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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.

 

Too much Bible reading? A Poor Example of Legalism

September 10, 2010 1 comment

In a recent Sunday School class the teacher was discussing legalism, and as an example cited too much Bible reading — that a legalistic person boasts about how many Bible chapters they’ve read, and then feels the need to read even more and more chapters, to do better than others and be somehow superior to others because of how much Bible reading they do.

Given that the majority of Christians do not read their Bible enough, as evidenced by profound ignorance and lack of discernment concerning popular Christian leaders, and the local church never exhorts the congregation to read their Bibles, I hardly think this an edifying example of legalism.  No doubt someone, somewhere, has this problem — but seriously, how many people are legalistic and reading too much of their Bible, as compared to the opposite extreme?  How many professed believers today really have any problem with legalism, period, much less on the point of Bible reading?

As someone commented at another blog concerning Gospel-Centered Legalism, “It’s like people who don’t read their bibles for fear of being legalistic; I say if that’s your struggle, then, BE legalistic about reading your bible but while doing that, read passages about how our salvation is not contingent on our works. And pray that the Spirit opens your eyes.”

Over 8,000 people have joined Grant Horner’s Facebook group for the Horner Bible Reading plan, and the comments there are always positive towards the idea of learning God’s word and enjoying this type of reading plan, along with plenty of admissions that they haven’t been reading their Bible enough — and expressions of thanks to Professor Horner for this idea.  Many Christian blogs often feature comments from those who admit their lack in this area, that they neglect time in God’s word.

In my google searching on the topic of Bible reading and legalism, I found many other examples of legalism (though not of Bible reading).  I even came across a site that exposes the common problems in modern churches, including legalism.  The example given was not TOO MUCH Bible reading, but the opposite:

“The member is expected to get all of his doctrinal interpretation from the leadership of the church. This practice discourages individual Bible reading and Bible study. Researching doctrinal information on the Internet, radio, or in Bible commentaries is strongly discouraged. Members are taught to not trust their own interpretation of Scripture and avoid doing so. …  A typical example of communication control occurred during four social dinner gatherings of four couples from the church. .. In one of these groups there was no Bible discussions other than the prayer before dinner. None of the many church doctrines was discussed during any of the four dinners.

Consider also the examples set by godly, doctrinally sound preachers:  never have I come across any mention from such leaders that someone could be legalistic about their Bible reading.  Instead, they are frequently exhorting their audience to read the Bible — because that is the common problem throughout the ages.  C.H. Spurgeon and J.C. Ryle describe the very same problem as 20th century preachers S. Lewis Johnson, John MacArthur and others into the 21st century.  All Christians need to hear the importance of reading their Bible, because even redeemed, regenerated believers have the old nature and its tendency to neglect this part of the Christian walk.

So why does a Sunday School teacher instead cite Bible reading as an example of legalism?  In this case, it was from actual experience of becoming legalistic in Bible reading — reading through it every month (12 times a year): a rare case, but evidently a few Christians can go to this other extreme.  Yet in many cases when someone suggests that Bible reading is legalistic, the real reason is to cover one’s own neglect of scripture. It’s always easier, the lazy flesh-indulging approach, to play the legalism card — along with a post-modern attitude — and criticize those who do take God’s word seriously, who do greatly value and treasure it, and who enjoy their time in God’s word:  “oh, they’re just being legalistic.”  As J.C. Ryle put it,

It is neglect of the Bible which makes so many a prey to the first false teacher whom they hear. They would have us believe that ‘they are not learned, and do not pretend to have decided opinions.’  The plain truth is that they are lazy and idle about reading the Bible, and do not like the trouble of thinking for themselves.”