Results tagged “Controversy” from Reformation21 Blog

Identity, Affinity and Christ

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So many of the controversies surrounding the church at present center on concepts related to identity and affinity. Whether these issues are sexual, ethnic, biological or political in nature, one cannot escape the seemingly ubiquitous existential clamor with which we are daily inundated. Bombarded by a steady stream of headlines about scandal, social injustice, political policy and manufactured pandemonium, the Christian is ever in danger of losing a sense of who he or she is in Christ. When we enter into debates in which emotional hijacking tends to be par for the course, we must guard against the temptation to abandon the center of gravity of the Gospel and to trade our identity and affinity for something other than Christ and His people.

This danger is not foreign to the pages of the New Testament. Many of the pervasive issues that the Apostles tackled in the foundational days of the New Covenant church were those having to do with identity and affinity. Whether it was the Judaizers tempting Jewish converts to forfeit their fellowship with their Gentile brothers and sisters in Christ or the Corinthian error of picking and choosing which of the teachers in the church would represent their particular affinity group, the fledgling churches were constantly in danger of departing from Christ in order to settle in with another identity or affinity group. The potency of the Judaizing heresy lay in the fact that false brethren appealed to the heritage of a select portion of the believers in the body. These false teachers baited the newly converted Jewish believers with their past, saying, "This is your heritage. Don't abandon your heritage. Don't betray us." In Corinth, members of the church were vying for particular teachers to lead their affinity groups. The deleterious subtlety of this error was seen in the fact that the teachers with whom they aligned themselves were men who had been appointed by God to be ministers in the church. New forms of these pernicious errors can and will most certainly surface in the church today. When they do, they inevitably threaten our Gospel identity in Christ and affinity with His people.   

For the Christian, nothing short of knowing Christ and who we are in Christ will suffice. When we remember that Jesus stood in our place, for our sin, and took the wrath that we deserve in order to forgive us, cleanse us and reconcile us to God (as well as to unite us to all of His blood bought people), we come to understand that our past doesn't identify us any longer. In turn, we start to recognize that we don't have to search for a particular affinity group--we've already been placed in one, namely, the Church. The Apostle Paul labored tirelessly to establish this principle in the minds of God's people. He gave the Galatians the remedy to their misplaced identity when he explained, "You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus" (Gal. 3:26-29). 

A tangible loss of real spiritual joy will always accompany our misplaced quests for identity and affinity. There is a deep seated joy that flows from realizing the newness of life that we have in Christ in the Gospel. So much of what we read or hear online today lacks this sense of Gospel joy. When we allow psychological constructs, social agendas, party spirits and cultural identities to take the place of the good news of Christ crucified for sinners, we invariably forfeit the benefit and implications of the good news. When I was a new convert, many in the church would tell me, "Nick, you've got to remind yourself that you'll always be a drug addict." I'll never forget the inner freedom and joy that I finally came to experience when I realized that I was a new creation in Christ. The Apostle reminded the Corinthians of this very thing when he wrote, "If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new" (2 Cor. 5:17). A new name, a new identity, a new experience, a new community, a new life in Christ--these were the truths that caused joy inexpressible and full of glory to well up deep within in my heart. 

These are the truths which are meant to shape our minds so that we will be able to navigate our way through a world that tells us our past, our desires or our preferences are what ultimately define us. Then, and only then, will we be able to speak helpfully to the issues of the day without derailing or disenfranchising our brothers and sisters in Christ. Our union with Christ in His death and resurrection means that we are defined by who He is, what He has done and what we have become in Him (1 Cor. 6:9-11). As this truth grips our hearts, we will find that our affinity group consists of all those who--no matter their moral, socio-economic, ethnic or political background--have also been raised to newness of life together with us in Him. 
The most recent eruption of the eternal subordination of the Son controversy began with a couple of provocative posts by Liam Goligher, pastor of Tenth Presbyterian Church, Philadelphia, over on Aimee Byrd's Housewife Theologian blog.    

