and instruction. Most Christians exist with very foggy notions of ‘the emotions’ and their relationship to Christianity. Many Christians have either been taught to ignore the affections as irrelevant ‘by-products’ of a mental-volitional kind of Christianity, or they have been taught to place themselves at the whim of every ephemeral ‘feeling’ they experience in their bodies. This is a far cry from a biblical view of the affections, and it will take some work to address.

The first task is to teach on the centrality of the affections to Christianity. This can be done by teaching those Scriptures which make an affective response to God the most important thing, such as Mark 12:28-29, Proverbs 9:10, Psalm 27:4, or Deuteronomy 10:12. Other Scriptures insist that certain affections ought to characterise our lives, such as 1 Corinthians 16:14, Philippians 4:4, and 1 Peter 1:17. The affections are at the heart of worship, service and obedience, therefore we cannot help teaching that these (and many other) affective responses are at the heart of Christianity.

Though I wish he would distinguish between ordinate affection and the inordinate kind, John Piper has written several books which make good arguments for the centrality of the affections, Desiring God being the most straightforward apologetic for this view. In fact, Piper has simply brought to a modern audience the arguments of several older theologians of the affections, such as Augustine, Anselm, Jonathan Edwards and C.S. Lewis. Whether we pass on these older works, or more recent ones, it is wise to have these books in the hands of our people to allow their arguments to overturn years of wrong thinking about the affections.

The second, harder task goes hand-in-hand with the first. To restore a right view of the religious affections, we must teach that they are more than what most people think of when they think of emotions. As mentioned in the last post, many people view emotions as an internal stirring, with no referential character beyond the self. Certainly they will point to causes for their emotions outside themselves, but they do not see their emotions as corresponding (or failing to correspond) to anything beyond their own mind. It’s “just how they feel about it”. This is much closer to what Jonathan Edwards called the ‘animal spirits’.

Perhaps a helpful way of explaining the affections is to point out that the affections are, in some ways, expressions of value. Psalm 29:1-2 describes worship as the ascription of glory due to God. In other words, God’s nature in reality demands, deserves and calls for a particular kind of response. God, because of who He is, deserves a certain kind of treasuring or honouring or valuing, and such a response is payable by all His creatures. Whether the affections are those of joy, fear, exultation, thanksgiving or reverent awe, we are called to present a worship-response (which is always an exercise of the affections) that gives God what is due to Him.

When described this way, the affections are more than butterflies in the stomach or sweaty palms, they are the means by which humans express value or worth. Our affections express and describe the nature of what we are encountering (or think we are encountering), and what it is worth. Consequently, one can devalue, or overvalue, or correctly value the object of our affections, depending on which affections are present, and how those affections are expressed. This is an oversimplification, I grant, but it is a start towards getting people to see their affective responses as expressions of how they view the worth and nature of the object they are responding to.

Perhaps the most helpful book for explaining this concept is The Abolition of Man by C.S. Lewis. Some kind of discussion or mini-study of this book would be very helpful to help crystallize the view of affections corresponding to the beauty or value of things in reality.

Towards Conservative Christian Churches – 6 – Doctrinal Literacy

May 6, 2011

How do churches teach Christian doctrine thoroughly and cohesively? I suggest four ways, the first two of which I’ll deal with in this post.

First, a conservative Christian church needs a pulpit ministry that systematically teaches through Scripture. I am very thankful for those who have written extensively on expository preaching, or modeled it with their ministries. It is also gratifying to see a renewed emphasis on biblical theology, and the need to teach it from the pulpit. These are gratifying trends, and it is unlikely that church reform will begin anywhere but in churches committed to this kind of teaching. A systematic, ongoing teaching of texts in context is a certain way to teach the whole counsel of God. Good expository preaching will include a mixture of biblical, systematic and practical theology mixed into one meal. Topical sermons are valid forms of instruction, insofar as they are expository preaching with a multiplicity of texts.

A good pulpit ministry will include both positive and negative. It will explain what is good and right, and where necessary, expose theological and methodological error. No substitute exists for the consistent preaching of God’s Word.

