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An Unpublished Essay on the Trinity – Jonathan Edwards.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.


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.

Thinking About Adiaphora – 3

December 10, 2009

To find grounds to apply Scripture requires that one has more than Scripture in hand. It ought to be obvious to us that God did not aim to write an exhaustive manual detailing His will on every possible event. The Bible would then fill several libraries, and be an ongoing work.

It ought to be equally obvious to us that God does want us to glorify Him in every detail of our lives (Col 3:17, 1 Cor 10:31). He has a perfect will, and He wants us to know it (Rom 12:2, Eph 5:16). Therefore, it ought to be plain to us that what God has supplied in the Scripture must be applied to life using information not contained in the Scripture.

Why are Christians so intimidated at the thought of getting grounds to apply a Scripture from outside the Scriptures? Probably because we have, as Dr. Bauder put it, confused sola Scriptura with nuda Scriptura. Sola Scriptura teaches that Scripture alone is the final authority for life and godliness. There is no higher bar or court of appeal than the Bible. There we find God’s will revealed. No information outside of the Scripture is to be considered as authoritative as Scripture itself.

However, nuda Scriptura is the idea that Scripture can come to us unclothed, apart from the understanding imparted from the believing community of faith and the Christian past, and apart from any other accompanying information from beyond the Scripture, even if it be true and given by experts or authorities in their fields. Scripture’s authority becomes limited to the naked black-and-white text, and nothing more than its own explicit applications will be admitted. In supposedly wanting nothing more than the unadorned statements of Scripture to guide his life, such a person ironically destroys the authority of Scripture to speak on life in general. Scripture’s protectors become its captors, not merely keeping competitors out, but keeping its own authority locked within the prison of its own two covers.

Most nuda Scriptura practitioners are unaware of how inconsistent they are with this attitude. They oppose abortion, but the Bible nowhere says that the killing of an unborn child is an instance of murder. They oppose taking God’s name in vain, but they cannot point to a single Scripture which gives an explicit application of that command. They regard recreational drug use as sinful, but cannot find a verse which links drug use to principles forbidding addiction or harm to the body.

And yet they oppose these things. That’s because they have been unwittingly violating their nuda Scriptura ethos, and supplying outside information to make a valid application. They have found out from doctors that life begins at conception; they have reasoned that using the actual name of God in an everyday slang fashion is to treat it in an unworthy manner; they have found out information on the addictiveness and physical effects of the drug in question. In other words, Scripture did not supply the link to the application. They did, through the use of reason and outside information.

We do this all the time, and God expects us to do so.

I think the disingenuous attitude of “the Bible doesn’t say that” really begins once a cherished idol is under fire. The person lives by sola Scriptura in every other area of his life. However, should one of his loves be challenged – his music, his entertainments, his dress to worship, his use of disposable income, his reading matter – suddenly he reverts to nuda Scriptura. Now he wants the Bible to speak explicitly to the matter under question, or his supposed devotion to chapter and verse will throw it out. This is a lying heart.

However, if we are of the truth, we must understand the need to get good and reliable sources of information outside the Scriptures, combine them with sound reason, in order to make right applications of Scriptural principles.

Thinking About Adiaphora – 2

December 2, 2009

No discernment is required for obeying explicit commands and prohibitions. However, more skill is needed to correctly interpret and apply Scriptural principles.

A Scriptural principle is one that states a timeless truth. Its axiomatic nature means it is generally true. However, its general nature is just the problem for those seeking to implement the Word of God in specific, practical ways. Generalised, timeless, and axiomatic principles do not translate well into specific, concrete applications, except through some applied thinking.

For example, Paul’s desire that believers be able to approve the things that are excellent suggests (at least implicitly) that God desires believers to approve excellence and disapprove of the opposite. How does that general principle find its way into my everyday life? Does it have applications in the realm of aesthetics? Of music? Art?

For a general principle to find a specific application, we need some kind of ‘bridge’. We need a justification – a warrant – to connect a principle of Scripture to something never mentioned in Scripture, but which nevertheless occurs in our lives.

To get from what is stated in a non-specific way to a valid and conscience-binding application of it, something needs to be supplied which Scripture does not supply. Scripture gives you the principle, but it does not (frequently) give you an application of it. It is this lack that causes many of the legalists mentioned in the previous post to dismiss the force of principles. In other words, such legalists want the principle, the bridge that connects it to the specific situation, as well as the application in concrete terms. And to this kind of thinking, it must be asked, Why would God bother with principles at all, if such are needed to make principles morally binding? If a biblical principle alone is an inert piece of information, relevant for no one in particular, and unable to be applied to anyone (since such application requires a non-Scriptural bridge), what possible reason could God have had for giving it?

