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Posts Tagged ‘confessionalism’

Only One Way: Christian Witness in an Age of Inclusion (Review)

May 20, 2019 2 comments

From my recent reading, here is an interesting read:  Only One Way: Christian Witness in an Age of Inclusion.  A collection of seven essays from the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals, specifically from the 2005 Philadelphia Conference on Reformed Theology, the theme of One way covers many Christian teachings, and how Christianity is the One Way:  one among many, one Gospel, one God, one Savior, one Truth, one Way and one People.

As expected from this type of book, the contributions present the different styles and interests of the writers – many well-known and somewhat-known names, with some chapters having more interest (to the reader).  I was familiar with at least the names of most of the scholars, some more well-known such as Al Mohler, D.A. Carson, and J. Ligon Duncan, and other names known from other conference lectures and/or teaching programs available from the Alliance.

I particularly enjoyed the chapters from David F. Wells (One Among Many), Peter Jones (One God), and One Truth (Philip Ryken).  I have previously mentioned Peter Jones from his 2018 PCRT lectures and Ryken in reference to Thomas Boston and a study on the book of Ecclesiastes.  I had not heard or read David Wells before, but found his study on Acts 17 (Paul at Athens and Mars Hill) and post-modernism quite edifying.  Richard D. Phillips’ chapter on One Savior is another good one, which points out that one Savior is indeed sufficient, just as water from only one spring to a man dying of thirst and only one blood-marrow donor match to a man dying of cancer, are sufficient.

Post-modernism, especially the emerging church, was a big online discussion topic back in the mid-2000s, more so than now, and familiarity with the issues of that time provides greater appreciation of some things mentioned in these chapters.  When David Wells noted that “Some evangelicals have tried to see in Luke’s account [Paul in Athens, Acts 17] an example of how Paul was able to exploit the culture for the sake of the gospel. What they mean is that he was able to capitalize on their cultural habits in order to ‘sell’ the gospel,” we can well recall a particular controversial figure at a mega-church in Seattle during that time, and appreciate Wells’ response, “They could not be more wrong! What we see is Paul confronting his culture, not trying to use it. This is evident from the fact that he starts not with the gospel itself but with that culture’s competing worldviews—each one of which he demolishes.”

An important point brought out by Wells, is the necessity to start with the understanding of the Christian God, even more so than the gospel as a starting point:

The gospel, after all, is not a disembodied message that can be assimilated into just any worldview. Rather, it comes within its own understanding of the world, outside of which the gospel makes no sense at all. It is true that, without believing the gospel, Paul’s hearers [in Acts 17, Paul at Athens] would not know the God from whom they were alienated because of their sin and because of God’s righteous indignation against that sin. It is also the case, however, that without an understanding of God as Creator and Judge, Paul’s hearers could not understand the gospel. It is to the Christian God that Paul takes his hearers first, and he takes them there before he takes them to the gospel.

Peter Jones’ chapter, One God, addressed the familiar subject from the more recent conference (previous post referenced above), with emphasis on the pagan, polytheistic challenge.  He includes many references (with footnotes) to recently published pagan-promoting books and pagan-influence events in the public sphere, observing that:

Ideas have consequences.  One generation after the publication of The New Polytheism, we saw the publication of Omnigender: A Trans-religious Approach … which describes the unraveling of single-minded, monotheistic thinking in our society.  We now have two kinds of marriage—straight and gay—and acceptance of a third arrangement—polygamy—cannot be far behind.  Polytheism immediately gives us polysexuality.  In similar ways, polytheistic thinking is extending its influence in every category of human life. …Many Christians will be surprised to learn that the chief doctrinal attack in our time is directed not against the inspiration of Scripture or the deity of Christ, but against the doctrine of God.  The very denial of God is one of the chief obstacles to our preaching the gospel today.

Phillip Ryken’s chapter on “One Truth” also includes great points and great quotes regarding propositional truth.  Starting from John 18:37-38, which contains Pontius Pilate’s famous response to Jesus, “What is truth?” and the challenge of post-modernism and relativist instead of absolute truth, Ryken notes the limitation of looking only at the story, an incomplete picture of reality.  Post-modernism focuses on the story, on the narrative, but we do not get the complete picture of the gospel solely from the narrative accounts in Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. As the introduction to the book of Acts notes, the New Testament work was only begun by Jesus during His earthly ministry.  It was also necessary for the apostles to continue the work, to write the many epistles that provide the interpretation behind the narrative events and present the propositional truths of doctrinal teaching.

In order for the gospel to have this transforming effect, it needs to be explained. Stories are not self-interpreting. Therefore, God has given us a true theology to explain the gospel story. The Gospels are followed by long doctrinal letters that teach basic truths about God and his salvation, and it is characteristic of these letters to give us truth in the form of propositions. As Luther said, ‘There is no Christianity where there are no assertions.’ …. The Bible is full of theological propositions—unchanging truths of the Christian faith.