Second, a conservative Christian church should encourage theological education among its members, beginning with its leaders. Theological education goes beyond the scope of a pulpit ministry, and seeks to catechize Christians in a broad understanding of Christian doctrine. This is never more needed than now, in our day of doctrinal minimalism.

One sees the effects of poor theological education in a kind of volatility among church leaders. I have seen more than one young pastor abandon theological positions he has barely understood, and have been guilty of similar impulsiveness myself, at times. For example, it has become popular to abandon dispensationalism. One wonders, of those that do, how many had read someone like McClain before doing so? I am not an Arminian, but should I not have read someone like Roger Olson before repudiating Arminian views? Not thirty years ago, Calvinism was hardly popular, but today it has a healthy following. This is partly through the excellent pulpit ministries of some modern Calvinists, but it may also be partly because we Christians are influenced by what is popular.

My point is not to defend or attack any of these positions, nor to impugn the motives of any whose theological position changes. All of us change somewhere. I respect the man who changes theological traditions if he fully understands what he is leaving and what he is embracing. Nor is it to disparage genuine resurgences of neglected doctrines. My point is merely to show how fickle our theological convictions seem to have become of late. It seems to require relatively little to change a man from cessationism to continuationism, a well-written book or two to convince a man of theonomic postmillennialism, a few visits to First Thriving Church to convince a man of bus ministry or orchestras or whatever the case may be. Where true, this phenomenon resembles Paul’s description of immaturity in Ephesians 4:14.

This kind of theological volatility is partly remedied with sound theological education. The kind of theological education worth its name must ground a man in exegetical skills, views of biblical theology, exposure to various systematic theologies, an understanding of the historical development of doctrine, and even a grounding in dialectical and philosophical concerns. The pastor who is privileged to have had such an education must do his best to grow something similar in his church. Though the pulpit ministry will teach much of what is needed, it is almost certain that it cannot achieve the level of theological literacy needed by itself.

To create a thorough and comprehensive understanding of Christian doctrine, the pulpit ministry will need to be supplemented with some kind of evening classes, adult Sunday School courses, or other formats where more specialised skills like hermeneutics, exegesis, biblical theology, systematic theology and historical theology can be taught. Whatever the format, its presence can do wonders for theological literacy in a church. A pastor would do well to harvest the burgeoning resources in print or online, and build something of a theological reference multi-media library, with recommended texts, lectures and sermons. Seminaries exist partly because, at some point, churches stopped doing this. This is not to say that a local church, particularly a newer, smaller one, will always have within itself the resources to do this. But in an era of doctrinal fast-food, every church should strive to be a place where a wholesome, comprehensive view of the Christian faith is taught.

This is important for another reason. The theologically literate are better able to judge the relative importance of doctrines to one another. Armed with such knowledge, they are able to judge how serious the differences are between themselves and other Christians, and how much collaboration is possible. The current tribalism in Western Christianity is a symptom of doctrinally illiterate Christians frantically trying to identify us and them in terms of movements, associations, alliances, denominations, colleges, conferences, and coalitions, instead of careful comparisons of doctrine and the implications thereof. Christian catholicity is greatly aided by theological literacy.

Towards Conservative Christian Churches – 5 – Doctrinal Thoroughness

April 29, 2011

Google ‘Gospel-centred’ and you will find thousands of churches and Christians who have adopted this nick as descriptive of themselves. No one wants to be law-centred, I assume, or gospel-peripheral, and so we find that gospel-centred has become something of a new Shibboleth in evangelical circles.

In previous posts, I’ve already expressed solidarity with the truth of the gospel’s relevance for Christian living. While a renewed emphasis on the importance of the gospel is something to applaud, we must beware lest this virtue becomes a vice. There is sometimes an unhealthy under-current in what some mean by gospel-centred. For some, it is an abbreviation for doctrinal minimalism. That is, such people believe that the Christian faith is equivalent to the gospel, making all teaching not essential to the gospel extraneous. They want Christians to be less concerned with such doctrinal matters as angelology, eschatology, polity, or cessationism, if such do not touch directly on the gospel. For many, the gospel alone should become the measuring instrument for doctrinal importance.

To a certain degree, I agree that the gospel is a very reliable guide for determining doctrinal weight. However, I disagree that the gospel is the center of Christian doctrine from which all else radiates.