In truth, many such legalists are being disingenuous, using their supposed devotion to explicit Scripture as a means of excising from a Christian’s obligations just about every Scriptural principle or matter considered to be adiaphora.

However, it is quite clear that God expects man to supply such a bridge between the principle and its application. Jesus clearly expected the Pharisees to have correctly applied the principle that God loves mercy to several specific situations.

It is up to the devout Christian then, to find clear grounds for connecting a principle to a specific circumstance. Further, the Christian should have a clear understanding of how to find such grounds for applying principles to the numerous and variegated circumstances he will face.

First, he must recognise that the grounds for applying Scripture will emerge from outside Scripture. The extra piece of information that is needed to make a valid application must of necessity be extra-biblical, otherwise the principle would not be a principle but a clear precept. It is no violation of sola Scriptura to look for information outside of the Bible to enable us to apply the Bible.

Second, he must have good grounds for his selection of sources. Not all information is equally valid or useful. A Christian must be able to sort through ‘secular’ sources of information.

Third, he must evaluate such information using right thinking. We’ll examine these three in turn.

Thinking About Adiaphora – 1

November 21, 2009

Believers obey God’s commandments (I John 2:3). With new hearts, we desire to please God and love Him in all things. To put it another way, we want to do His will as it is done in heaven.

However, to do His will in all of life requires that we make judgements all the time. We have to judge things to be right or wrong, wise or unwise, better or worse in the practical details of life, not merely when speculating about abstractions. We’re continually making judgements.

We also believe that the Bible must form the basis of our judgements. In considering the variety of situation we face in light of Scriptural revelation, we find three areas where He speaks with more or less specificity, which form the basis of all our moral judgements.

The first area is matters of explicit command or prohibition. God simply mandates certain behaviours and forbids others. God tells us not to lie, steal or covet. He tells us to love Him and our neighbour, to pray continually, and to live sober and watchful lives. When God gives us these unambiguous ‘do this’ and ‘don’t do this’ statements, there is no discernment required. We must simply obey. The only difficulty here is knowing if certain commands still apply. For example, there is a command to keep Sabbath, but not all Christian agree on the timelessness of that command. A right hermeneutic will help us to see whether certain commands are timeless precepts for all God’s people of all times.

The second area is matters revealed by principles. Principles give truths, usually in timeless, axiomatic, or generalised form, which must then be properly connected to the specific circumstances that a believer is in. “Vengeance is mine” is the principle that it is God’s prerogative to punish evildoers and repay evil. However, that principle must be applied and correctly interpreted in varying situations, such as the rights of human government, the prosecution of criminals, the implementation of church discipline, the forgiveness of offences, and how to respond to my neighbour’s loud music.

The third area where we must discern God’s will is on matters that God neither requires nor forbids explicitly in His Word. Theologians have called these things adiaphora, from the Greek which means ‘indifferent things’. These refer to matters where Scripture has not told us one way or another. Here careful judgement is needed. The meaning of the thing or activity in question must be properly understood, and then linked back to Scriptural commands or principles.

One characteristic of modern libertarian Christianity is its tendency to adopt an inverted legalism. In order to justify its ‘freedoms’, it makes an appeal to the letter of the law. That is, it shaves down the actual obligations of a Christian to explicit positive or negative biblical commands. It wrangles free of the implications of many biblical principles, claiming exemption from them with the post-modern’s motto: “that’s just your interpretation.” Finally, when it comes to adiaphora, it looks incredulously at the one seeking to form a judgement on any such matter. After all, if God hasn’t said anything about it, then the matter is meaningless, morally neutral, and without any serious moral implications. By a weird abuse of sola Scriptura, the only admissible judgements are the first category of explicit commands and prohibitions.  The rest of life, it seems, does not matter to God. Finally, with rich irony, these legalists brand anyone who offers a moral judgement on any of the adiaphora with the term – you guessed it – legalist.

Biblical Christianity has always recognised the need to extend the principles of Scripture to all of life. This is wisdom. Biblical Christianity has also recognised the need to be careful and humble in our judgements on matters where Scripture does not speak. However, Scripture’s silence does not always indicate God’s indifference. God has not spoken on every area of human life, because His revealed Word, when used by people who are seeking wisdom, ought to lead to correct moral judgements.  Abortion is wrong, not because it is explicitly forbidden, but because a logical application of Scripture, combined with a right medical view of life beginning at conception, leads us to see it so.

