Posts Tagged ‘heresy’
I am sure it has been noticed a thousand times before, but I have noticed it again. We need to listen to the gaps. Let me explain.
Error and heresy are not always immediately obvious. To be sure, they can be. Some problems are glaring, and ought to require only that you have a functioning pair of eyes and ears in order to determine the problem (though we know that those things spiritually discerned need more than mere physical perception). God says that something is white; a man says it is black. QED.
But very often error and heresy masquerade under the appearance of, or – perhaps more insidiously – alongside a seeming orthodoxy. A man seems so reliable and gifted. Perhaps he has a genuine gift of oratory – he speaks and writes and preaches with acknowledged clarity and potency in so many ways. He develops a reputation. People want to know what he says. In so many respects he seems spot on. He seems so effective, perhaps even fruitful. And then you begin to listen to the gaps.
And as you open your ears to the silences, something disconcerting becomes apparent. When he is asked that question, he fudges the answer. When he preaches on that text, you are waiting for the insight or application that seems obvious, even necessary, not least in the context of the day, and he skates past it. An opportunity is given in which you think the moment has arrived for a clear declaration, and the man flits over the surface. He mumbles and stutters when the moment calls for clarity and force; he evades and declines when the time is right for courage and forthrightness. Then you add up the gaps, and begin to realise that there is a truth or truths that the man will neither commend nor defend.
He may never have said that what God says is white is, in fact, black. And yet he has consistently and repeatedly failed to acknowledge or has avoided acknowledging that God declares something is white, or he fails to deny or he avoids denying that it is, by way of contrast, black.
The problem lies not in what he says, but in what he fails to say. And in failing to say it when it could and should be said, he establishes a space, an error- or heresy-shaped space. It takes form over time, gradually delineated by what he actually does say, leaving the hole where what he could and should say might exist. The trumpet makes an uncertain sound when it hits certain notes. It warbles and wobbles where it might ring clear. The symphony of truth develops small but jarring emptinesses.
Perhaps it is carefully veiled. There are certain truths that are more important than others, he says. Certain things need to take priority – can’t we all see that? He refuses to major on the minors. Some things are not the crying need of the hour, and he does not need to deal with them. He has no interest in disputes – he is, rather, a peacemaker. He would like to reformulate something, not to change it. He would rather say this than that. We need to be sensitive to the culture in which we find ourselves. We must speak in love. Others are painted (perhaps, again, in the gaps between such statements) as narrow, bigoted, obsessive, heresy hunters, out of tune, outmoded, and – worst of all – unloving and divisive.
Such a man may, before the end, break cover. Error and heresy have a way of hardening into shape, sometimes even of demanding a hearing. The gap becomes compelling, and something must fill the vacuum. Or, it may be that he himself will live and die without being pinned down. He grows old and gray leaving that silence, employing his gifts of insight and oratory, refusing or refuting all attempts to obtain clarity. But then you listen to the disciples. What once was a silence has become a whisper, and the hole is being slowly filled in. Something unpleasant and ugly begins to coalesce in the space left in the first man’s teaching. Over time its features become increasingly plain, and error and heresy take form. And as months and years roll on, in perhaps two or three generations, there is a scream where once was a silence, and error and heresy are rampant. The church may sit in stunned sterility as God and his gospel, entangled in the filth of error and crippled by the impotence of untruth, are derided and denied until God is pleased to raise up men to declare the truth again in all its splendour, in all its scriptural substance and biblical balance.
And that is why we must listen for the gaps, and why it is incumbent upon us to declare all the truth we know. We may accept that some truths are more central than others, some more critical, some more applicable and necessary in our age, but let us never imagine that there is some truth which God has been pleased to reveal which we can then dismiss as unimportant or avoidable. Such sentiments too easily provide the holes where error and heresy can take shape. Often Christians who hold to an orthodox confession of some sort are dismissed as de facto schismatics, men who make too much of lesser things, who draw lines where others eradicate boundaries, who foster division where others promote peace. But these solid, time-proved confessions, expressing “the things most surely believed among us,” as the 17th century Baptists had it, paint a fuller picture of the main things (they never pretended that it was all things), and leave less space for these crucial gaps. But still we must watch. Confessions do lay a foundation for a full-orbed unity, in which there can be intelligent and rich agreement between brothers who can see all that there is in common, even where they recognise that there is sincere disagreement at points. However, a confession of faith is not a panacea; there are matters that our confessions do not explicitly address, issues in the application of their principles that their signatories did not face in their day. There are matters, for example, to do with our essential humanity – with gender identity and relationships between men and women – that lie subsumed within the general declarations of the confession but need to be made explicit in the present hour.
And so we continue to listen, we continue to watch, we continue to speak. We should tremble to add to what God speaks, to trample upon true Christian liberty or to add the commandments of men to the Word of God. That is not our place. But we tremble, too, to be silent where God speaks, to be less precise and less careful, less full and less clear, when God – for the glory of his name and the good of men’s souls – has seen fit, in his infinite wisdom, to make known the truth as it is in Jesus. We cannot be ashamed to say all that God says, in its proper place and proportion. That is our calling. We cannot fail to commend and defend the truth, nor to expose and identify the error. And so we must watch the holes. And so we must listen to the gaps.
The following excerpt is from “The Questionable Ingredient of Popularity,” a short item Spurgeon wrote in the May 1884 issue of The Sword and the Trowel. You might agree that genuine insights survive intact the passing of time:
One-third voice and personal presence, one-third selection of sensational topics, and one-third heresy,” according to the Boston Journal, are the ingredients for making “a popular preacher.” We are very much afraid that this is true in certain regions; and we are quite sure that some young preachers think so.
The last third is the easiest ingredient to obtain, and so they make it secure. Any pretender can be heterodox: you need neither study, nor think, nor pray in order to surpass all others in this line.
Notoriety can be gained at once by just being singular, and setting up to know better than those around you. Everybody will talk about you at once, and you can impress yourself upon their memories by saying something very cutting and impudent, and as nearly blasphemous as you dare to make it. But is this a noble ambition? Can this be the course of a man of God?
We think not. Perish the popularity which comes by any doctrine but the truth, or by any means but that of solemn, earnest well-doing! Empty sensationalism perishes like the green herb, and heresy dies like a noxious weed; but the faithful preacher of the word shall be had in everlasting remembrance.
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.
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 catalogue 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.