Rather, the gospel is the boundary which allows one into the Christian faith. The center of the Christian faith is where Jesus said it was: to love God ultimately and supremely (Mk 12:28-29). Therefore, we must beware lest our love for the gospel become a too-vicious pruning tool on Christian doctrine. There is much more to Christianity than the gospel.

Christianity is concerned with more than the question of how to become a Christian. It is concerned with the question of what it is to be a Christian. Since all Scripture is given to that end (2 Tim 3:17), Christianity worth conserving will conserve and pass on all that Scripture teaches. This is the second mark of a conservative Christian church: it will understand, defend and teach biblical, systematic, historical and practical Christian theology as comprehensively and cohesively as possible.

By contrast, much in modern Christianity tends to be eclectic and faddish in its approach to Christian teaching. Rare is the shepherd who is not pulled by the tide of clerical opinion in his time, who is not swept up by trends, fashions, and double-barreled buzz words. Scarce are the pastors not influenced by the personality and celebrity cults in evangelical and fundamentalist circles. Uncommon is the kind of independence needed in a faddish age. This causes many a church leader to fall short of the goal of a comprehensive and consistent articulation of Christian doctrine. Too often he’s pulled by man-pleasing forces more than the desire to properly harmonize his system of faith. A bit chosen from the hot new book, a bit from Coalesced for the Gospel 2016, a copy-’n-paste from GoodBlog, a deferring reference to Pastor Bigname, and a resulting quilt-work of theology that is consistent only in the mind of the pastor (if there).

Now, this is not to say that we must accept our theology in non-negotiable package-deals, or that we are not responsible to test and examine the theological tradition we are in. This we must do. However, our goal is to understand and teach Christian doctrine as cohesively and comprehensively as we can. A conservative Christian Methodist must teach his Methodism uniformly and thoroughly. A conservative Christian Presbyterian must set out a Presbyterian understanding of biblical, systematic, historical and practical theology. A covenant theologian must apply and teach his system of faith as consistently as he is able. Such is the integrity of Christian character; such should be our respect for the Word of God.

In fact, it is this kind of attention to doctrinal detail that will actually promote Christian unity. When differences are properly articulated, conservative Christians will quickly be able to see where fellowship is possible and where it is not. It is when differences are blurred through garbled articulations of doctrine that real tensions may later arise. Feigned unity built upon doctrinal agnosticism will inevitably crumble, or else be held together with the Scotch tape of good intentions.

Conservative Christians want the whole Christian faith, not just the door. Conservative Christianity wants all inspired Scripture taught and explained for life and godliness. In the next post, I would like to suggest several practical ways to grow this comprehensive approach to Christian doctrine within the local church.

Towards Conservative Christian Churches -1

April 1, 2011

A few weeks ago, I posted my opinion that the form of Christianity which omits certain distinctives is a truncated and emaciated Christianity. Conservative Christianity, as much as it is accused of adding non-essentials, is simply trying to preserve a healthy, full-orbed Christianity that can weather the era it is in, and be passed on to others.

If the Christianity that is not conservative is truncated, what are the marks of a robust, full-orbed Christianity? With a hat-tip to Dever, and a nod to Bauder, I’d suggest these might be the “8 Marks of a Conservative Christian Church”:

  1. A full understanding of, commitment to, and defence of the gospel.

  2. Understanding, teaching, and defending biblical, systematic and practical Christian theology.

  3. Understanding, practising, and defending biblically-regulated worship.

  4. Understanding, teaching, and encouraging individual piety.

  5. Understanding the Christian life as a life of love, therefore being committed to understanding rightly ordered loves and corresponding affections.

  6. Understanding and teaching the means of furnishing the inner life with those ideas and images that encourage these loves and affections.

  7. Committing to understanding the meaning of the world, so as to rightly parse worship, affections, and the correct application of biblical principles.

  8. Loving the Christian church past and present, therefore rightly viewing and using the Christian tradition. Reconciling  permanence and change.

