Tullian's Trench

Article by   May 2014
My offer to publicly debate PCA Pastor, Tullian Tchividjian, still stands. If a recent "tweet" by Tchividjian is anything to go by ("Some critics are best answered with silence. Fruit quietly and confidently testifies of its root."), I doubt very much this will happen. Of course, that did not stop him from writing a rather strong response to a "housewife theologian," but I suppose he is free to pick his battles with those whom he (rather selectively) chooses. 

There are a number of problems and ironies that have resulted from Tchividjian's writings. The first concerns his rhetoric. He persistently speaks of people and ministers - even Reformed ministers - grossly confusing law-gospel categories, even going so far as to suggest that many assume that the law has the power to produce what it demands. This claim is nearly impossible for anyone to really prove. Even so, his critique requires names and specifics for it to be taken seriously; otherwise, it is insulting and may cast unnecessary aspersions upon faithful shepherds of Christ's flock, especially if some of Tchividjian's more zealous disciples start questioning their own pastor's orthodoxy. 
 
With that in mind, if I shared similar theological convictions to those of Tchividjian, then I might be tempted to echo similar sentiments. But what if Tchividjian is the one who is grossly confused? In his writings he seems so confident he is correct, which makes me wonder why he doesn't take up the offer to debate this issue. In any event - or lack thereof, sadly - here's the irony: he may be guilty of the very error he critiques.

Tchividjian's penchant for throwing quotes around on his blog should not be mistaken for historical theology. Even a cursory glance at Reformed and Lutheran theologians from the time of the Reformation proves that the law-gospel distinction has a messy history once we move from the matter of justification to other thorny questions (e.g. does the gospel include repentance?). Before chastising other (anonymous) Reformed (and non-Reformed) preachers for confusing categories, perhaps Tchividjian could explain the similarities and differences between Luther, Melanchthon, Chemnitz, Zwingli, Bullinger, Calvin, Musculus, Zanchi, Ursinus, Owen, and Rutherford?

Perhaps he could comment on the intra-Lutheran debates between the Philippists and the Gnesio-Lutherans? Philip Melanchthon, Erasmus Sarcerius, and Johann Spangenberg all include poenitentia in the Gospel and read Luke 24:47 as a reference to the Gospel. Johann Wigand and Jacob Heerbrand excluded poenitentia from the Gospel. Reformed theologians, Jerome Zanchi and Zacharias Ursinus, both took issue with certain Lutheran understandings of the law-gospel distinction. Moreover, there appears to be slight differences even among Reformed confessions on the nature of the gospel. With whom does Tchividjian agree and disagree? Simply asserting the importance of the distinction does not mean one has understood the distinction. As the saying goes: "You keep using that word, I do not think it means what you think it means."

Tchividjian's law ("do") - gospel ("done") distinction does not have quite the Reformed pedigree that he assumes. Indeed, what are we to say about the fact that the Canons of Dort expressly say that the gospel "threatens" (5.14)? John Owen spends copious time on the nature of gospel threatenings (and gospel commands), as well. Has Owen made a basic "category mistake"? If, as Tchividjian suggests, "redeeming unconditional love alone (not fear, not guilt, not shame) carries the power to compel heart-felt loyalty to the One who bought us," then I'm afraid he has abandoned the Reformed tradition to which he claims to belong. The reasons we obey are many and varied. If Herman Witsius is correct, we may even obey God with a regard to our own advantage. Now that's liberating!

But what of Tchividjian's claim that these false teachers assume "that the law (in all of its uses) [has] the power to produce what it demands"? Would anyone argue such nonsense? Well, I do know of some ministers - in fact, even some who were responsible for crafting the Westminster Confession of Faith - who have argued that after Adam's fall, "God therefore set forth a copy of his law in his word, which is the means of sanctifying us; and sanctification itself is but a writing of that law in the heart" (Thomas Goodwin). Likewise, Anthony Burgess argued that God's commands not only inform us of our duty, but are also "practical and operative means appointed by God, to work, at least in some degree, that which is commanded." Samuel Rutherford said essentially the same thing in his disputes against the antinomians because they denied that the law was a true instrument of sanctification.

