Archive for the 'Theology' Category

05
Jun
12

stellman, roman catholicism, and reformed inadequacies

Jason Stellman, a fairly prominent American Reformed Presbyterian has resigned his position and the signs are he is river crossing to the Roman Catholic Church.  Why?

Well, no doubt the ‘why’ is multifaceted. There are, however, two reasons that loom large involving both the formal and material principles of the Reformation (sola scriptura and sola fide).

Stellman has clearly become increasingly disaffected by some Presbyterian teaching on justification that he had personally and enthusiastically defended   – a definition of justification that distanced it from godly living.  The flaws in his definition evidently  became too big to ignore – the theological gap between justification by faith and justification by works became just too wide in the face of Scripture creating cognitive dissonance. Sola fide must have a place for works.

Furthermore, high churchman that he is, Stellman increasingly struggled with sola scriptura (the Bible as ultimate authority) perhaps fueled by the way the Bible is given a wax nose by modern evangelicals, reformed and otherwise, that seems to mean it is not an authority to which one can turn for certainty; Stellman hopes to find this authority and certainty in the church of Rome (in tradition and presumably papal infallibility).  I hope, I am representing him fairly, if perhaps a little too simply.

My aim is not to critique Jason Stellman’s decision but to remark briefly on these two reasons for swimming Romewards, whether by Stellman or others.

soteriological weakness – an inadequate shaping of justification and sola fide

There is a quasi-lutheran view of justification currently popular in some Presbyterian Reformed enclaves in the States (in particular) that virtually cuts the umbilical cord between justification and sanctification.  Justification implies, for some, no moral imperative.  Indeed, any talk of self-effort is ridiculed as pietistic, legalistic or Romish; Jesus has done everything, including keeping the law for us and therefore talk of aspiring to holiness is simply humbug and a denial of grace.  Of course, this flies in the face of Scripture.  It is little wonder that some who subscribe to this deeply circumscribed view of justification eventually find the biblical evidence to hard to ignore and perhaps end up over-reacting.

Justification, properly understood, is not as in Presbyterian theology, Jesus’ imputed life and death: his death for our sins (passive righteousness) clearing our guilt augmented by his life of law-keeping (active righteousness) giving us a positive law-keeping righteousness.   The whole structure here is flawed.  Justification is not based on Jesus life and death but on his death and life, that is his resurrection life.

Justification involves me in his death.  In his death I die. I die for the only possible end for a sinner is death.  The soul that sins must die and this admits of no exceptions.  Thus I and my sins were nailed to the cross.  The penalty was enacted and God’s justice satisfied. The debt was paid in full.  My history as a man in Adam came to an end.

But justification does not end here.  Christ could not stay in death.  It would be unrighteous of God to leave in death someone who had glorified him in life and death as Jesus had.  God must vindicate Jesus.  He must declare him righteous, hence resurrection.  In resurrection, Christ is vindicated as righteous.  Men said he was unrighteous and deserved to die but God said he is righteous and must live, as must all who are united to him by faith.

I (we who believe) share in this resurrection verdict and standing, the righteous verdict of the Father.  I am raised with Christ and have a new life,  resurrection life.  Justification is ‘unto life’ (Roms 5:18).  Christ was raised ‘for our justification’ (Roms 4:25).  Thus justification is inextricably linked with a new life and new lifestyle.  We must never separate justification from life and righteous living.  Godly living, living in the resurrection life of Christ, is always the vindication of justification.  Justification is to a life no longer ruled by sin, Satan, the world, law and death, a justified life.

The tendency in some modern Reformed circles to make an absolute disjunction between justification and sanctification puts an intolerable strain on reading Scripture with integrity.  It is impossible to read Scripture and pooh-pooh aspirations after godliness as legalistic and an attack on justification.  Any honest believer cannot help but reckon with James’s assertion that a person is in some sense ‘justified by works’.  Our works affirm and approve our justification, they attest to it and to God’s righteous judgement.  Justifying faith produces justifying works, works that are the proof of life and bring reward on the day of judgement.

Skewed and imbalanced theologies of justification may create reactions that lead to Rome.  They seem to have done so with Stellman.

ecclesiological weakness – an inadequate shaping of authority and sola scriptura

Stellman asks the age-old question – where does authority lie, in Scripture or the church?  The allied question is which comes first the Word or the church?

The answer to the second should be easy – the Word comes first.  The Word always comes first for it is by his Word God creates all things.  Not only does creation come by the Word but new creation comes by the Word.  We are born ‘by the word of truth’ (Jn 1:18).  The church is the product of the word and not vice versa.

However, the question still remains, who declares what this word is?  Who has authority to declare and delineate truth?  Although in one sense the Word or Truth is self-authenticating and has its own authority in another sense we can quite happily say the church declares and delineates the Word.  The church is the repository of the truth.  But which church?  The apostolic church.  The NT church.  It was the apostles and prophets (instructed by the risen Christ through the Spirit) who were entrusted with declaring and defining the Word.  They laid the foundations – namely Jesus Christ.  Thus, when I look to the church for truth I look to them.  John affirms concerning his witness and that of the other apostles,

1John 4:6 (ESV)
We are from God. Whoever knows God listens to us; whoever is not from God does not listen to us. By this we know the Spirit of truth and the spirit of error. 

The apostles taught and revealed, ‘that which was from the beginning’ and all who had the indwelling the Spirit of truth listened to them.  Thus I find in Scripture, the only apostolic and so divinely authoritative word we have.  I listen to John… and Peter… and Paul…. and Matthew… and James… and whatever aligns with them I accept as the spirit of truth and whatever contradicts them I reject as the spirit of error.

How am I, a mere ordinary believer competent to so discern?  Don’t I need a guide, an interpreter?  Indeed I do.  I am instructed by the Spirit of truth who indwells and teaches.