I use the term “8 Marks of a Conservative Christian Church” not merely to play on Dever’s title, but because I strongly agree with Dever that reform must take place at the local church level. Restoring or reclaiming Christianity from its current abbreviated revivalist incarnation will require pastors steadily pruning what is foreign to Christianity, and including what has been omitted in the last two centuries. Let me be clear, I don’t think this is something which can be ‘fixed’ with a list. I think the kind of reform we need may take more than one generation to achieve. However, we must build with what we have, encouraging what is needed, removing with is unhealthy, and keeping some things alive for future Christians, who may be better prepared to love, honour and use them.

In the coming weeks, I would like to examine each of the eight points, with an eye towards how these things may be encouraged in the local church context. My aim is to encourage members in general and pastors in particular to consider practical methods to recover a more full-orbed Christianity in the context of a local church.

Will the Real Legalist Please Stand Up?- 5 Concluding Thoughts

December 7, 2010

Included in faulty ideas of what legalism is are the notions that it is interpreting Scripture literally, making applications for modern living, exhorting submission, and judging various cultural phenomena for their meaning.

Now it is obvious that legalism cannot be all of these things. In fact, when examined closely, legalism is not any of these things. For Christianity to be robust and relevant, it has no choice except to call the people of God to submit to Christ’s authority by interpreting His Word accurately and applying it to the times and culture that Christians currently live in.

If these things are not legalism, why are they so often called such? At least two reasons can be offered.

First, for some, legalism has come to mean a vague kind of protest for one’s own independence within the local church. It’s obvious to us that when we humans, with our deceitful hearts, want to get away from accountability and submission, we will not say as much. We will rather say that those we were under were authoritarian, abusive, controlling, unreasonable and narrow. If you can make the authority seem illegitimate, then it legitimises your actions. Your actions were not acts of rebellion; they were brave fights for Christian freedom. Legalism functions as a pretty handy word to get yourself out of a tight spot.

Second, the things necessary to a robust Christianity can be wrongly implemented or unwisely used, and thus justly earn the title of legalism. Unfortunately, this tends to tar the good as well, leading to a pendulum reaction in the other direction. By way of explanation, let us consider how the three areas examined previously in this series can be warped into a kind of legalism.

1) While legalism is not applying Scripture to contemporary life, it is possible to make applications that could be called legalistic. As we have considered, making an application with little warrant is the equivalent of asserting one’s own authority as the basis for obedience. If the warrant is tenuous, and yet a code of obedience is built up around such a tenuous warrant, it is hard not to see Christ’s injunctions against the Pharisees from Matthew 23:4 applying here. To add to the obligations of believers with little to no warrant from Scripture or truth from life certainly does not lighten their burdens. When a thoughtful, attentive and submissive believer cannot in good conscience see how a matter mandated from the pulpit is one of obedience to Christ, some kind of legalism is probably present.

2) While legalism is not requiring the submission of God’s people to Him, such submission can be taught or enforced in a legalistic way. Legalism is conveying a kind of leadership that is coercive and not persuasive, that manipulates and browbeats, that bullies and shames, so as to gain conformity of opinion and action. In such a situation, it is not uncommon to be taught that certain actions on your part will gain you merit and favour from God, for salvation or sanctification.

Strictly speaking, legalism is what Paul wrote against in his epistle to the Galatians. Legalism adds to the grace-alone gospel, and calls on man to perform certain works besides trusting in the completed work of Christ. While legalism is an attack on justification, it can also raise its head in the area of sanctification, since the two are so closely related. Sanctification is also by grace through faith, as the believer absorbs the mind of Christ, puts off the old and puts on the new, by the work of the Spirit. Here legalism dispenses with mention of the believer’s position in Christ, or the love of God as motivation, or the power of the Spirit. It suggests, by word or by deed, that certain works must be performed for the believer to remain in good standing with God.

Once again, Christ’s words in Matthew 23:13-15 seem to condemn such rapacious leadership, which uses God’s Word as a means to control and exploit. Matthew 23:23-28 speaks against gaining outward uniformity while ignoring inward devotion and piety. This would be warping biblical submission into a kind of legalism.

