Archive for the ‘Theology’ Category

Irenic or Polemic?

Friday, September 11th, 2009

How theological issues are discussed is often thought of as a matter of cool academic consideration among peers, but frequently the tone of the discussion is a matter of temperament.

Irenic – a discussion conducted without attacking the other person or their beliefs in a personal sense. Call it cool, rational discussion. Also, each conflicting point of view is given a fair airing.

Polemic – Arguing a point by attacking the other person or their point of view personal. No attempt to made to put their case equally for them, nor to be cool and rational.

Of course both of these are extremes, with most discussions falling in the middle ground.

Michael Patton of Reclaiming the Mind Ministries suggests that these are the two approaches that one sees in theological discussions, with the polemic being sadly (in his view) the most common. His preference leans very strongly to the irenic, and he feels that this must be cultivated if fruitful discussion is to occur.

When it comes to significant theology discussions, I tend to be something of a ‘take no prisoners’ guy, particularly if I am passionate about a topic (and I am always passionate about Reformed issues). That would make me somewhat polemic.

Discussions in the world, particularly those involving closely held beliefs or attitudes, tend to often be polemic to the degree that people become personally and emotionally involved. Though people will often rationally see the value of a more disciplined irenic approach, once emotionally engaged in the discussion an irenic attitude is very difficult to maintain. The more personal the point being made or the challenged becomes, the more polemic the likely path of the discussion.

But why is that?

We have a tendency to take opposing views about personally significant topics (faith being about the most significant that there is) as a challenge not only to the position but to our right to hold that point of view, irrespective of whether that is the intent. Or conversely, we present our views in a way that not only challenges the other viewpoint but but also assaults the holder’s audacity for holding that view.

The appropriate question then is: why we react that way and perceive a threat in an opposing point of view – even if we consider the view to be in error? Why are we reacting as if the opposing view must be changed and our view justified in the opposing person’s eyes, before we are secure in our view?

The root of quandary centers on who we are actually answerable to for our views?

In 2 Corinthians 2:10-11 Paul addresses this fairly directly when he says “But one whom you forgive anything, I forgive also; for indeed what I have forgiven, if I have forgiven anything, I did it for your sakes in the presence of Christ, so that no advantage would be taken of us by Satan, for we are not ignorant of his schemes. Paul forgives offences, offering grace, in the same spirit of grace by which he has been forgiven, that it might reflect well on Christ and not be used by Satan. Surely the application of this forgiveness applies just as much to an offense given in a discussion, irrespective of whether the offence is real or perceived.

Frustrating though we may find a disagreement or a differing view, who in the end do we answer to for the theology that we hold? And who holds the other person accountable for their view? And behond that, who is the architect of any change in viewpoint on either side? The answer in all case is the Lord and only the Lord. Judgment is not ours. Vengeance is not ours. The responsibility to force a change in position or justify it to another’s (or for that matter to society’s) satisfaction is not ours. Ours is only to speak the Truth in faith.

This being so, agreeing to disagree or having irreconcilable differences does not reflect upon us if we are rooted in the Truth. If our honest appraisal is that we are correct Scripturally, then we can disagree without the need to defend emotionally, since nothing real is threatened.

In the only court of opinion that counts (that of our Lord), judgment is of the Lord, by His standards, and the views of the opposing individual are completely moot. Only our reflection of Christ’s attributes and precepts carries weight.

Our only concern, then, is the validity of our view before the Lord and that is determined by means of the Scritpural revelation that he provided – the Bible – and it alone (Sola Scriptura).

With assurance based in the Word, the opinions of the world are not relevant. In fact, as our Lord states, since he was persecuted for the truth, we should not expect less.

The opinion of our brethren in the family of God does matter, of course, but even there theological discussion is to seek truth alone, before God. In that search, there is no threat from differing opinions among men. The opinions that count are of the Lord.

Notice that I did not say easy in this regard. But a correct mind set concerning the sovereignty of God and relevancy of Scripture in these situations can hopefully help a lot in bringing clarity to our reactions. Even if we react imperfectly, it should help.

An appropriate Polemic or Irenic reaction is at least partially based upon our acceptance and actualization of our place as men (including you ladies as well, of course) before our Lord. Both approaches are appropriate in some situations IMO, but only one mind set is appropriate. And once again, as long as we remain alive on earth, I never said easy…


Apples, Oranges or Bananas?

