The Wanderer

As I walked through the wilderness of this world …

“Risking the Truth: Handling Error in the Church”

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Risking the Truth: Handling Error in the Church by Martin Downes

Christian Focus, 2009 (247pp, pbk)

As a reasonably dedicated follower of Ferguson, the misguided counsel given by the normally erudite Scot in the foreword to this volume left me profoundly uncomfortable:

So, put some logs, or coal, or peat, on the fire; make (or fix) yourself a pot of tea or coffee; settle back into your favorite chair – and spend an evening or a rainy afternoon in the company of Martin Downes (11-12).

All well and good, Sinclair, but I read this book during the warmest day of the year in the UK so far.  Whatever one thinks about the British weather (which Prof. Ferguson knows well), I can give assurance that roaring fires and warm drinks are far from what is required under such circumstances, and you can wait a good four or five days for a rainy afternoon during some of our summers.

Most of the other advice in this book you can safely take.

My only minor gripes are a number of editing glitches, and the fact that almost all the quotes in the book come without references, which can be frustrating if you wish to read more, or put the words in context.  Neither is there an index.

Risking the Truth (Downes)Those slight grievances aside, this is an outstanding book, characterised by clear thinking and straight talking.  Its basic premise is simple: the compiler, Martin Downes, conducted a series of interviews with some well-known senior statesmen of Christ’s church, most of whom are serving God in the UK or the US, with the exception of Conrad Mbewe (Zambia) – his environment reminds the reader that different situations involve different challenges, and we should beware an oversimplification of ‘the issues facing us today.’  Each contributor was asked questions concerning false teaching and flawed living with a view to instructing today’s church about prevalent errors and heresies.  The conversations focus on appropriate ways of handling and responding to these poisons.  Downes sets the scene in his introduction, explaining the apostolic concern that false teaching and false teachers be identified and addressed, lest damage be done to the body of Jesus Christ.  There follows a brief overview of the nature, origin, attraction, effects and persistence of heresy, setting us up for the interviews themselves.

As one reads through these dialogues, a number of distinctions become apparent.  Some of these are reflective of the character of the contributor.  Although there is often a pleasantly chatty, even casual tone to all the conversations, some interviews have longer, more developed answers and others quite terse responses.  In only a few of the conversations is there much technical language, but in general the language is clear and popular.

Other differences have to do with the nature of the interview.  In some, various specialists are quizzed on particular topics: Ligon Duncan deals almost exclusively with the New Perspective; Kim Riddlebarger addresses eschatology; Gary Johnson is quizzed about Norman Shepherd’s initial exposure and subsequent effect; Robert Peterson discusses the doctrine of hell; and, Greg Beale answers questions on inerrancy.

Other interviews are more general, and often have the same basic framework (and even identical questions).  Sometimes, the interviewee’s individual concerns provide shifts of focus; on other occasions, perceptive questions highlight a particular area of expertise.  In these more wide-ranging discussions it is the varied emphasis and nuance of answer that interests: there are few outright contradictions of other contributors, but a variety of perspective that is illuminating.

In reading, one senses care, insight and structure in the questions – whether they are more generic or directed at specific issues – with a view to drawing out relevant and helpful answers.  The reader is reminded that wise men can differ.  For example, some advocate that the pastor take pains to keep abreast of theological developments and deviations, others dismiss making too much of such a practice.  Sometimes shared principle gives rise to subtly-differentiated practice, demonstrating legitimate variety as to how one goes about the business of feeding the sheep while driving off the wolves.

However, there are also clear patterns in the book.  Along the way there are some brilliant gems to be collected, pithy nuggets of truth dropped almost casually into the individual conversation, including a good number of practical, pastoral counsels to be gleaned.  While these random jewels are worth collecting, it is the developing seams of emphasis that are more worth tracing.  Several notes are sounded repeatedly: the importance of firmly grasping the cardinal doctrines of Christian orthodoxy; the value of the historic confessions of faith that have served past generations so well as frameworks of truth; the need of clear conviction regarding the Scriptures as the very word of the living God; the helpfulness of a genuine historical awareness and insight – a clear and sound sense of where the church has come from and what she has already encountered along the way; the significance of the local church, and the part that membership of a healthy local congregation plays in preserving truth, and preserving from error; the value of clear, systematic, expository ministry.  That these notes chime so often, in different language, in different contexts, from different men, in response to different questions, suggests the weight that ought to be attached to these issues.