Goligher's posts sharply criticized advocates of the eternal subordination of the Son position (hereafter ESS) for projecting the subordination of the Son to the Father within the work of redemption (the economic Trinity) back into the inner life of God (the immanent Trinity). Within his posts, he accuses those who teach the eternal subordination of the Son of 'reinventing the doctrine of God' and 'doing great dishonor to Christ.'   

The eternal subordination of the Son has been a popular doctrine in certain complementarian contexts, being used either to ground the submission of women and authority of men in the life of the Trinity, or, perhaps more commonly, to defend such a position against the charge that naturally hierarchical relations are necessarily oppressive by means of a weak analogy. Goligher implies that, in order to advance a legalistic account of gender roles, a certain group of complementarians are wittingly yet surreptitiously moving the Church away from the historic form of its Trinitarian faith. He concludes:   

Before we jettison the classical, catholic, orthodox and reformed understanding of God as He is we need to carefully weigh what is at stake - our own and our hearers' eternal destiny.   

Carl Trueman soon joined his voice to Goligher's. In both Trueman and Goligher's pieces, the controversy is framed as one between different forms of complementarianism.  Given these initial salvoes, it is unsurprising that the ensuing controversy has been a fraught and occasionally quite an unedifying one. In Goligher's posts, the stakes of the discussion were ramped up from the outset, suggesting conscious divergence from historic Trinitarian orthodoxy on the part of complementation ESS advocates.   

Friction between opposing visions of complementarianism is an important aspect of these fault lines and a matter to which I will return at a later point. While the doctrine of the Trinity is the epicentre of dispute in this instance, it is a point where far broader institutional and theological systems and visions are colliding. Once such political tectonics are appreciated, both the theological alignments in and the rhetorical temper of the debate may start to make more sense.

The principal initial responses to Goligher and Trueman came from Bruce Ware and Wayne Grudem. Both Ware and Grudem insisted that their position was in keeping with Nicene orthodoxy, had historical precedent, and was firmly grounded in the scriptural witness. As representatives of the ESS position, Ware and Grudem's stance is greatly complicated by the fact that both of them have questioned the historic doctrine of the eternal generation of the Son in the past--a doctrine that many in their own camp would strongly advocate--and have grounded divine self-differentiation within relationships of authority and submission. Grudem and Ware's defences of the ESS position have since been joined by those of Denny Burk, Mike Ovey (who has recently written a book on the subject), and Owen Strachan.    

Although the controversy has predictably excited considerable party sentiment, despite its heat it has also occasioned much light and some valuable engagement. There is good reason to hope that it might yet prove to have been a profitable one. The last week has witnessed a multitude of posts and comments, addressing the matter from a host of different angles. Even where party spirit has been in evidence, there have been some extremely constructive, clarifying, challenging, insightful, and generally worthwhile contributions to the conversation. The following are a few examples.   

Derek Rishmawy argues for the usefulness of Trinitarian controversy, properly engaged, in developing a theological awareness that is often lacking in the Church. Andrew Wilson provides a brief survey of the issues currently under debate. The inimitable Fred Sanders offers 18 theses on the Father and the Son, challenging, among other things, egalitarian attempts to flatten out the distinctions among the Triune persons and complementarian 'overdrawing' of them. Darren Sumner gets into some of the theological issues at stake in connecting the relations of origin of the immanent Trinity with the missions of the economic Trinity. The importance of having a clear theological understanding of the relationship between the will of God and of Christ's divine and human natures is emphasized in these posts by Mark Jones. Andrew Perriman highlights the need for greater communication between biblical and systematic theologians in the task of Christology, observing theological failure to engage closely and attentively with the scriptural narrative. Luke Stamps also laments the lack of interaction between theological sub-disciplines, arguing for the need for exegetes who are well acquainted with the history of interpretation. Finally, Glenn Butner, Michel Barnes, and Lewis Ayres each provide some clarity on some of the contested historical details.   

In my next post, I will review some of the literature surrounding the question.