Wednesday, September 9th, 2009

Let’s follow the discussion of fruits of the Spirit in the context of assurance a bit farther…

Before someone accuses me of discounting the fruits of the Spirit, let me state that they are indeed important markers. After all, in Galatians 5:22-23 we have “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control…”.

So these are significant results of salvation. Fruits grow as the final result in the plant and they appear differently for not only species but occasional even the same type of plant. Scripture does not indicate that they are the root or even a determining factor for salvation, initial or eternal. To push the plant analogy further, an apple tree that does not produce fruit at some point is still an apple tree. The fruit is not determinate to the species.

If the fruits of the Spirit were in any way a determining factor, then we would have a salvation of works which would vest some of God’s sovereignty into our actions on our own behalf. For those not remembering, that reverts right back to Pelagian heresy of the 4th century. We won’t go there since this discussion assumes a Reformed theology.

We should also again stress that discernment of belief is in ones own heart before God, and the message of the Gospel must be believed at that level (the lack of which no doubt creates the tares among the wheat). We can not see into another’s heart and therefore can not determine their status before the Lord, nor would we be correct in doing so. As Scripture points out, only the Lord judges the heart. Our task is only to discern our own heart with the smiple, straightforward message of the Gospel. That places us with the saved, or not.

So, the fruits of the Spirit are significant marks of salvation, which may be observed in the regenerate at differing times and in differing ways. They may also be observed in the reprobate. The only assurance is from the belief in the heart of the Gospel message.

This has hug implications in the life of the believer. Those struggling with the flesh while truly believing on Jesus Christ in their hearts are not showing signs of being a reprobate. Their struggle is not the mark of the unsaved. Quite the opposite. The reprobate does not suffer angst over their sin. The angst suffered over our failures is a sign of election and cause to rejoice in the Lord. It is the sign that the law has fulfilled its sole function.

In conclusion, preaching the fruits of the Spirit as the marker of necessity for salvation, and assurance of such, is error, plain and simple. It does not reflect the message of Scripture and does harm to God’s people as they work through their salvation.

Assurance is drawn from ones true belief in the message of the Gospel, and that alone. And that message is about Christ, not fruit…


Yes, We have no bananas

Wednesday, September 9th, 2009

I can hear it from the Pulpit now “If you are saved you must see the fruits of the spirit actualized in your life” with the implication that is must be clear, continuous and now. I also hear it as church lobby chit chat about whether so and so is a real believer since they haven’t been behaving very well, clearly not demonstrating the fruits of the Spirit in a proper (as they see it) ‘Christian’ manner or not consistently. You have surely heard this in one form or another, right? I have and for reason that will become clear it makes steam come out of my ears…

This naturally leads believers (especially new ones) to ask themselves whether they are truly saved, assuming that they occasionally do not behave as a the perfect believer or they do not overtly show the fruits of the spirit particularly prominently at times.

This is well and clearly addressed in the Canons of Dordt. Remember those? No? Well since they form the foundation and effect virtually all Reformed confessions, you should. However, let us not digress on that for now.

First Head of Doctrine: Divine Election and Reprobation

“Article of faith 12: The Assurance of Election
Assurance of this their eternal and unchangeable election to salvation is given to the chosen in due time, though by various stages and in differing measure. Such assurance comes not by inquisitive searching into the hidden and deep things of God, but by noticing within themselves, with spiritual joy and holy delight, the unmistakable fruits of election pointed out in God’s Word–such as a true faith in Christ, a childlike fear of God, a godly sorrow for their sins, a hunger and thirst for righteousness, and so on.”

And in Scripture we have (as one example of many) in Romans 10:9 ” if you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved

As the Canons imply, the fruits of Spirit do not even enter the equation as more than a side effect, a significant one admittedly, but not a determinant one for salvation.

You were saved by the Gospel message (Romans 10:9 and others). Your knowledge in your own heart of your belief in that message, and thereby belief in Christ, is salvation. All else is after the fact.

To preach otherwise is IMO to do the people of God a great dis-service and produce in those that might buy it, unnecessary anst and worry. Hence the steam from my ears.


Condemned by what?