With regard to error itself, there are also valuable patterns to observe.  It is interesting that only Conrad Mbewe (with R. Scott Clark receiving an honourable mention) highlights the issue of charismatic teaching: is this an indication of a change of stance or emphasis further west?  Has the prominence of ‘Reformed Charismatics’ in the resurgence of ‘the New Calvinism’ had an effect?  For most of these men, the New Perspective on Paul and the Federal Vision are at the forefront of the issues that need to be confronted in the church today (including on the ground in the life of local churches).  These issues, and the related web of errors that sit within and alongside them, crop up repeatedly.  What distresses without particularly surprising is how many of the cardinal doctrines of historic Reformed Christianity are once more considered up for grabs.  These are not new battles, though, and much is to be learned from those who have gone before.

Another thread concerns the shortness of the distance from orthodoxy to heterodoxy: no chasm this, but rather a hair’s breadth.  Falsehood is most effective when it is perverted or exaggerated truth.  The ease with which it is possible to slip into error is a constant warning, and the necessity of sometimes fine and accurate distinctions is always before us.

One helpful emphasis concerns the purpose of confronting error: it is not point-scoring, nor scalp-hunting.  Rather, we are to seek, in love, to win back the wanderers.  While we find a fundamental hope that all can be recovered, there is a note of practical pessimism as several experienced men lament how few individuals and institutions, once they have left the old paths, have been recovered to them.  Alongside of this is another warning note: the dangers of pride on account of an orthodox reputation, and therefore the need to walk closely with God if we are not to slip into error or heresy ourselves, or to become calloused and crass, making ourselves more an aggressive watchdog than a righteous watchman, notching our belts over how many errorists we blew out of the water with our last sermonic broadside.

That brings us to the final chapters, in which Martin Downes returns to warn against making the hunt for heresy the defining feature of any ministry.  This is developed in a brief treatment of 1 Timothy, reflecting on dealing with false teachers and teaching.  In the face of errors connected with revelation and interpretation, Downes marshals the apostolic evidence for making our ministries substantively positive.  Singular truth, identified and displayed in all its beauty, by its very nature exposes and condemns multiform and manifold error.  Here, the identification and exposure of error becomes almost incidental, natural, appropriate, and balanced.  Constant controversy is a bad school for character development: far better to bring the truth always to light, and let that light fall as required into the dark places.  John Owen concludes with typically wise and weighty counsel: it is one thing to be against heresies, but it is essential that we be for truth, not in a merely intellectual sense, but with a true apprehension of that truth in our minds and hearts:

Let us, then, not think that we are any thing the better for our conviction of the truths of the great doctrines of the gospel, for which we contend with these men, unless we find the power of the truths abiding in out [sic] own hearts, and have a continual experience of their necessity and excellency in our standing before God and our communion with Him (247).

There are few volumes around that have this book’s distinctive character and purpose.  An impressive variety of men of God bend their collective minds to a single concern of broad relevance and great importance, and – prompted by some careful probing – give us the concentrated fruit of their thinking in clear and robust terms.  It is a repository of much wisdom, but of a certain kind.  You will not find here a Wallace sword 2catalogue of errors and heresies with cross-referenced responses.  Neither will you find all-out attacks on particular issues in the church.  What you will find is counsel as much on the method and manner of holding to truth and assaulting falsehood as the matter of truth itself.  You will not agree with all the details, but you will find a swathe of common opinion that is vigorously orthodox.  You will be stimulated, pointed in the right direction, made aware of issues and helped in where to start with and how to handle those issues.  Above and behind all, there lies a clear desire for the glory of God and the good of the church, a love for the truth and a concern for the lost and confused, and a clear-sighted awareness of what is at stake with a calm determination to hold the line and help others to do the same.  Whether already engaged in fighting a particular battle, or simply seeking to keep honed the edge of your Jerusalem blade, here you will find a good whetstone.

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  1. […] May 30, 2009 in Reforming Evangelicalism | Tags: Martin Downes, Risking the Truth Jeremy Walker reviews it at the Wanderer. […]


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