Refuting Theological Error

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There is a profoundly important section titled, "On the Preaching of the Word," in The Directory for the Public Worship of God, in which we find a very short and very wise statement about the minister's responsibility to refute false teaching in the church. What is most captivating about the brief statement found therein is that it instructs concerning, first, the dangers of talking about false teaching, and, second, the necessity of refuting false teaching in the church. 

As the Divines unfolded their beliefs about how ministers should approach the aspect of refuting theological error in their preaching, they wrote:

In confutation of false doctrines, he [i.e. the minister] is neither to raise an old heresy from the grave, nor to mention a blasphemous opinion unnecessarily: but, if the people be in danger of an error, he is to confute it soundly, and endeavor to satisfy their judgments and consciences against all objections.

The rationale for this statement is dependent on understanding the nature of false teaching itself. In short, ideas can and often do have massive spiritual consequences. J. Gresham Machen made the important statement about the implications of false teachings and ideologies when he wrote:

False ideas are the greatest obstacles to the reception of the gospel...What is today a matter of academic speculation begins tomorrow to move armies and pull down empires. In that second stage, it has gone too far to be combated; the time to stop it was when it was still a matter of impassioned debate.1

Since beliefs inevitably have consequences on our lives and actions, the Divines first warn against our "raising an old heresy from the grave, nor to mention a blasphemous opinion unnecessarily." They do not say this to be necessarily or fearfully censorious, or to bury their heads in the sand rather than deal with difficult theological matters. Rather, they raise this warning because of the nature of false teaching. 

When I was a young Christian, a friend taught me that "whenever false teaching is taught in a nuanced fashion there is always the danger that some who hear it will be drawn into it." He went on to explain that this is true within the realm of relationships, as well. Whenever we start to enter into debate with those with whom we disagree we are in danger of becoming more like them--as well as becoming more susceptible to being influenced by their beliefs. It is not guaranteed that this will happen, but it is certainly a very real and ever present danger. Tragically, years after sharing this thought with me, my friend went on to embrace a sinful lifestyle due in part to the public discussions about, and approval of, that particular sin. Additionally, I have watched--with great heaviness of heart--as a minister of the Gospel walked away from Protestantism in the midst of engaging, on church court levels, with men who were being tried for holding to aberrant theological views on the sacraments and soteriology. Whether engagement with sacramentalist views were the cause of his departing from the truth or not, I cannot help but wonder what impact interacting with aberrant teaching had on this particular individual.

This danger must be highlighted within the realm of pastoral ministry in the church. There are some who thrive on debating theological issues. This can be harmful to the members of a church because some members already have misguided beliefs, and some have a very small knowledge of doctrine. In the case of the first group, introducing old heresies can encourage more confusion. I have, time and again, seen individuals start to dabble with heresy because they already had misguided beliefs based on their erroneous knowledge of Scripture. In the case of the latter group, introducing theological error--even in the name of "discernment"--can end in filling the minds of God's people with falsehood when they ought to be filling their minds with the truth. Far better to teach them the nuances of the truth of Scripture so that they will be able to discern falsehood when confronted with it. You don't study a counterfeit dollar bill to spot a counterfeit; you study the real dollar currency so that you will be better suited to spot the counterfeit.

Additionally, pastors may inadvertently encourage a hyper-critical spirit among church members. We have all seen churches that are full of theological "heresy-hunters." While I don't like to bandy about that term--since there is a "heresy spotting" and "heresy rejecting" to which all believers are called--the love of seeking out error can be a highly toxic thing. The Divines were certainly warning against these two dangers when they insisted that ministers should be slow to raise an old heresy, or an unnecessary blasphemous opinion, among the members of a church.