Also from Only One Way, this well-expressed summary regarding the gospel and doctrine:

Today we often hear that creeds and confessions are outmoded. Rather than defining the Christian faith in terms of its theology, people say, we need to define it in terms of its story. Doctrine is de-emphasized, especially if it deals with difficult or intolerant subjects like sin, judgment, wrath, and atonement through a sacrifice of blood. … But of course this is a false dichotomy. The gospel is relational, because it establishes a reconciled relationship between fallen sinners and a holy God. However, the gospel cannot be relational unless it also gives us true information about God and about us—about Jesus, the cross, and the empty tomb.

These seven chapters in Only One Way are insightful, well-written for the Christian layperson, presenting many good points from scripture along with analysis of our relativist, post-modern and in many ways post-Christian society.  At just under 150 pages, it is not lengthy reading, yet packs in a lot of good content in this relatively short book.

 

Thoughts on Systematic Theology vs Biblical Theology, the Doctrine of God, and the Trinitarian Debate

April 26, 2019 11 comments

Lately I’ve been considering the issues of systematic theology, confessionalism, and the Doctrine of God and the Trinitarian Debate.  Over at the Mortification of Spin podcast, Carl Trueman has several recent posts in a series, Some Thoughts on Systematic Theology as Poor Relation:  Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4.

This is a recurring topic in recent years, one I often come back to, from frequent interacting with the errors from non-confessional Calvinist Baptists: minimalist doctrinal approach, overemphasis on biblical theology (and absence of any type of systematic theology) and the related anti-confessional New Covenant Theology.  For reference, see these previous posts such as these about Confessionalism (article 1, also this article, and this one).

In the above posts, Trueman is coming from the opposite perspective, of confessionally Reformed churches where people are redefining the words of the confessions to mean different things today than the 17th century Reformers understanding.  His points, though, are just as applicable to the anti-confessional group, as the basic issue of present-day evangelicalism (after pointing out the merits of biblical theology):

even with all of these important contributions, we need to remember that a narrow focus on the storyline of scripture has its limits.  If the danger with Systematic Theology is that it can so emphasize conceptual unities that it misses the particularities of the biblical text, then the danger with Biblical Theology is that it so emphasizes the particularities that it misses those underlying unities. The answer to missing the trees for the wood is not to miss the wood for the trees.

The importance of systematic theology relates to the more specific issue of the doctrine of God, including the controversies of recent years – the impassibility of God, and the “Trinity Debate” (Eternal Submission of the Son error) of 2016.  For further reading on the 2016 Trinity Debate, see this web page from the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals, with links to the many blog posts back and forth during summer 2016.

From browsing the Alliance’s collection here are some helpful sermon series from Liam Golligher (the current Senior pastor of Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia) —  three sets of messages (the “Trinity” set in response to the 2016 Trinity Debate) from the early chapters of the book of Hebrews:  Trinity: The Eternally Divine Son (8 messages), Trinity: The Two Natures of Christ (8 messages), and Trinity: Christ the Mediator (6 messages).  I’m in the second half of the second set now, so more to report later.

From the content I’ve listened to so far, these messages emphasize the transcendence of God, the reality of a God that is different from and above us, the eternal God who does not change, the Creator/Creature distinction, and the big picture view of God’s dealings with His people throughout history.  The doctrine of God, and the Trinity, are things that our finite minds will never completely grasp, yet the Christian creeds and confessions set forth the truths that we affirm.

From the first set, one message specifically addresses the Old Testament theophanies as part of God’s plan to familiarize His people with their God.  Another message, ‘Mary, did you know?’ references the words in the Mark Lowry song along with many scripture references.  A later message in the first series mentions a not-so-well-known history fact:  hymn writer Isaac Watts’ later writings indicate that he was a Unitarian and viewed Jesus as a created being, as the archangel Michael.  Googling on the topic indicates that a lot of people question this (is it really so?), and provides further historical details regarding Watts and the New England slide from Puritanism to Unitarianism.  Certainly Watts, who disliked creeds, did not articulate Trinitarianism and left himself open to the charge of Unitarianism, leaving us the question ‘will we see Isaac Watts in heaven?’  For further reference, here are a few interesting articles about Isaac Watts’ Unitarianism:

The above posts and sermon series are very helpful for a good overview of the whole issue of the doctrine of God and proper, orthodox understanding of the Trinity.  The link between the historic creeds and confessions, and orthodox Christian belief, especially comes out when studying the doctrine of God, a topic/study that is not as easy from the human viewpoint.  It is all too easy for us finite humans, as creatures, to think of God as somehow an extension of ourselves, someone greater than us but like us (in ways beyond the “communicable attributes”).  In this modern anti-creedal age, a time of “no creed but the Bible,” some doctrines are still easier to ‘get’, such as the doctrine of scripture, of the authority and importance of God’s word; but taking the same anti-confessional approach to the doctrine of God, more often than not, leads to error and even heresy.  As stated in the above article (Implications from Isaac Watts’s Trinitarian Controversy):

Furthermore, claiming to have no creed but the Bible may sound noble and pious, but it is a fact of history that when individuals or groups completely reject confessional language, even with noble desires for Christian unity or biblical authority, they almost always end up with significant theological problems. And this is exactly the case with the Nonconformists in England following Watts: those who, like Watts, claimed to accept no human creed ended up fully denying the Trinity, the deity of Christ, and even the sufficient atonement of Christ.