3) While legalism is not judging culture, it is possible to make judgements about cultural phenomena that promote or enhance legalism. Like unwarranted applications mentioned earlier, this would be making glib or uninformed judgements that ignore the opinions of tradition or authorities, and making such judgements binding on the consciences of other Christians. It would be inventing idiosyncratic responses to culture that serve more as a sign of loyalty to a group or leader than as a conscientious response to the meaning of things in the world. To invent judgements about culture for these purposes surely falls under the sweep of Christ’s indictment of the Pharisees inMatthew 23:16-22.

In summary, you are not legalistic for interpreting Scripture literally and making applications, but you can be. You are not legalistic for requiring submission to Christ and His authorities, but you can be. You are not legalistic for judging the meaning of culture and applying Scriptural principles, but you can be. It depends how these things are implemented and articulated.

One solution to this difficulty is to look for wisdom and maturity in those we appoint into positions of spiritual leadership. Spiritual, emotional and intellectual maturity are needed in those who teach and lead. The human heart is perverse enough without poor leadership adding fuel to the fire. Only when Christian leaders model Scriptural interpretation with integrity, leadership with winsomeness, and intellectual judgement with thoughtfulness will we navigate the narrow path between legalism and licentiousness.

Will the Real Legalist Please Stand Up? – 4 Judging Culture

November 19, 2010

Christians often imbibe facile and unhelpful definitions of legalism. One of these is the idea that legalism is the act of judging the meaning cultural phenomena, or to put it another way, the act of judging the meaning of things in our world.

Christians live in the world, and therefore Christianity is to be lived out in the world. Christians live in a world that is full of meaning, because it was created by an intelligent Creator who invested it with His intended meanings, and because it has been fashioned and shaped by intelligent creatures who have fleshed out their understanding of its meaning.

Meaning is everywhere. Wedding ceremonies have meaning. Eating at a dinner table instead of eating a TV dinner in front of the box has meaning. Meaning exists in churches with high arches, as it does in churches with flat ceilings lit with fluorescent-lights. The colors worn to funerals have meaning. The music played at Arlington National Cemetery has meaning. A mini-skirt has meaning, as do ties, earrings, sunglasses, tatoos, and lip-stick. Having a cell-phone has meaning, as do the paintings on your wall. Your choice of words has meaning, as does sculpture and painting. Economics has meaning, as does your choice of car.  Everywhere they turn, human beings give the raw materials of creation meaning, or discover that they already possess meaning. We are intelligent beings created in the image of an intelligent God, and it is in our nature to shape or interpret the meaning of  our environment, whether or not we are always conscious of those meanings.

Sometimes these meanings exist purely because they have come through use. In South Africa, there is a mini-language used by commuters who catch mini-bus taxis. It consists of holding up a certain number of fingers held in a certain direction that indicates your desired destination. Taxi-drivers and taxi-riders know the meaning of this ‘language’, a system of meaning that arose purely through use.

Sometimes these meanings exist through association. The ‘rainbow-flag’ is now associated with homosexuality. The living-dead look is associated with Gothic music. Whether the meaning created the association, or whether the association created the meaning is debated. What is clear is the practical result: the shoe fits, and the current meaning-by-association exists.

Sometimes these meanings exist because there is something intrinsic in the thing which dictates what it can or cannot (or ought not) signify. Darkness comes with some meanings inherently opposite to those of light. Loud sounds inherently communicate differently to soft sounds.

Whether people correctly perceive these meanings does not make them non-existent. If I am in an elevator and three Bulgarian men are mocking my clothing in Bulgarian, my blissful non-comprehension does not mean their conversation lacked meaning. Perception of meaning does not affect its existence. It is post-modernity to suggest that meaning is in the mind of the interpreter alone.

In a world full of meaning, it is up to the church to understand the meanings of things around them. Scriptural principles must be applied to life in the world. The only way this can be done is if the truth of life in the world is connected to the truth of Scripture. In other words, we need to know both the meaning of Scriptureand the meaning of the world. If we know only the meaning of Scripture, we lock it within its own covers. If we know only the meaning of the world, we may know the problems well, but we’ll lack solutions. We must know both Scripture and the world around us.