1John 2:20-27 (ESV)
But you have been anointed by the Holy One, and you all have knowledge. I write to you, not because you do not know the truth, but because you know it, and because no lie is of the truth… Let what you heard from the beginning abide in you. If what you heard from the beginning abides in you, then you too will abide in the Son and in the Father. And this is the promise that he made to us-eternal life.  I write these things to you about those who are trying to deceive you. But the anointing that you received from him abides in you, and you have no need that anyone should teach you. But as his anointing teaches you about everything, and is true, and is no lie-just as it has taught you, abide in him. 

Stellman longs for certainty.  The only certainty lies in the apostolic word understood and interpreted by the indwelling Spirit.  The only message that has weight and divine imprimatur is ‘that which is from the beginning’.

In the great house of professing Christianity there is confusion and darkness mingled with that which is holy.  We should not be surprised at the chaos and that many who claim to follow Christ make a wax nose of Scripture and the apostolic teaching – such, after all,  was predicted by the Lord and his apostles (Matt 24:11; Acts 20:29; 2 Pet 2:1).  False prophets/teachers abound and deceive.   However, the way forward is not Rome, a church whose teaching cannot stand before the test of the apostolic word.  The answer is much more mundane and not terribly attractive or grandiose.  It is found in the instruction of the apostle Paul as he anticipates the apostasy of the visible church

2Tim 2:20-22 (ESV)
Now in a great house there are not only vessels of gold and silver but also of wood and clay, some for honorable use, some for dishonorable. Therefore, if anyone cleanses himself from what is dishonourable, he will be a vessel for honourable use, set apart as holy, useful to the master of the house, ready for every good work.  So flee youthful passions and pursue righteousness, faith, love, and peace, along with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart.

The way forward is to separate oneself from all that is evidently doctrinally and morally corrupt and fellowship with small groups of like-minded believers who ‘call upon the Lord from a pure heart”.  In the context of false teachers and churches which have corrupted the gospel Paul says,

2Tim 2:19 (ESV)
But God’s firm foundation stands, bearing this seal: “The Lord knows those who are his,” and, “Let everyone who names the name of the Lord depart from iniquity.” 

God knows who is real and who is unreal.  We cannot pontificate on this.  Our responsibility is to keep ourselves distant from all iniquity whether of belief or behaviour and leave the question of whether those who embrace it are truly Christian to the Lord.

Stellman hopes to find in the Roman Church what belongs only to the early church (apostolic certainty).  He has not grasped that the ruin he finds in secession runs through Rome too.  Stellman, high churchman that he is, is making the tragic mistake of seeking certainty in an institution and in a structure rather than in the Spirit.  He is confusing a human organisation with a spiritual organism and is doomed to disappointment as he substitutes a defective view of justification for one which is more defective and seeks divine authority where it does not reside.

In the age of the Spirit, the Spirit is Christ’s vicar on earth (Jn 14:16).  He led the apostles into truth (Jn 14:16).  When believers hear the true Spirit-breathed apostolic word expounded the indwelling Spirit authorises it to their hearts and minds and ecclesia fellowship in the Spirit ensues (we are, after all, a spiritual temple or house offering up spiritual sacrifices).  We may fully trust the Spirit.  When we don’t, like Stellman we look for certainty elsewhere whether it be, like him, the Westminster Confession of Faith or the Roman Magisterium.

22
Mar
12

philosophy and christian faith

It was the Church Father Tertullian who famously asked, ‘What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?’  He meant that human philosophy has nothing in common with the revealed faith of Christianity.  In this he merely echoed the sentiments of the apostle Paul some 150 years previously.

The Colossian church was plagued by a heresy that was a hydran mixture of philosophy (human wisdom) mysticism (human spirituality) and Judaism (human religiosity).  Paul writes to the church to attack this hydra’s three malevolent heads.  The first of these is philosophy.  Paul is adamant that human philosophy has no place in Christian faith.

Col 2:8-10 (ESV)
See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ. For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, and you have been filled in him, who is the head of all rule and authority.

This is the only direct reference to philosophy in Scripture and it is hardly positive.  Elsewhere Paul speaks pejoratively of the ‘wisdom of this world’ which presumably includes philosophy, especially as the wisdom he refers to is specifically Greek.

I find it strange that some commentators (by no means all) claim that Paul’s disparaging of ‘philosophy’ has no reference to Greek philosophy or philosophy generally, but merely to ideas current in C1 cults and mystery religions.   It may well be to these cults that Paul refers (though this is by no means certain), however, even if this is so, the ideas current in these cults were simply drawn from the wider philosophical milieu.  The theosophic (gnostic) speculation Paul denounces, that matter was intrinsically evil and therefore the body should be denied in aspiring to spiritual enlightenment,  has a clear straight line to the major Greek platonic philosophies that denigrated the material world associating it with lesser gods or demiurge.  Paul pulls the feet from this Hellenistic dualism when he says of Christ, ‘in him dwelt the fulness of the Godhead bodily‘; incarnation makes a mockery of platonic wisdom.

We should not doubt that Scripture does not look on human philosophies benignly.  They are part of the world that crucified Christ.  Pilate’s plaque above the cross was in Greek, as well as Latin and Aramaic; the cross is the moral measure of human wisdom.  Had the rulers of this world  true wisdom they would not have crucified the Lord of glory (1 Cor 2:8).   God, in the cross, destroyed the wisdom of the wise (1 Cor 1:19).  He exposed it for the empty vain thing it is.  The Lord knows that the wisdom of the wise is futile (1 Cor 3:20). He revealed too its intrinsic animosity to himself since it indicts God’s wisdom in the cross as foolishness (1 Cor 1:22,23).  Human learning (in itself a good thing) is corrupt because it is the product of  a world hostile to God and blinded by the god of this world; can a bad tree produce good fruit?  Human wisdom springs from death and can only produce death; it arises from darkness and can only result in darkness.  It is little different from false religion.  It has no route to God and sheds no light on God.