We all know that apart from the Holy Spirit we can do nothing. And we all know that God's commandments do not have the power, in the abstract, to "produce what they demand." (In fact, even announcements of God's saving power in Christ have no effect apart from the Spirit's application.) But, it should be noted, the faithful preaching of God's commands in the context of a faithful gospel ministry can produce real change in a sinner's life because God has ordained his commandments to work, "at least in some degree, that which is commanded." In other words, failing to preach God's commandments robs Christ's sheep of a true means of sanctification, and thus they may be - ahem! - less holy as a result. We preach God's commandments to God's people because God has promised to bless such preaching with the Holy Spirit.

Tchividjian's second major problem concerns his hermeneutic. Again, this results in another irony. His recent post on God's commandments not being burdensome provides the clearest example yet of what happens when your hermeneutic is governed almost solely on reading justification into every text that speaks of obedience. When someone can go to 1 John 5:3-4 and claim that "God's commandments are not burdensome because we do not carry them" (emphasis mine), then I have to question his abilities as a faithful exegete of the Scriptures. If the third use of the law cannot be found in 1 John 5:3-4 then where can it be found?  "I affirm the third use of the law; I just don't see it in passages that clearly describe it..." In other words, affirming the third use of the law during interviews hardly impresses his critics when such exegetical shenanigans are plain to see.

In aiming to protect the doctrine of justification, Tchividjian does more harm than good to this precious doctrine. We cannot be light-hearted about this doctrine; it is worth dying for. Even so, we can't read justification into passages that are clearly talking about sanctification, as Tchividjian is prone to do in many places. When this type of theologizing is done by preachers on a consistent basis, their preaching becomes burdensome, and preaching (and God's commandments) should not be burdensome. Ironically, by doing this (i.e., reading justification into sanctification), Tchividjian has made, to use his words, a "category" mistake. Jason Stellman must be laughing his shiny head off when he sees such "gross confusion" by a PCA minister. 

Third, Tchividjian is a blogger for The Gospel Coalition. But he is becoming an increasingly divisive figure. After all, he has indicted many Reformed preachers for being legalists. Should bloggers for The Gospel Coalition cause such divisiveness when one of the chief intents of the organization is to bring unity among gospel-believing churches and Christians? What a deeply regrettable irony. But perhaps TGC will have the theological fortitude to remove Tchividjian's blog. And will others say something? Oh that Tullian would be rebuked, not defended, by those wishing to recover the Reformed confession.

Commenting on what typically happens after times of revival - sorry, D.G. Hart - James Stalker wrote: "it is no unusual thing to find the initial stage of religion regarded as if it were the whole.  Converts go on repeating the same testimony till it becomes nauseous to their hearers as well as unprofitable to themselves. In the religion of many there is only one epoch; there is no program of expanding usefulness or advancing holiness; and faith is only the constant repetition of a single act." Indeed. But preachers such as Tchividjian should be the ones correcting these problems, not exacerbating them.

In conclusion I am reminded of the well-known Latin phrase: Qui tacet consentire videtur, ubi loqui debuit ac potuit. Silence is consent; and we must speak to this issue when we are able. After extensively reviewing the work of John Biddle, a rather exasperated John Owen said: "I am weary of considering such trash." Yet Owen did so because he loved Christ and his church. However painful it might be to read Tchividjian's thoughts on 1 John 5 (or the Good Samaritan, or Philippians 2:11-12), ministers and theologians in our circles must deal with these issues, sometimes publicly if they are able, because of how many of Christ's sheep are being influenced by this defective theology. If we do not, perhaps our silence really is consent. 

Mark Jones (pronounced "Jones") is Senior Minister at Faith Vancouver Presbyterian Church (PCA).


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