Is a mini-skirt a violation of 1 Timothy 2:9? Does Proverbs 18:24 affect the use of Facebook? Does James 1:19 speak to blogging? Does a church that builds an ugly building disobey Philippians 1:9-10? Do Christians who use shoddy music in worship fail to practice Philippians 4:8? Does Romans 12:2 speak to how we use the mall? Does wearing beach-ware to church violate Hebrews 12:28? These questions can only be answered if we examine the meanings of mini-skirts, Facebook, blogging, architecture, music, the mall, beach-ware,  and so forth.

It has become a kind of reflex action to accuse Christians who examine the meaning of modern cultural phenomena of legalism. This is particularly true of matters like music, entertainment, technology, ministry methods, dress and the like.  However, Christians and particularly Christian pastors who cannot discern the meaning and implications of the environment in which they live will fail to bring Scripture to life, in both senses of the term. Pastors must lead the way in scrutinising life. The excuse that “we didn’t know it meant that” will not exonerate us at the Bema seat.

It is easy to lampoon the fundamentalist pastors who forbade wire-rimmed glasses, beards, and bell-bottoms in their time. One forgets that, in some cases,  such men were trying to deal with the meanings of those things at that time, in that culture. When meaning is purely associative or conventional, it may change with time, meaning it is no longer hostile to the Christian message at a later time. This makes men of earlier times seem alarmist, just as faithful pastors who warn their congregants against current threats to healthy Christianity may seem so to future generations.

In an increasingly complex world, Christian living (and shepherding Christians to live like Christians) is an increasingly complex task. The amount of devices, technologies, media, and social sub-cultures seems to grow exponentially every few years. These are not without meaning. Conservative Christians argue that timeless Scripture has something to say to them; therefore, conservative Christians regard it is an obligation to learn what these things mean. If we love Scripture and love obedience, we should love to learn how to apply Scripture in our world.

Regardless of whether meaning is conventional, associative or intrinsic, it is there. For Scripture to be faithfully applied, we need to know the meaning of Scripture, and the meaning of the world around us. This is not legalism; this is wisdom.

Will the Real Legalist Please Stand Up? – 3 Authority and Submission

November 13, 2010

Conservative Christians are often accused of legalism. To understand what legalism is, we must first understand what it is not. One common misconception is that legalism is teaching and requiring God’s people to submit to Him.

People take to authority today like they take to a cold slap in the face. Anti-authoritarianism is preached in the cartoons, the movies, the soapies, the talk shows, the magazines, the adverts and the comments on the blogs. One of the inalienable rights of 21st-century man is to do what I want without anyone judging me. Any talk of obedience and, gasp, submission to God-ordained human authorities, produces a stampede toward the fire exits, with screams of “Legalism!” heard as the building empties. Tell some people that there is an authority above them which requires their obedience and submission, and by the time it is goes from ear-drum to brain, it sounds something like, “You must sell your soul to me, so I can manipulate your puppet strings as I wish. (Insert evil, maniacal laugh here.)”

In spite of all this, teaching the commands and prohibitions of Scripture, and insisting that those who call themselves God’s people submit to Him is not, in itself, legalism. Indeed, you can hardly read ten verses of Psalm 119 without detecting the psalmist’s unbridled relish for obedience and discipline. The Sermon on the Mount is actually Law 2.0, the Son of God’s authoritative commentary and update on the Law. Paul, the apostle of grace, has no problem with imperatives either, often rapid-firing them off at his readers. Most tellingly, the apostle of love, John, is quite emphatic that love and submission to God’s authority are precisely the same thing (1 John 5:32 John 1:6). For that matter, the supervision of God’s people by elders, and their submission to them is taught in Hebrews 13:17. Church discipline itself implies that God wants accountability, mutual discipleship and a healthy provocation of one another towards obedience and away from disobedience.

Since the biblical case for submission to God and his ordained authorities seems incontrovertibly part of healthy Christianity, why is it so often called legalism?

Probably because the contemporary view of love is rather twisted. As Jonathan Leeman points out, the two great commandments of modern love are “Know that God loves you by not permanently binding you to anything (especially if you really don’t want to be)” and “Know that your neighbor loves you best by letting you express yourself entirely and without judgement”.[1] In a climate where love is setting me free to choose my own path and affirming me as I do so, authentic Christianity seems like a claustrophobic mind-control sect. The reasoning sounds like this: Love is being affirmed and set free to be myself. God loves me, and the church is supposed to represent God’s love. However, this church imposes limits and restrictions on me and actually insists I obey. This church doesn’t represent God’s love. They’re trying to bind me, and that’s – why that’s – legalism!