In a day when most professing believers would be more than happy to emphasize the first half of the statement about heresy in the Directory, it is important for us to understand the significance of what they say in the latter part. There are three parts to what is said about confuting error in the church. The first is that it is incumbent on the minister(s) of the church to refute error "if the people be in danger of an error." The shepherds are appointed by God to feed the sheep, to go after them when they stray and to guard them against all dangers that threaten to harm them. Certainly, if theological error is creeping into our churches or denominations, we must confute it out of love for, and protection of, the sheep. Years ago, when theological error started creeping into some of our Reformed denominations, prominent voices were insinuating that we have Mormonism, atheism, Islam, paganism, etc. to deal with--attacking Christians from outside the church--and that we should not be squabbling over theological nuances within. While this sounds pious, it actually does not stand the test of what the Apostle Paul demonstrated in Galatia with the Judaizers who were coming into the church stealthily. In fact, it has been said that we wouldn't have a New Testament if it weren't for all the internal theological and moral errors that needed to be refuted.Out of love for God and the truth of the Gospel, as well as for the salvation His people, ministers are called to refute error.

The second thing that the Divines noted was that the minister is "to confute [false doctrine] soundly." There should be an appropriate force with which error is confuted. The intensity of the confutation must fit the doctrinal error being propagated. This takes great wisdom. It is possible for a minister to tackle a theological error that surfaces in the church, but not to do it with the intensity with which it ought to be confuted. If justification by faith alone, the nature of soteriology, the necessity of holiness in the Christian life, the Person and work of Christ, the Trinity, etc. are under attack, the minister must confute these with the strongest intensity and with the most comprehensive treatment. If the error be some thing of lesser significance, it should be confuted with less intensity and perhaps less comprehensiveness.

The third thing that the Divines say is that the minister is to "endeavor to satisfy their [i.e. the congregants] judgments and consciences against all objections." We have all seen or heard of ministers who give the sense that, when they are seeking to refute error, they just want people to agree with their warnings without doing the hard work of studying theological nuances and taking the time to walk their people through the issues involved with care and patience. It will be impossible to satisfy all the judgments and consciences of all involved against all objections; nevertheless, that should be the goal and desire of the minister. This means that ministers should not simply parrot a criticism of a theological error. Too many have heard a respected professor, theologian or pastor raise warnings about a pressing theological danger only to go and parrot what they have heard. When objections fall within the "razor's edge" of the erroneous doctrines, such ministers fail to satisfy the consciences of their hearers against all objections. We must (with prayerful caution) engage with first sources and with specialized volumes that take on the oftentimes highly academic and theologically nuanced errors that arise so that we will be prepared to "endeavor to satisfy their [i.e. the congregants] judgments and consciences against all objections."

One final warning needs to be raised. The minister must guard his own heart and mind from theological error as well. We do this by keeping ourselves in the Scriptures and in the love of God. We do this by putting sin to death in our lives. We do this by crying out to God to keep us from falling. Somehow, many convince themselves that drugs, sexual immorality, etc.--but not reading theological error--will most certainly have a negative effect on them. Ideas have consequences. All theological error originates from the evil one. He is more cunningly skillful than we could ever know at leading people astray through academic and highly nuanced theological error. As is true with every other danger that we face, when we come to study theological error we must remember the words of the Apostle Paul: "Let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall."

1. J. Gresham Machen, "Christianity and Culture," Princeton Theological Review 11 (1913)
I have been generally impressed by the way the brethren have conducted themselves over the past several days at Ref21 in debating vital issues regarding the presence of grace and merit in the covenant of works. I do not offer this post, therefore, as a direct (or indirect) corrective to any of our esteemed bloggers. That said, theological controversy is not something at which contemporary Christians excel. It is therefore appropriate to step back from the specifics of the present debate to reflect a bit more generally upon how we should engage in the inevitable task of controversy in the church. What follows draws largely upon John Webster's fine article, "Theology and the Peace of the Church" (chapter eight in his book, The Domain of the Word).  

Fundamentally, a Christian approach to controversy must locate controversy within a larger framework that is defined by peace--the peace of God and the peace of God's creatures. Though controversy is inevitable in the church that resides east of Eden and short of God's eternal kingdom, and though controversy cannot be avoided by faithful ministers of the gospel, it is vital to remember that controversy does not belong to the metaphysical fabric of things. God is "the God of peace" (Rom 15.33; 16.20; Phil 4.9; Heb 13.20)--both in the eternal repose of his triune bliss and in the external works whereby he creates, governs, redeems, and perfects his creatures. Furthermore, "peace, not conflict, is the condition of creatures in both their original and their final states." We were created in a state of peace. And God's eternal city--our eternal home--bears the name of peace, "Jerusalem."