Nowhere is the mind independent of God more obvious than in philosophical pursuit.  Philosophy is the pursuit of understanding (wisdom) apart from divine revelation.  The venture is from the outset rebellious folly destined to fail.  It assumes the capability of autonomous reason to arrive at truth and does not submit to God’s truth.   It is intellectual hubris.  Little wonder Paul associates philosophy with ‘vain deceit’.

And it is vain in both senses of the word (futile and self-regarding).  Ancient Greece with its extolling of human reason is considered the cradle of civilization.   The humanism that tells us ‘man is the centre of all things’  finds its philosophical roots there.  In human reason the ascent of man was believed to lie.  Philosophy and learning was and is considered refining and elevating.  Philosophy, it was claimed, enabled one to rise above the moral degeneracy of the age.  The trouble is the philosophers themselves all too often gave the lie to this.  They judged the morality of others yet did the same things themselves (Roms 2:1).  Moreover the philosophical assumption that matter was evil produced all kinds of lascivious behaviour.  Education makes clever people, not good people, and certainly not holy people.

Paul is clear, the only wisdom that elevates the human spirit above itself and empowers for godliness is the risen reigning Christ.  In him are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge (not in philosophy).  We are elevated and enriched when we set our minds on things above where Christ is (Col 3:1,2).  Neither Pythagoras,  Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Nietzsche, Hume, Voltaire, Camus, nor whoever, is the wisdom of God: Christ alone is the wisdom of God.  None of these add a whit to him nor to what believers have in him: we are complete in Christ.  Philosophy does not commend, compliment or complete Christ; it corrupts Christ.  It flows from a different stream altogether.

This truth, however, is not  universally recognised.  Over the centuries Christians have argued whether philosophy and the Christian faith were friends or enemies.  Some like Tertullian rightly saw it as an enemy, others, like Augustine of Hippo, as a friend.  Where philosophy was treated as a friend syncretism and confusion  soon followed (Augustine tried to synthesize Greek and Hebrew thought). Why not make the scandal of the cross more agreeable to  the wise and great?  Why not engraft to the Galilean faith the common sense of Aristotle or the wisdom of Plato?  The Middle Ages show what a disaster such a venture was. Soon philosophy buried the gospel; human reasoning and biblical faith have nothing in common around which to unite so one must occlude the other.  Philosophy caters to human pride while the message of the cross crushes it.  Faith repudiates philosophy, not only as a rival but as an ally; it rests only on God’s Word; it accepts that Word as absolute and exclusive.  Yet today, our universities again side with Augustine and indeed go further.  Theology and philosophy are often the same faculty.  The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy writes in 2002,

In the last forty years, however, philosophers of religion have returned to the business of theorizing about many of the traditional doctrines of Christianity and have begun to apply the tools of contemporary philosophy in ways that are somewhat more eclectic than what was envisioned under the Augustinian or Thomistic models. In keeping with the recent academic trend, contemporary philosophers of religion have been unwilling to maintain hard and fast distinctions between the two disciplines. As a result, it is often difficult in reading recent work to distinguish what the philosophers are doing from what the theologians (and philosophers) of past centuries regarded as strictly within the theological domain. Indeed, philosophers and theologians alike are now coming to use the term “analytic theology” to refer to theological work that aims to explore and unpack theological doctrines in a way that draws on the resources, methods, and relevant literature of contemporary analytic philosophy. The use of this term reflects the heretofore largely unacknowledged reality that the sort of work now being done under the label “philosophical theology” is as much theology as it is philosophical.

This is profoundly worrying for the future.  It means all Christian theology is approached from a humanistic perspective and not as divine revelation; Athens has captured Jerusalem.  What kind of theological training will our best evangelical minds receive in our universities?  How far will evangelical colleges and seminaries eager for academic recognition and accreditation capitulate to this paradigm?  Does Evangelical theology (a theology submissive to revelation) have a future? I fear the collapse of faith will be profound. (See comment by John Frame here.)

Alongside this marriage, aiding and abetting, is the popular evangelical slogan that ‘all truth is God’s truth’.  Its roots are Augustinian though it was popularised in a book of the same title by Christian philosopher Arthur F Holmes.  As someone wrote of Holmes,

Throughout his writings and career, Holmes emphasized that, indeed, “all truth is God’s truth.” His desire was for Christians to not shy away from the difficult questions that may arise from whatever subject of academic study they choose. With a firm belief that any truth they find can be reconciled with their faith, Holmes challenged educators and Christians in academia to grapple with what they are interested in, noting that a strong faith can handle some turbulence while coming to a better understanding of God’s creation.’

However, Holmes’ statement, while from a philosophical perspective true is from a biblical perspective untrue.  It is untrue for its definition of truth is not biblical.  We should be clear that Scripture views truth as EXCLUSIVELY special revelation. God’s Word alone is truth.  Indeed, Christ alone is the truth.  He is not part of the truth but the whole.  There is no truth missing in Christ that needs supplemented by philosophy.

Further, truth, biblically considered, is unitary.  It is a whole.  Truth is either ‘truth’ or ‘the truth’, it is never ‘a truth’.  It is a revelation of things as they really are and as they are in relation to each other.  Thus Christ reveals God as he really is.  He reveals humanity as it really is (humanity’s true state is exposed at the cross).   But Scripture never calls the wisdom of the world ‘truth’, far less ‘the truth’.  Rather the wisdom of the world (whatever it may be) and the wisdom of God always stand in opposition.    In fact, the world is opposed to truth in its biblical sense.  In hatred, it crucified the one who spoke truth and was the embodiment of truth.  Jesus said,

John 8:42-47 (ESV)
Jesus said to them, “If God were your Father, you would love me, for I came from God and I am here. I came not of my own accord, but he sent me. Why do you not understand what I say? It is because you cannot bear to hear my word. You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, and has nothing to do with the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks out of his own character, for he is a liar and the father of lies. But because I tell the truth, you do not believe me. Which one of you convicts me of sin? If I tell the truth, why do you not believe me? Whoever is of God hears the words of God. The reason why you do not hear them is that you are not of God.” 