The problem is a faulty and, I think we can say, idolatrous view of love. For many, love is actually about enjoying my own expression of love, whoever or whatever the object of love may be. Love is without the limits, boundaries or structure of truth. If I am worshipping the idol of my own love, Jesus Himself will seem like a legalist.

To be sure, the commandments of Scripture can be taught legalistically. That is, they can be taught without reference to the gospel, or to the Spirit’s enablement. If biblical commandments or prohibitions are taught in a way that suggests we gain acceptance through the doing of them rather than through the merits of Christ, this leads people back into self-effort and the bondage of leaning on a code for righteousness. Here the problem is not the teaching of submission, but the failure to teach submission in light of God’s fuller revelation. Subtract the Father’s love as the believer’s motivation, the Son’s work as the believer’s position and the Spirit’s work as the believer’s enablement , and you have moralism, and eventually legalism.

The solution is not to withdraw from the preaching and teaching of commands, even on matters where the application is supplied from reason and experience. The solution is twofold: teach what Christian love really is, and emphasise the motive, means and methods of Christian obedience. This isn’t legalism; this is loving God.

Will The Real Legalist Please Stand Up? – 2 Making Applications

November 5, 2010

Avoiding legalism is firstly a matter of rightly understanding what it is. To begin with, we must reject incorrect definitions of legalism. One such error is the belief that interpreting Scripture literally and applying it to modern living is a form of legalism.

For some people, legalism is another word for taking Scripture literally, and making claims that God actually commands or forbids certain actions in the 21st-century.  Apparently, to remain a minister of grace in the eyes of these folks, you need to keep all teaching broadly generic, and keep Scripture wrapped in its historical cocoon. If you attempt to draw a line from text to Tuesday morning, you’re a wooden literalist, and a legalist. (On the other hand, if you take their advice, you’ll be told by others that what people really want is “practical sermons” that “deal with the real world”.)

Now where there’s smoke, there’s sometimes fire. And a jitteriness about sermons making modern applications from ancient texts isn’t to be solely attributed to disingenuous hearts. Some of it comes from having heard one too many preacher produce applications from thin air. Perhaps you’ve sat listening to a sermon and been jolted by applications that seemed to burst in the door unexpectedly (for nothing in the text warned us they was coming). That’s not to say such applications are Scripturally indefensible or, for that matter, equally destructive. The problem is, often enough, good pastors and parents have correctly instructed their charges regarding Christian living, but have done so with little warrant from Scripture. The warrant may or many not have been there in Scripture; too often it was not made clear.

A generation of people were simultaneously told that everything must be “Bible-based” and that such-and-such an application was “obviously what godly people have always done”. The dissonance between the two has produced some scepticism. It’s also produced a pendulum swing in the other direction, where people supposedly devoted to the authority of Scripture will not let it speak outside its own covers. If Scripture does not supply the application in the text, they regard it as legalism to supply one.  And such neo-legalists are in danger of becoming libertarians at the same time, for in their minds, Scripture forbids little of what they do.

Once a pastor gives an apparent application of Scripture from the pulpit, he is, in essence, bringing such a matter to the consciences of his people as a matter of obedience or disobedience. This task he must not shirk, but this task he must do very skilfully. For if he insists people do what God has not called for, God may one day say to him, “This I commanded not, neither came it into My mind.” On the other hand, should the preacher decide that certain applications would be upsetting and unpopular and therefore skirts them, he will be guilty of having failed to unleash the power of Scripture to speak to all of life.

Warrant is the issue here. If there is warrant to connect a Scripture to contemporary life, then a reasonable application can, and in fact, has to be made. The right approach is neither to retreat to applications made purely on the assertive confidence of the preacher, nor to move out to the irony of legalistic antinomianism. What is needed is for teachers of Scripture to think clearly about the warrant for applying Scriptural principles to contemporary life.