Contrary to the nihilistic assumptions that drive modern Western culture, we are not by nature locked in a state of perpetual mortal combat--with the world, with other human beings, with God (cf. Gen 3.1-5!), where we must fight if we are to flourish. No. God is the God of peace. Peace is the foundation of our being. And peace will be the fulfillment of our being, as those who belong to the saving dominion of the "Prince of Peace" (Isa 9.6). Conflict does not belong to the metaphysical fabric of the universe. Conflict arises from the entrance of sin into the world (James 3.14-16; 4.1-2). 

At least two implications for Christian controversy follow from this fundamental point. 

First, Christian controversialists are always for something and only when the occasion requires it are they against something: "I am for peace," the psalmist declares, "but when I speak, they are for war" (Psalm 120.7). Thus, according to Webster, "controversy will be fitting"

(1) when it is a work of charity, that is, of love of God and the gospel, and of our neighbours in the church to whom we are bound by common life in Christ; (2) when it is an exercise in common discernment of divine truth, that is, of the object by which we are bound together as it shows itself to us to arouse delight and obedience; and (3) when it arises from and tends toward peace, that is, the tranquil order of the saints whose hearts and minds are kept in the knowledge and love of God and of his Son Jesus Christ.

Second, pursuing peace in the midst of controversy and by means of controversy requires that we become certain types of persons. As Webster observes, certain intellectual virtues are required of us, such as "self-restraint in dominating the minds and consciences of others," "resistance to conceit," "meekness, teachableness, and self-forgetfulness," "appetite for the 'spiritual sweetness' of peace," and "tolerance and calm in the face of legitimate theological diversity in our imperfect state" (1 Cor 13.9). Moreover, certain intellectual vices are to be opposed, such as "ambition and competitiveness, vain glory, censoriousness, the dissolution of intellectual powers by addictive curiosity (all of them chart-toppers among theologians' sins, all of them corrosive to theology's calling to seek peace and pursue it)."

The pursuit of such virtues and the opposition to such vices must not be confused with a quest for quietism in theology. Quite to the contrary, the existence of intellectual and moral falsehood calls for zeal, the "public passion for the truth." Without zeal, "the church drifts into the indifference, weariness or irony of the late career religious professional" (!). But the zeal demanded of us in controversy is Christian zeal, zeal that arises from faith and hope in the God of peace. Webster explains: "Zeal in a world in which God's peaceful judgement is utterly real is a very different undertaking from zeal in a world where evil will not be stopped unless I shout it down."

As Christians, we must engage in controversy. But we must engage in controversy in the name of peace, armed with the virtues supplied by the confidence that, in the end, the God of peace and the peace of God will prevail in Christ Jesus.
The Church seems to be full of controversy.  Much of this is quite necessary, and not unexpected.  After all, as the New Testament continually reminds us, false teachers will continually arise and false teaching always needs to be addressed.  On the other hand, it must be admitted that some controversy is merely self-serving - an exercise in building a personal brand.

Jude, as we've seen, is no stranger to controversy.  In fact, he spends most of his little page-long letter describing what I have called the church-wreckers, those men who snuck (and sneak - they're still doing it today) into the congregation, using the grace of God as a kind of cover for selfishness and unbelief. 

But that is not all Jude describes.  He goes much further, showing not just how the false teachers speak and behave, but how, in response and as a defense, we are to contend for the faith.  It is worth reminding ourselves that this contending for the faith involves action, and it presupposes doctrinal content - that's what the definite article in front of "faith" tells us. There is a body of doctrine that we're to defend, and Jude tells us how to do it.