For us to have a full-orbed Christianity that glorifies God in the details (1 Cor 10:31), we must throw off this pseudo-sola Scriptura, and learn again how to principlise, and judge adiaphora correctly.

Conserving the Whole Counsel of God – 3

January 11, 2009

For conservative Christians to conserve the whole counsel of God, it is necessary that they know the relative importance of the various Christian doctrines to each other. This is because not all doctrines are equally important.

We know this because Jesus told us the greatest commandment of all is to love God with the whole heart. This means that it is the most important commandment, stemming from the the most important doctrine: Yahweh is God, Yahweh alone. If this is the greatest commandment, then there are others not as great, others of lesser importance. Certainly every doctrine found in the Word is important. But when weighed against each other, some are more important than others.

Therefore, believers committed to the whole counsel of God must be able to categorise doctrine as fundamental, secondary and peripheral. They must have a taxonomy of doctrine, and be able to order, arrange and classify teachings according to their importance.

Why is this important? For at least three reasons.

1) It balances our study and teaching.  To effectively teach the whole counsel of God and pass it on to others, we must understand how the doctrines of the Word relate to each other, how they fit into the entire system, how each doctrine functions. A teacher who does not have a concept of the relative weight of doctrines will become like a DIY mechanic – pulling bits and pieces out of an engine, tinkering and fiddling, giving the appearance of competence, but ultimately doing more harm than good.

If we do not know the grand design of God’s Word, we will never be able to relate the parts to the whole. They will either become an impossibly tangled up mess of facts, or they will become little ends in themselves. Not knowing the relative importance of doctrines to each other leads to two opposite and equally harmful errors.

One is the error of minimalism, mentioned in an earlier post. The Christian here decides that the whole counsel of God seems like too much trouble to know, classify or work out, so he will relegate most of it to the place of ‘non-issues’ and focus only on the gospel and its fundamental doctrines.

The other is the error of specialism, where the person becomes so fond of (or consumed with) a particular doctrine that he weights it far heavier than it deserves, artificially trying to make it more important than it is, magnifying certain teachings out of all proportion, and minimising others. Certainly the Pharisees had become specialists in a certain sense.

Matthew 23:23-24 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. These you ought to have done, without leaving the others undone. 24 “Blind guides, who strain out a gnat and swallow a camel!

We all know specialists who have magnified apologetics, or eschatology, or spiritual warfare, or spiritual gifts, or evangelism, or Calvinism, or Bible versions, out of all proportion. We have a limited amount of time on this earth to study and to teach. We must determine how much attention we are going to give each doctrine, leaning more heavily on what is most important, ‘without leaving the others undone’.

2) It helps us pick our battles. Conservatives battle against false doctrine because it undermines the whole counsel of God. However, because we do not weight all doctrines equally, we do not fight for them equally either. A taxonomy of doctrine leads to the understanding of what to battle, when, and how vigorously. A conservative Christian must be able to see if a false teaching is catastrophic, urgent, isolated, or tolerable. In other words, arising out of a taxonomy of doctrine is a corresponding taxonomy of militancy toward error.

An error can threaten the gospel itself, making it catastrophic to believe it. An error might not threaten the gospel, but so skew the entire system of doctrine as to be a very serious error. An error might not skew the whole system, but be significant enough to present real differences in doctrine and practice. An error might be over a peripheral teaching (say the identity of the sons of God in Genesis 6), one that should not seriously affect fellowship – a ‘tolerable’ error. For each type of error there is a type of response, ranging from the censuring of apostates commanded in  2 John to the friendly parrying of ideas about Genesis 6 between two believers.

A conservative Christian can see what an error does to the whole system, where it is heading, and where it may lead. The irony of the minimalists who want to conserve only the fundamentals is that, lacking a holistic view of doctrine, they become unaware of how, very often, errors in secondary doctrines by implication deny the fundamental doctrines.

Further, to grow in this mindset is to be able to distinguish between one articulation of a doctrine and another. One man might word his understanding of Calvinism or Arminianism so as to constitute an isolated error. Another articulation could constitute an urgent error. The way a teacher relates the doctrine to the gospel and to the whole system of faith can determine how one must respond to it.