The whole world lies in the evil one who is the father of lies; it loves lies and hates the truth.  It will not come to the light because its deeds are evil (Jn 3:19).  It cannot receive the Spirit because he is the ‘Spirit of truth’ (Jn 14:17).  Truth in Scripture is ever a spiritual reality, revealed to spiritual people by the Spirit.

1Cor 2:2-14 (ESV)
For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.  Yet among the mature we do impart wisdom, although it is not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are doomed to pass away. But we impart a secret and hidden wisdom of God, which God decreed before the ages for our glory. None of the rulers of this age understood this, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. But, as it is written, “What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined, what God has prepared for those who love him”- these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit. For the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God. For who knows a person’s thoughts except the spirit of that person, which is in him? So also no one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God. And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual.  The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.

It is blasphemy to suggest that those who hate the truth can complete the truth that God himself declares He has already revealed in its completion in Christ through his Spirit.   The natural man receives not the things of God.  Only he that is of God hears God’s words (John 8:47). Philosophy and human learning give no spiritual insight, they cannot, they are ‘of the world not the Father’.  Mere factual knowledge that is true is not truth in any biblical sense of the word.  Holmes, in his bid to marry philosophy and faith deferred to a philosophical definition of truth rather than a biblical one.  This is a parable in itself; when united, philosophy will always trump revelation.

I understand why Holmes argued as he did.  He wished to make it easier for Christians to engage positively in the various disciplines of learning.  However, by adopting this ‘philosophical’ definition of truth (opposed to the revelatory definition) he fostered (unwittingly) an engagement with learning which is not nearly critical and suspicious enough.  I am by no means suggesting that Christians must not engage in the learning process or that they ought not study philosophy (see here for helpful advice for those who do).  Daniel was skilled in all the learning of Babylon. Paul was clearly well-educated.  Providentially, God in his goodness has allowed knowledge to flourish.  Developing human knowledge was always part of his creational intent (Prov 25:2). Thankfully, conscience prevents human reasoning and thinking degenerating as far as it may otherwise do (although fallen reason is always trying to neutralise conscience).     Human learning is valuable in many ways but only when we know its limits and its nature.  I am not suggesting that we despise knowledge.

What I am suggesting is that we must engage in education convinced of a clear divide between human learning and biblical truth.  We ought not to attempt to marry the two or blur distinctions. Nor should we consider human learning innocuous and value-free.  Its source insists otherwise.  We should approach it with our antennae well-attuned.  We should never be enthralled by it, beguiled by it, or in love with it; a critical mind and vigilance is vital. Christ, not human learning, is the object of the Christian’s love and captivation.  Christ, who is foolishness to the world, for the believer is the truth that elevates, frees, feeds, matures and thralls.

If our faith is philosophically-focussed rather than Christ-focussed we are losing touch with the head.  I have known a number of people who love Christian philosophy and apologetics  They enjoy debate, reflection, reasoning, and speculation.  They love Augustine or Thomas or Kierkegaard or Tillich or Lewis or Ellul or Schaeffer but sometimes it’s not clear they love Christ and what Paul calls ‘the truth as it is in Jesus’ (Eph 4:21).  Philosophy is not Christ and to love abstractions is not to love Christ; Christ is a person seated in heaven on whom the eyes of faith are fixed.

In conclusion, philosophically (wisdom-perspective-wise) our world aind its learnng is opposed to God and cannot be otherwise.  If anyone  thinks that he is wise in this age, let him become a fool that he may become wise.  Our faith is at every point an affront to human wisdom, is spiritually independent of it, and complete in Christ without it.   Philosophy belongs to the world not Christ.  Let Paul’s words, quoted at the commencement of this post, be the final word.

Col 2:8 (ESV)
See to it that no one takes you captive [kidnaps you] by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ.

22
Dec
11

can calvinists and arminians church together?

Well, the short answer is that in the church to which I belong both have for many years.   Some in the church, if labelled, would be ‘moderate Calvinists’ and others ‘moderate Arminians’.  I suspect both are ‘moderate’ because the influence of the other has protected from extremes.  This does not mean there are no discussions  and exploring of differences, there are, sometimes ‘ardently’.  But we have never lost respect for each other and  differences have never surfaced in any aggravated way publicly.  We disagree, agreeably. Why is this?

I think a number of factors contribute to the Spirit enabling unity in the face of potentially divisive issues of faith.

recognising that unity of the faith is a goal and not a given in any church

A church is a body of believers who are united in the Spirit by belief in a common gospel.  Paul calls all believers to be eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace (Eph 4:1).  Unity of life in the Spirit is the basis of all fellowship among God’s people.  It is the starting point.  Believers may be immature and muddle-headed about many things but through belief of the gospel they are one in Christ.  From this starting point a goal lies ahead – what Paul calls, ‘the unity of the faith’ (Eph 4:13).  This is an unity we are to ‘maintain’ (as with the Spirit) but a unity we should seek to ‘attain’ or ‘reach’ (4:13); the unity of life in the Spirit from which we start has as its goal a maturing in the ‘unity of the faith’ and as Paul says,

Eph 4:13-16 (ESV)
… of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love. 