Continue reading at PlaceforTruth.org

Text Link - http://www.placefortruth.org/placefortruth/god-and-controversy

Concerning current controversy

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As the brouhaha concerning antinomianism continues to develop, with fallout in various spheres, it is sad to see the vagueness, brutality and confusion that seems to spring up in its wake, more or less prevalent and evident depending on the medium employed.

Vagueness, because lots of people seem to have something to say (or to think that they do), but not all of them are making plain that they are saying it. Twitter lends itself to this portentous cloudiness, in which momentous 140 character statements having to do with law and grace, with righteous dealing and integrity, and so on and so forth, roll off a thousand keyboards and screens. Taking into account the limitations of that medium, surely the ideal is a clear and direct communication? Whatever platform is employed, it would do us well to make plain what and who we are dealing with. If there are issues to engage or charges to be made, it is helpful to all to make clear that we are speaking of certain men and situations. Anything else seems a little churlish and quite unhelpful. Internet debate is a nonesuch for distractions and ephemerality, for making mountains of molehills and molehills of mountains. If there is nothing to be said, at least by us, then let us hold our tongues. If there is something to be said, let it be said pointedly and plainly, for the sake of us all, so that we can know what is going on and why.

Brutality, because the relish with which some Christians take up their verbal weapons and charge into such conflicts is always tragic. In a fallen world, such controversy is a necessary evil, never a gleeful melée. This kind of public dispute takes place when the honour of God demands it, and I have had no qualms about raising the issue myself in electronic and physical print, because I think what I described as incipient antinomianism, now sadly breaking out more substantially, is a matter of real and weighty concern. At the same time, we must guard against a vicious spirit which all too easily rises to the surface in the heat of battle. Our words must cut, but they need not rip. Cruel humour, sullen indictment, snide criticism, aggressive speech, wild accusation, imputed evil, and glee over those who stumble or fall ought to have no place in these engagements. Indeed, because of how easily we go astray here, and remembering that we cannot hear the tone of voice in which men write, we ought to pursue a scrupulous graciousness in such matters, so that while people might disagree violently with what we say, they might not be able to argue with the way in which we say it. As in so much, we must strive to ensure that the disagreements are a matter of substance and not of style. Edged weapons are necessary; barbed weapons should be laid aside. Our aim must be to win men, not to destroy them. Let those who are saints engage as such.

Confusion, because the key issues seem so easily to be lost sight of. I appreciate that the key issues are broad issues, overarching concerns. Given the nature of this beast, I trust that we will not lose sight of the wood for the trees. So, there is continued and often proper concern for relational integrity, justice and fairness, reasonable openness, holy speech, and so on. But the great issue is not - and should not be made to be - which man is rising or falling, whether or not this public statement or that ought to have been made, who is aligning with whom, or anything else of this order. These are largely incidental matters. This is not and must not become a matter of mere personalities. I trust that I am not adding to the problem by suggesting that what is at stake here is the distinctive holiness of God's people, its form and substance, its grounds and pattern, its establishment and progress. If the Lord has commanded us that "as He who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, because it is written, 'Be holy, for I am holy'" (1Pt 1:15-16) then our great concern should be to reflect and cultivate that holiness without which no man shall see the Lord. What is this holiness? What does it look like? On what basis is it pursued? By what means shall we pursue it? Holiness is to adorn the church of Christ for God's glory and for our good, and we must not let this get clouded, or have our attention drawn away from what is at stake, or compromise this holiness in our defence of it. You might think my martial language is overblown, but - make no mistake - there is something of vital moment at stake, and it will be clear before long, if it is not already, that this is indeed a battle, and a battle for the very definition and reality of godliness.

So, for what it is worth, let us please cultivate clarity and charity as we engage. If engagements fought long ago on this matter are anything to go by, this is just the beginning, and there will be tragedies before the dust settles. If nothing else, let us be determined that we shall honour Christ in the ways, means and ends we embrace. I know that all sides will say that, but the tree will be known by its fruit. I am utterly persuaded of the rightness of this cause, but it would be a sad thing to win the day and yet to see the banner of truth sullied by the way in which and the people by whom it has been carried into the battles that must be fought.