Once again, we have limited time on this earth. We must pick our battles and the ‘hills we will die on’. Conservatives do not fight for a finger if the beating heart is under threat.

3) Finally, this weighting of doctrine informs how we fellowship with other Christians, the subject of the next post.

How do we come to understand the importance of doctrines relative to each other? Once again, it requires training. It is helpful to study systematic theology, Old & New Testament theology, historical theology, biblical theology, along with studies and surveys of books of the Bible. How long does this take? At least a few years to build a solid foundation. Not everyone needs to be a theologian, but every Christian should understand some basic theology. Not everyone needs to be an expert (though we do need some experts), but everyone should at least aim for competence. It is the role of the Christian family, the local church, and on certain levels, educational institutions to build this understanding into Christians.

Conserving the Whole Counsel of God – 2

January 5, 2009

The first way that we conserve the whole counsel of God is by learning it ourselves. That requires a particular approach to the study and teaching of the Bible. We might say the conservative approach is exegesis and exposition, the opposite of which is eisegesis and imposition.
Exegesis (from the Greek ἐξηγεῖσθαι ‘to lead out’) is the analysis and explanation of a text, in our case, biblical texts. Exegesis is an approach which believes that God has invested biblical texts with meaning. The meaning was there when the human authors put it down. The meaning was there when the first audience read or heard it. That meaning is unchanged and has applications for listeners and readers today.
Therefore, the task of the exegete is to use various tools to bring out of the text its true and original meaning. He does this by understanding the original biblical languages, the historical context of a passage and its immediate context within the book and within the rest of Scripture. Once he knows what it meant, he knows what it still means, for it can never mean what it has never meant.
Certainly, he comes to a text with certain pre-understandings: he has a particular systematic theology to which he relates the parts he finds, and he has a particular system of interpretation (hermeneutics) that guides him as he practises exegesis. But hopefully, honest exegesis feeds back into his theology and hermeneutics, reshaping, re-ordering and revising as necessary – cleaning and sharpening the lenses of his interpretive spectacles, if you will.
The result of the process of exegesis is a growing understanding of biblical and systematic doctrine. The person or church interested in exegesis is interested in what the Bible says. All of it. The whole counsel of God, nothing less.

Exegesis is a rigorous task. It requires years of training to do well. It requires more skill to turn this exegesis into an interesting, digestible and memorable sermon. Exegesis should not be boring, because the Word of God is not boring. It requires even more skill to deliver such a sermon in a rhetorically adept fashion.
Even once trained in these skills, it requires a significant investment of time to execute adequately. For that reason, a church interested in exegesis should do its best to free its pastor(s) up to give themselves to this task.

Eisegesis is the opposite of all this. Eisegesis is the inserting of one’s own ideas, beliefs or hobby-horses into the text of Scripture, and disguising such an approach as the preaching of Scripture. It shows no humility before the text of Scripture, but is willing to impose its own ideas upon the text, and ‘make it say what it never said’. A pastor given to eisegesis is not interested in biblical doctrine. He may have certain noble goals for his congregation, he may even sincerely want to see practical holiness in the life of his people. But because he is not practising exegesis, he is not grounding their practice in theology, which means it will certainly dissolve once the agitations of his messages are forgotten. He wants the sheep to follow, but he is not committed to following himself, because he does not submit to the authority of the Bible by preaching its meaning. He does not trust the text of Scripture itself to be able to deliver what God’s people need to love Him properly, and substitutes it for unbalanced topical messages, five point ‘how-to’ messages, cleverly alliterated outlines forced into a text, allegorical ‘new interpretations’, and so on.

Interestingly enough, eisegetical sermons are often very interesting, very moving, and quite memorable. This is usually because the eisegete has no limits on his creativity and imagination (least of all the text of Scripture), and he conjures it all up into a hour’s worth of jokes that amuse, pithy sayings that cause a smile at some home-made wisdom, moving stories that stir people up to pity, maudlin tears or false optimism, or passionate cries that provoke extreme emotion. Moreover, the crowds will come for their hour of titillation.
Many an exegete looks at his small church, compares it to the mega-church built on eisegesis and wonders if he isn’t beating a dead horse.

Conservative Christians must resist the temptation to turn to such techniques, even at the risk of being ‘small’ or characterised as ‘boring’. Exegesis is hard to do. It is even harder to do well. But it is the only hope of the church knowing and preserving the whole counsel of God, which is profitable for doctrine, reproof, correction and instruction in righteousness.