Thursday, August 20th, 2009

After reading a post by Michael Patton on his blog and subsequently teaching a theology class on one of the articles in the Canons of Dordt, I have been thinking a bit more about the believer’s perspective on what we are saved from and by.

What struck me is that we often communicate an entirely wrong set of ideas concerning the forgiveness of sin, both to others believers and even ourselves, and that the result of faulty communication may be to limit assurance and growth. As always, of course, this is from a Calvinist perspective, since I can take no other…

In brief, Michael makes the point that we are not condemned primarily by our ongoing sin, but by the sinners that we are as Adam’s seed. Unfortunately, as he points out, we too oft communicate the condemnation of ongoing sin and not the more significant hereditary reason, for our fallen state. This has many nasty consequences. He is so right!

How many times have you heard it said to the unsaved or other believers that they must be saved from ‘their’ sins – past, present and future? It is presented as if those personal sins are what is holding them, and then once saved, as if ongoing sins is a possibly danger to salvation. We may even slip subtly into this thought pattern ourselves.

The result of this scenario is that, whether subtly or overtly, the mind of flesh could be encourage to think that the natural self actually had some input to whether they will be among, or are among, the saints. Since the worldly mind is already bent in this direction, a performance based or maintained salvation is a natural next step. This is true even if it is not presented that way, but how much more so if it is.

When we are regenerated by the spirit, and the righteousness of Christ is imputed to us, what primarily are we saved from? Since the decision about election was made in eternity past, “before the foundations of the world” (Eph 1:6), though we are certainly released from our sins of this life, salvation is not based primarily about them. It is about our nature as Adam’s seed. Thus we are saved from our natural selves, as we were born into the world of flesh carrying that as the principle charge.

Our salvation, then, is from our nature most of all. We are firstly saved from the wrath that was due Adam. The release from any sin that may or may not have been added to our account in this world is significant but peripheral.

You are splitting hairs, you say. Sin is sin. I would not agree.

We are primarily saved from ourselves, who we fundamentally are, as recipients of Adam’s fall. The fact that once we are born into the world we continue to actualize this pattern is merely a result, ugly though it may be. It is interest added to the principle.

Further, once we are saved from our natural selves and made into the new man (that includes you too ladies, by the way) we are saved from the present and future of our old fallen selves which carried the stain of Adam. That is a lot bigger than any sin or sins we could have committed in the present or future in this world.

All interesting you might say, but so what?

Well, it is a very big so what:

First, the grace and mercy that have been freely bestowed up us in the Beloved is far greater that we would appreciate otherwise;

Second, the God who bestowed them is revealed more in His overwhelming glory by the real extent of the forgiveness now seen;

Third, we are brought more to our true place before the infinitely holy God when we see that out imputed sin (not just our puny recent sin) has been pardoned – that true place being on our knees or on our face;

Fourth, our redemption through grace alone is even clearer. We have been redeemed from the stain that was beyond our comprehension. As such, we could not even appreciate the extent of it, let alone dream that we could atone for it by anything of ourselves.

Fifth, since given our situation just described, and having been redeemed from a stain of unimaginable proportions, our foundational dependence upon Father, Son and Spirit is undeniable. Absolute dependence equates to true faith in the one and only source. This clarifies grace through faith for us.

So, as we rejoice in our salvation in the Beloved, let us rejoice in the clear vision of how and from what we have been saved, on our knees before our infinitly Righteous and Holy God.

We have been saved from our nature, inbred and beyond our control. All is forgiven in Him, now and forever. Just as we could not see the totality of our inherited nature, let alone change it ourselves, we have been saved by His mercy and grace alone.

Let us rejoice in and communicate that…


Congregational Identity

Tuesday, July 28th, 2009

In the last post I asked the question “So, how and to what degree should we seek theological clarity? Does it even matter?”.

My small church pastor acquaintance proposed that not only does it not matter but that giving it any importance is wrong and divisive. In the words of the Apostle Paul “May it never be!”.

We are in effect asking what purpose and value there is in theological inquiry, and if it is mandated biblically for the congregation at large. I would propose that not only is it mandated, but to do otherwise would be to ultimately revert to a pre-reformation state, with an all powerful magisterium. Further, this would reduce any real Bible reading to word repetition with only magical significance, again falling back to the magisterium understanding. Surely this not where we are lead to go!