In other words, church allows for growth in understanding, wisdom and holiness.  It doesn’t insist we display this maturity right away.  It doesn’t demand we all think the same from the word go.  It doesn’t require signing up to a full blown theology as a basis for membership.  It allows that it may take many years, in fact, a lifetime, for the kind of maturing that is its goal.  One reason I am uncomfortable with Confessions of Faith is that they seem to demand ‘unity of faith’ as a starting point rather than an end point; a body of divinity to which one may hope new believers eventually arrive becomes a binding force on their conscience  from the beginning.   This allows little room for growth and development.  One must accept the whole system fairly early on or be out in the cold.  Worse, inevitably a confession, every confession, any confession, even a good confession, is narrower and more circumscribed than Scripture.  Its very purpose is to remove ambiguities, delimit and proscribe.

Thus, it is difficult if not impossible for a believer whose understanding is of an Arminian bent to accept the authority of a Calvinistic confession, and vice versa, though both will happily accept the authority of Scripture.   Believers, united by the same Spirit, members of the same body, find it impossible to share church fellowship because confessions insist on beliefs in certain areas that belong at best to a mature ‘unity of faith’ and even then involve tensions.  We should, in my view, trust the Holy Spirit through the teaching of the Word to guide the church into spiritual maturity in belief and behaviour.  After all, if the Lord does not build the house, then who can?

loathing stereotypical labels

I hate labels.  Labels divide.  Labels segregate.   Labels are all too often partisan and destructive.  Their purpose is generally to vilify or glorify and rarely to enlighten.  In fact they cannot enlighten.  They are inevitably caricatures.  They take rounded people and make of them flat and wooden images.   Labels do not define people, they diminish them and distort them.  And people’s views, if guided by Scripture, do not neatly fit into pre-packaged theologies, for the truth of Scripture is inevitably bigger than our systems and labels.  Labels impose and imply a theology, and even if it is a generally good theology it is inevitably a theology that demands more sophistication than is the basis for gospel unity in the Spirit.  Labels mean a theology that leaves other believers out in the cold; they create fences not fellowship.

The more we resist taking and giving labels then the easier it will be for ‘Calvinist’ and ‘Arminian’ to live together as fellow members of the body of Christ.

displaying some theological grace

Now I am aware in our postmodern age ‘theological grace’ can be abused.  Some want certainty where the Bible is silent and uncertainty where it clearly speaks.  I do not support this.  There are many areas where we must be firm and say ‘thus says the Lord’.  I am not by any means advocating a trampoline theology that can bounce in every direction that we please.  There is a faith ‘once and for all delivered to the saints’.  Having said this we must remember the firm words of Paul,

1Cor 8:2-3 (ESV)
If anyone imagines that he knows something, he does not yet know as he ought to know. But if anyone loves God, he is known by God. 

We should all remember that our knowledge is limited.  And nowhere more so than before the inscrutability of God’s sovereignty working in and through the history of the world.  At the end of the day, each view must confess there are mysteries in this topic that none can answer.  This is because we are humans and not divine, men and not God.  It is our privilege to go as far as God reveals and no further.  We must leave some issues with God.  We must, in the final analysis, allow God to be God and simply trust where understanding is withheld (Roms 9:19-22; Job 38-42).  Humility about our understanding, especially here, is all too appropriate.

We should remember too that while knowledge is important, it is not all-important.  In fact, knowledge is not the truest criterion of Christian maturity of relationship with God, love is.  Knowledge that does not act in love simply ‘puffs up’ and is conceited.  Love is never conceited.  The knowledge that is mingled with love will not insist on its way.  It will not expect others to understand things exactly as we do, to cross our particular ‘t’s and dot our ‘i’s.  Love will bear with slow apprehension, even the misapprehension, of others.  It will welcome those that Christ has welcomed but not for the sake of an argument.  It will not despise the other who holds some of the recognised tensions of Scripture differently.  It will not judge, but leave all judgement to the Lord.  It will not seek to quarrel and debate over matters that are not clear-cut and not of the essence of the gospel (Roms 14).  It will not force its will and opinion but wait upon the Lord.  Truth exists to promote love not destroy it and where truth is used to bash believers we must ask whether what we are pressing is truth and certainly whether it is ‘spoken in love’.

speaking with grace and seasoned with salt

Much aggro can be avoided just by a little grace in how we say things.  Too many who wave a flag for one or other of these positions (Calvinist or Arminian) insist in force feeding them on others.  They use confrontationary and extreme terms to make their point.  They push debate to philosophical and logical conclusions that stretch Scripture and sometimes go beyond it.  They leave their opponent (that brother for whom Christ died) with no wriggle room for individual conscience.  We must distinguish between persuasion and coercion, between verbal appeal and verbal brow-beating.  We should work at presenting our views in ways that are honest but as palatable as possible.  We should judge how able our audience is to ‘hear’ and ‘receive’ what we wish to say.  We should aim to give as little offence as possible without compromising truth. Belligerent and bellicose Arminians and Calvinists do not defend truth they betray it.

listening with love

Do we listen with love and forbearance?  Do we make allowances for infelicities of language?  Do we make allowances for different presuppositions?  When my Calvinist/Arminian brother expresses a prayer in a way that doesn’t quite gel with my theology do I make allowances and simply mentally transpose where necessary?  Do I focus on the 95% that we share in common and refuse to get out of perspective the 5%  on which we differ?   Christian love and forbearance can cover a multitude of sins.  The reality is, when we do listen respectfully to each other and avoid unnecessary abrasion then we even begin to move towards each other.  Love and respect win over those who differ from us, often much more effectively than the force of argument.

recognising scripture’s differing perspectives

A great deal of the heat is taken out of the controversy when we recognise that Scripture works with two perspectives that need to be held in tandem and tension.  Some NT writers focus on God and his grace while others focus on man and his faith.  Now these are never presented in opposition.  Nor is one ever stressed to the exclusion of the other, however, in any one book, one position is normally principal and the other subordinate.  For example, in a books like Romans and Ephesians,  God’s grace and initiative in salvation is primary while faith though important is secondary.  In other books, such as Hebrews and the Catholic epistles,  the imperative of faith is primary and the grace of God is subordinate.