The three sources of knowledge are authority, reason and experience. Authority is Scripture. Reason is the God-given ability to inductively or deductively reach the truth through logic. Experience is observation and analysis of observable experience in the universe. If reason and experience provide us truth about matters like music, aesthetics and culture (and they do), and Scripture expects us to worship with music, approve what is excellent and obey God in the world (and it does), then there is sufficient warrant to make applications about such things. That isn’t legalism; that’s furnishing a believer for every good work (2 Tim 3:17).

If a warrant is tenuous, we ought to say so. On the other hand, if the warrant is established through sound reason, and the good judgement of experts, critics, professionals, or other authorities in that field of knowledge, it is not legalism to make the application. In fact, it’s the opposite. It is being responsible enough to apply truth from Scripture to the lives people lead.

Will the Real Legalist Please Stand Up ? – 1

October 29, 2010

Conservative Christians are not strangers to the charge of legalism. Begin tinkering with the sacred cows of worship music and Christian culture, and you will attract the title legalist like running past a hive with honey on your head attracts a swarm. As a pastor, one of the most painful things that can be said of you is that you or your church is legalistic. After all, Christian pastors are ministers of the gospel of grace. To be a Christian pastor and be called a legalist is really like being called a traitor. Instead of ministering grace, you are said to be bringing people into bondage.

Nevertheless, it’s not uncommon to hear people throw this charge around, particularly toward those who hold conservative principles. I sometimes half-wonder if any pastor who simply expounds the Scriptures has not been called a legalist by someone, somewhere. Nevertheless, there is a real perception that Christians who seek to conserve the best expressions of biblical Christianity are probably legalists. At least two factors make it likely that Joe Christian will associate conservative Christianity with his current perception of legalism.

First, authentic Christianity calls man to submit to God in every area of his life. Our era is one that is deeply suspicious of authority, and hates dogmatism. If a church begins applying Scripture to real-life situations, resisting certain cultural trends, and calling for obedience to the Scriptures, it is not unlikely that people used to autonomy and independence will feel constricted and begin to struggle. Many call this sense of constriction legalism. For such people, a church is “grace-filled” as long as it keeps its messages broad and generalised, as long as it does not try to bridge the cultural and time gap from Scripture to today’s living, as long as it accommodates current popular culture, as long as it does not mention the duties and obligations of a Christian too much, and as long as the leaders of a church do not act as if they have any real spiritual authority. We should expect that conservative Christianity is going to collide head-on with this kind of thinking, and we should not be surprised when the occupants of the crashed car get out and start blurting out, “legalism!”

Second, on the other side of the coin, we know that real legalism has often found a favorable host in churches ostensibly regarded as conservative. I would argue that such churches are conservative in name only; however, the generalization has some truth to it. Pastors are sinners too, and not every pastor or Christian leader properly understands or always properly communicates what it is to be under grace. Horror stories of spiritual abuse are a dime-a-dozen. Some churches in the evangelical and fundamentalist tradition have been guilty of binding the consciences of God’s people to matters without Scriptural warrant. They have been guilty of creating the perception in God’s people that certain acts, or a certain level of conformity would commend them to God or grant them meritorious status before Him. They have been guilty of ruling God’s people with force and cruelty. While self-identified progressive churches can be just as guilty of legalism, it is often those churches that are nominally conservative that are guilty of these things.

In other words, while many are confused as to what legalism is, real legalism is a serious problem. Legalism is an attack on the gospel and on biblical sanctification, and every Christian should be very aware of what it is, and how to avoid it.

But that’s just the problem: little consensus exists on what legalism really is. Legalism has become a kind of pliable word that is used by disgruntled Christians to express distaste or disapproval of a church or ministry, or by theological opponents who wish to tar their enemies. All too often, it becomes a kind of smear-word to dismiss the arguments of conservatism before they have even been heard. The word seems to have been vacuumed of clear meaning, and is now used in all sorts of ways. And if a word can mean anything, then a word actually means nothing.

Conservative Christians believe they are conserving authentic Christianity. Since all would agree that authentic Christianity is not legalistic in nature, conservative Christians ought not to be guilty of legalism. We may be falsely labelled as such; we should never be so in practice. If we are to avoid true legalism, we must strip away false connotations of the term. Once we have done that, we can see what Scripture insists we do and do not do as true ministers of grace.