As to the mandate to study the Scriptures, we have only to cite the Bereans, who are praise as correct for searching the Scriptures day and night to prove their understanding (Acts 17:11).

Now to the purpose and value there is in theological inquiry.

Let’s start by considering an underlying issue at hand. How does a church get its identity? Or more appropriately – how should a church get its identity? Any difference between the does and the should will help with our original question.

When you think of a church with which you are familiar, what do you think of?

Do you think of their great contribution to the community? Do you think of their great childrens’ programs and activities. What of their assistance to those in need physically or mentally? Do you think of the wonderful people who attend there? Do you think of their support for the family or marriage in trying times?

If those are the attributes that come to mind, then those are the things that form the identify of that church before the world, the things into which their energy and thought are poured.

All of these things are good in themselves, but are they the primary reason for the church to exist? Do they bring to mind the primary place that believers are to draw identity from? It would not appear so.

All of the attributes listed are supporting things of world. They are secular in nature. All are addressed by other good and honourable agencies, possibly even more effectively than by the church. Though these good works are certainly the hallmark of the church, they can not be the primary distinguishing characteristic because they are man-centered.

Man-centered activities are of the flesh by nature, derived from the mind of flesh. As such, they are can not lead to spiritual things. As Galatians 5:17 states ” For the flesh sets its desire against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; for these are in opposition to one another, so that you may not do the things that you please.” Things of the flesh and programs based upon it can not produce an identity that is based in the Lord. They are an anathema to one another and the identity produced is of the world.

Does this mean that this identity is bad or evil. Not at all. But is does mean that it, like the fallen man from whom it springs, is not of God and can not by definition truly please god. They do not develop an identity based in Christ. They can not. They are of the world and as such unacceptable before God. As Scripture states, they are “filthy rags”,, no matter how good they appear.

Conversely, do think of the church in terms of their love of Christ, their dedication to His Word, their passion to understand it, their joyful worship, their passion for glorifying Christ and the Father in everything, almost forgetting their programs and such?

These are things of the Spirit. They lead to correct understanding and to correct standing before God. They are the reason that we were created.

Part of this pursuit is the desire to understand the precepts which the Lord has given us in His Word. To follow His precepts we must understand them and His Word is our source. So (as did the Bereans) we study them, their meaning and the resultant biblical doctrine as a first priority. Following this doctrine in common understanding gives us identity with its source.

The identity of the believers and their church should have nothing whatsoever to do with the programs, works and activities of worldly life. It must be grounded solely in the Word and its precepts (doctrine). This is where the true church draws its identity and the only way it can be know as belonging to Christ. This is precisely the opposite to the worldly focus initially described.

That said, this does not denying the value of programs and activities . They are invaluable. They are not, however, the basis of the church nor the primary focus of believers. They are fruit – an after effect of correct identity, when energy is focused upon Christ and the Word.

So, back to our original questions. The sole source of identity of the church, supporting the faith of believers, is the focus on our Lord and His worship, the seeking of theological truth from the Word and the communication of biblically correct doctrine.

These matters of theology are not small differences. Correct doctrine binds believers together in worship of God, creating a solid church. Without that, identity is a fleeting feeling based in programs that succeed or fail in the world. And without foundational agreement, the body is not solid, but frail.

Identity based upon worldly matters may in fact create a church, but it is not the church of Jesus Christ.


Minor points of theology?

Sunday, July 26th, 2009

In a recent conversation with the pastor of a small church, he referred to the difference between a Doctrines of Grace and one based upon a Doctrine of Works as a minor point of theology, certainly not worth of real discussion, let alone argument.

He was particularly concerned that someone might consider the difference between Limited Atonement and Unlimited Atonement of any signficance to their faith.

What could I say? I was on the phone and didn’t want to get into a brew ha ha via that medium, but I was almost speachless.

If he truly considers matters of foundational doctrinal identity to be of no real importance, what then IS of importance?

In the end, he was of the “let’s just forget all this doctrinal silliness and love Jesus” school. He did not realize the he was challenging the actual efficacy of the work of Jesus and thereby the extent  of His love.

So, how and to what degree should we seek theological clarity? Does it matter?