The issue is not the relative importance of each.  Nor is the issue (as some suggest) that some NT writers have Calvinistic leanings and others Arminian. What is written, is written by the Spirit of God and is unified truth.  It has dimensions and perspectives but no contradictions.  No, the differing perspective  or emphasis is due not to different theologies but to different pastoral concerns.  The pastoral purpose determines the theological perspective.  If, as in Romans, the pastoral purpose is the proclamation that God’s promised salvation has broken into the world uniting Jew and gentile in Christ then the emphasis will be on God’s initiative in grace.  Faith will be there and vital, but it will be subordinate to God’s activity in grace.  If, however, the pastoral issue is a potential failure in faith then the stress will be on the human need to persevere in faith drawing from all the grace of God in the gospel to do so.  In each case, to repeat, the pastoral problem determines the theological perspective.

It is always thus in Scripture.  Where the issue is the trustworthiness of God then God and his grace is to the fore.  Where the issue is the responsibility of man then man and his faith is centre stage.  The object determines the subject.

Now, I am not naive enough to think that recognising these differing perspectives eliminates every difficulty and brings immediate harmony between Calvinist and Arminian, far from it.  However, I do think it helps to ease many of the tensions.  Indeed, it seems to me, that if we recognise these two perspectives and give them full credit then many of the more contentious issues disappear.  The differences that remain belong more to the realms of systems and logic where we ought in humility and grace bear with each other.

In my view, if we work with these dual perspectives and live with the above principles of Christian love and forbearing we shall discover that our opponents (Calvinist or Arminian) miraculously morph from a demon with red glowing horns into my brother or sister in Christ, believers like us who by grace are being transformed into the image of Christ, fellow pilgrims to and fellow citizens of the Kingdom of  God.

Wouldn’t it be marvellous if this Christmas the ‘peace among men’ which the angels announced knew part of its realization in Calvinist and Arminian brothers and sisters in Christ sharing together the joy of church fellowship celebrating the birth of their common Saviour and Lord.

17
Oct
11

we are not simultaneously sinners and saints (2)

In the previous post on this topic, I endeavoured to demonstrate that the NT regularly presents believers as ‘saints’ and not ‘sinners'; who we are ‘in Christ’ and not what we were ‘in Adam’ is pressed as the way believers should think of themselves.  Sometimes this raises the protest, ‘but does not Paul speak of himself as a ‘sinner’ in 1 Timothy?’

The passage referred to is the following:

1Tim 1:12-17 (ESV)
I thank him who has given me strength, Christ Jesus our Lord, because he judged me faithful, appointing me to his service, though formerly I was a blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost. But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life. To the King of ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.

At a cursory glance, this text appears to be Paul referring to himself, a believer, as a sinner.  After all, he uses a present tense (‘of whom I am chief’).  Now let me say, if Paul does describe himself, a believer, as a ‘sinner’,  I do not think this undermines the central thesis that Christians are saints not sinners and should view themselves as such.   We should look at the rule and not the exception to guide our theology.  If we build our thinking on a topic, biblical or otherwise, on the exception and ignore the rule we will soon find ourselves in trouble.

We must ask rather the purpose of the exception.  In this case the ‘exception’ is intended to inspire confidence in unbelievers that God’s grace can extend to them.  If God saved the chief of sinners (Paul) then no-one is beyond the pale of his mercy.  Now, if believers today describe themselves as ‘sinners’ for similar reasons, I doubt if any would object, certainly not I.  This post is not a wooden, blanket objection to Christians referring to themselves as  ‘sinners’.

Yet, the question is begged:  is the ‘exception’ really an exception?  I doubt if it is. In my view, when Paul terms himself ‘the chief of sinners’ he is so doing on the basis of what he was in his pre-conversion days and not his present life in Christ.

The present tense serves to emphasize that in Paul’s mind none has surpassed his wickedness. No-one has overtaken his distinction as the greatest sinner God has saved. He is certainly not saying that he thinks of himself as the chief of sinners on the basis of an assessment of his present Christian life: it is  an assessment based on his past life as a persecutor and blasphemer, a life so opposed to the gospel that it gives hope to all. Paul’s  life as a Christian would be no encouragement to the ungodly that they may find mercy, rather the opposite. Now, he recognises, the Lord judges him faithful, ‘ I thank him who has given me strength, Christ Jesus our Lord, because he judged me faithful…’. No, it is his pre-conversion life that gives hope to every sinner… if Paul acted as he did yet God showed him mercy there surely can be mercy for me. The chief, the most active, the most inveterate of enemies, was the best and most powerful of witnesses that the grace of God abounded over sin, and that the work of Christ was perfect to put it away.

And so the ‘exception’ is not as clear as some believe.

Why is ‘the rule’ important?

It is important, for if we regularly think of ourselves as sinners then we will live as sinners.  If my ‘faith-perspective’ tells me I am a sinner then it inevitably excuses sin; I am a ‘sinner’, that is what I am, therefore I should not be surprised if I sin, or dismayed by it, I am acting according to my nature.  To think of myself as a sinner simply puts me in bondage to sin.  For the word ‘sinner’ describes a state, a nature, or a condition.  The psychology is immensely damaging; give a dog a bad name…

This is why the NT is so vehement that believers are not sinners but saints.  Over and over again, Paul tells believers ‘this is what you once were… here is what you now are’.  He wants us to grasp the perspective of faith that we are God’s ‘holy ones’, his ‘set apart ones’.  We are ‘new creation’.  And his reason is blatant; it is that we live according to who we are.   Take an urchin and put him in a palace as a prince but keep telling him he is really an urchin and he will behave like an urchin for that is how he thinks of himself.  However, put an urchin in a palace as a prince and keep insisting he is a prince and must think and act like a prince and he will do so.   Who we believe we are affects how we think of ourselves and how we behave.  It’s hardly rocket science.

And so, repeatedly, Paul reminds believers of what they have become ‘in Christ’ as the rationale for godly living.  ‘How can you who have died to sin live any longer therein?’ (Roms 6:2). ‘ If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations?’ (Col 2:20). ‘Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old self  with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator.’ (Col 3:9). ‘If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God.’ Col 3:1).

Is Paul asking us to believe a fiction?  Are we simply sinners trying to be saints?  No, a thousand times no.  Paul wants us to grasp that union with a dead, risen and glorified Christ in the Spirit, has made us an utterly new people.  We are no longer ‘in Adam’ but ‘in Christ’.  Our real identity is ‘new creation’.  As God looks at Christ in heaven he sees us too.  Christ glorified is our identity.  As Christ is, we are.  Beyond condemnation. Beyond sin.  Beyond accusation.  Beyond law.  Beyond this world.   And the present reality of this is conveyed to us by the indwelling Holy Spirit (who mediates the presence of Christ).  In his words to his disciples,

John 14:18-20 (ESV)
“I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you. Yet a little while and the world will see me no more, but you will see me. Because I live, you also will live. In that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.

He came in the person of the Spirit, that the life he received in resurrection his followers may receive too (because I live [in resurrection] you also will live).  We share in the resurrection life of the risen Christ.  We share his position and power (Eph 1:15-23).  As he is so are we in this world (1 Jn 4:17)… ‘holy and without blame before God in love’ (Eph 1:4).  Our lives are hid with Christ in God (Col 3:3).  This is our true identity and position and by God’s grace we have all the resources in Christ (everything necessary for life and godliness) to be who we are.; not sinners but saints.

13
Oct
11

an amateur theologian

I’m an amateur theologian.  ‘Theologian’ isn’t the right word, too pretentious, but I can’t think of another at the moment.  Perhaps I should say, I am an amateur student of Scripture.  Or, an amateur searcher of the Word.   Anyway, the word I’m really interested in focussing on in this post is not ‘theologian’ but ‘amateur’.   It’s a word that smacks of inadequacy I guess.  I don’t mind that.  We are all  inadequate before the Word; if we don’t know this then we are in a dangerous place.  It is the Spirit who gives insight in spiritual realities (not the academy); the Spirit reveals spiritual truths to spiritual people (1 Cor 2:13).  If in our conceit we think we think we ‘know’ then we need to remember; ‘if anyone things he knows (thinks he is a professional) he knows nothing as he ought’ (1 Cor 8:1-2).

But the real reason why I am content to be an amateur is that an ‘amateur’ is a ‘lover’.  It is french for ‘lover of’ which in turn is derived from the latin ‘amatorem nom’.  I am happy to be a lover of Scripture.  If I am, I have fellowship with people of faith throughout history.

Ps 119:97-105 (ESV)
​​​​​​​​Oh how I love your law! ​​​​​​​It is my meditation all the day. ​​​ ​​​​​​​​Your commandment makes me wiser than my enemies, ​​​​​​​for it is ever with me. ​​​ ​​​​​​​​I have more understanding than all my teachers, ​​​​​​​for your testimonies are my meditation. ​​​ ​​​​​​​​I understand more than the aged, ​​​​​​​for I keep your precepts. ​​​ ​​​​​​​​I hold back my feet from every evil way, ​​​​​​​in order to keep your word. ​​​ ​​​​​​​​I do not turn aside from your rules, ​​​​​​​for you have taught me. ​​​ ​​​​​​​​How sweet are your words to my taste, ​​​​​​​sweeter than honey to my mouth! ​​​ ​​​​​​​​Through your precepts I get understanding; ​​​​​​​therefore I hate every false way. ​​​ ​​​​​​​​Your word is a lamp to my feet ​​​​​​​and a light to my path. ​​​

We ought never graduate from being,

1Pet 2:2-3 (ESV)
Like newborn infants, [who] long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it [we] may grow up into salvation- if indeed [we] have tasted that the Lord is good. 

To all amateur’s of the Word everywhere, every blessing.  God help us when we become mere professionals in the things of God.

06
Oct
11

we are not simultaneously sinners and saints (1)

One of the things you’ll notice that I keep banging on about in the blog is the need for us to see ourselves, we Christians, as God sees us.  That is, to see ourselves from the perspective of faith (faith is accepting all that God says, including what he says about us).  Christians reason all too often from what they perceive themselves as being to what they are.  They see they sin and thereforeregard themselves as sinners.  This is a mistake.  The Bible does not speak of us as sinners but as saints.

Some are willing to speak of themselves as saints but insist they are still sinners.  They cite Luther’s famous words, ‘simul justus et peccator‘ or ‘simultaneously justified and a sinner’, or, ‘both saint and sinner’.  You can even buy t-shirts with the slogan emblazoned.  Now, if Luther simply meant that although we are saints we still sin then that would be fine.  Perhaps he did.  However, he is not interpreted this way.  We are told that we must view ourselves as ‘sinners’ as well as ‘righteous’.

What is wrong with Christians thinking of themselves as ‘sinners’?  Well, firstly we should note, the Bible never does.  Repeatedly we are referred to as ‘saints’ but never as ‘sinners’.  In fact if we are justified in Christ we are quite explicitly said to be no longer sinners.  Take the following text, for example,

Rom 5:6-10 (ESV)
For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person-though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to  die – but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life.

Do you observe the logic and the contrast involved?  Paul argues from the greater to the lesser in two interconnected ways.  Firstly if God loved us enough to give his Son in death to save us will he not continue to save us in Christ’s life in resurrection?  Secondly, if God loved us enough to save us while we were unloveable, ‘without strength… sinners… enemies’, then will he not love us and continue to save us now that we are no longer ‘without strength… sinners… enemies’?  For this is the clear implication.  Indeed, he clearly states we are no longer enemies (we are reconciled).

When the Bible describes someone as a ‘sinner’ it is describing a state, a condition, a standing, an order of being.  It is a description of humanity outside of Christ.  Words like,  ‘sinners… the unrighteous… enemies… aliens.. lawless… ungodly’ describe people who are not Christians.  They describe what Christians ‘once’ were but are no longer.

Notice in 1 Cor 6 unconverted people are described as ‘the unrighteous’.

1Cor 6:1 (ESV)
When one of you has a grievance against another, does he dare go to law before the unrighteous instead of the saints?

The ‘unrighteous’ like the word ‘sinner’ is a designation for those who are unsaved.  In 1 Tim 1 Paul lists a variety of words to describe people outside of Christ.  These all stand in contradistinction to ‘the just’ by which he means believers. Notice the word ‘sinner’ is included in the list of those outside Christ.

1Tim 1:9-10 (ESV)
understanding this, that the law is not laid down for the just but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane, for those who strike their fathers and mothers, for murderers, the sexually immoral, men who practice homosexuality, enslavers, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to sound doctrine,

Indeed in using the term ‘sinner’ for those who are not part of the people of God he is simply echoing the language of Jesus.  In the Sermon on the Mount, speaking to believers, he says

Luke 6:32-36 (ESV)
“If you love those who love you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who do good to you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. And if you lend to those from whom you expect to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to get back the same amount. But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return, and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, for he is kind to the ungrateful and the evil. Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful. 

For Jesus, ‘the righteous’ and ‘sinners’ are mutually exclusive groups.

Mark 2:17 (ESV)
And when Jesus heard it, he said to them, “… I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.” 

Luke 15:7 (ESV)
Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance. 

I quote these texts without discussing how one becomes ‘righteous’ but simply to observe that in Jesus thinking to be in one category means not being in the other; if one is ‘righteous’ then one is not a ‘sinner’.  Peter, the apostle, quoting the OT book of Proverbs, uses a similar taxonomy.

1Pet 4:18 (ESV)
And ​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​“If the righteous is scarcely saved, ​​​​​​​what will become of the ungodly and the sinner?” ​​​

Clearly, Jesus and the NT writers are using well established categories.  Paul explains how we belong to one of the two categories in Romans 5.

Rom 5:19 (ESV)
For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.

Here the wider framework of ‘sinner’ and ‘righteous’ (or saint) categories is revealed.   Those who belong to Adam are constituted sinners and those who belong to Christ are constituted ‘righteous’.   Do Christians belong to Adam?  Are Christians ‘in Adam’?  The consistent voice of Scripture is that we are no longer ‘in Adam’ but we are ‘in Christ’.  Indeed these are, like ‘sinner’ and ‘righteous’, mutually exclusive families.  Paul uses two parallel expressions that make this point.  One expression he uses is the ‘old man’ and the ‘new man’ (or ‘old self’ and ‘new self’).

Col 3:9-10 (ESV)
Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator.

Eph 4:22-24 (Darby)
namely your having put off according to the former conversation the old man which corrupts itself according to the deceitful lusts; and being renewed in the spirit of your mind; and your having put on the new man, which according to God is created in truthful righteousness and holiness.

Again these are absolute categaories.  A similar absolute category distinction is ‘flesh’ and ‘Spirit’.  ‘Flesh’ is the nature of life in Adam (the old man) and ‘Spirit’ is the nature of life in Christ (the new man).  Again, as with Adam and Christ, we belong to either/or; to be ‘in the Spirit’ means to not be ‘in the flesh’.

Rom 8:9 (ESV)
You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him.

These absolute category distinctions are expressed variously in Scripture.  For example, we either belong to darkness or light.

Eph 5:8-10 (ESV)
for at one time you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light (for the fruit of light is found in all that is good and right and true), and try to discern what is pleasing to the Lord.

We are either in the Kingdom of darkness or the Kingdom of Christ.

Col 1:13 (ESV)
He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son,

We are either dead to God in sins or alive to God in Christ.

Eph 2:1-6 (ESV)
And you were dead in the trespasses and sins… and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ-by grace you have been saved- and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus.

Equally we either are dead to this world or alive in it.

Col 2:20 (ESV)
If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations-

It should be clear by now that the categories are absolute.  We cannot speak of ourselves as simultaneously a sinner and a saint (or righteous)  any more than we can speak of ourselves as simultaneously an enemy and a friend or a hater of God and lover of God or opposed to God and for God or darkness and light.  These are mutually exclusive categories.  Each is the opposite of the other and opposed to the other (Cf. Gal 5:17).  And so, again and again, Scripture emphasises this change of estate. Christians are: in Christ and not in Adam; in the Spirit and not in the flesh; alive and not dead; righteous (a saint) and not a sinner.  This is not a point about which Scripture is unclear, ambivalent or indifferent rather it is crystal clear and forceful: if any man is in Christ he is a new creation, old things have passed away and everything has become new (2 Cor 5).  Language could scarcely be clearer or more insistent.  Luther’s maxim, however popular, is unhelpful and misleading; we are not simultaneously saints and sinners, we are saints and not sinners.

So, why does it matter?

13
Sep
11

luther and law

I have come to understand Luther’s view of Law as law= imperative.  This is  the view promulgated by many online lutherans and indeed by WestCal representatives.  Apparently it was not Luther’s view.  Jono Linebaugh has a very helpful and illuminating post on Tullian Tchividjian’s blog discussing Luther’s view of Law.  Well worth the read.  It seems to expose as myth the view that Luther taught all imperatives are ‘law’.  It can be found here.




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The Cave promotes the Christian Gospel by interacting with Christian faith and practice from a conservative evangelical perspective.

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