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Bible/The Church

Bible Answer Man: Wrong Number

Posted by M.Ferris on

The recent conversion of Hank Hanegraaf to Orthodoxy has caused a stir in evangelical circles, but only because of Hanegraaf’s prior ministry. As the so-called “Bible Answer Man” one would think he of all people would base his views and teaching on the Scriptures. Perhaps not. The reasons for such conversions still fall into the same sort of categories that Scot McKnight wrote about in From Wheaton to Rome: Why Evangelicals Become Roman Catholic.  The fact that it’s Orthodoxy rather than Catholicism in Hanegraaf’s case doesn’t really affect these reasons. In almost all such cases, there is always an insistence that “nothing has changed” in core beliefs. And indeed Hanegraaf made this statement. But clearly, something has changed, because he wasn’t content to stay where he was, but rather take the step of joining the Orthodox Church. Hanegraaf’s comments indicate he felt there was a lack of experience in his faith that left him wanting more. He pitches it as an embrace of life rather than merely truth. He doesn’t claim that joining the church is his conversion to Christ, (nor do I doubt he is a true believer), but if you have Jesus, he is the way the truth and the life, and therefore, you have all you need already.

It’s good to remember a few things with such cases, things that always seem to be factors. These are the common motivations behind conversion to sacramental traditions.

A desire to connect with the historical roots of Christianity. That’s a worthy and good desire, but it can’t be found in Orthodoxy. When we look at the Orthodox Church, we don’t find the church of the apostles but the church of late antiquity. The structure of a hierarchical church, with priests, bishops over priests, and archbishops and metropolitans mirrors the Roman empire, but it isn’t found in the pages of the New Testament. Nor do we find the doctrine of the apostles in the Orthodox church. Veneration of Mary, and icons are clearly extrabiblical traditions that find no place in biblical Christianity. The point was humorously made by the Babylon Bee, noting that Hanegraaf would be rebranding himself as the “Apostolic Tradition Man.” And this is where Hanegraaf and all who make such a move aren’t always forthright in their statements. They may believe they lose nothing, but only gain in such a migration, but they can’t maintain the position of Sola Scriptura and remain in their new home. Believers should most certainly connect with history, but the New Testament writings are the historical documents that comprise Christian authority, not the writings of late antiquity. If you base your faith upon the Scriptures alone, you are certainly connected with history – and with the living word of God.

A move away from the Scriptures as supreme authority. Hanegraaf would no doubt vociferously disagree with that. On his radio show, he quoted the well-known aphorism; “In essentials unity, in non-essentials, diversity, in all things charity.” But, significantly, he didn’t cite any Scripture as to why he made this move. Within Orthodoxy, there is a reliance on tradition, the consensus of the Fathers, as an equal authority alongside Scripture. But as Jaroslav Pelikan pointed out,

“Such an exhortation as ‘let us reverently hold fast to the confession of the fathers’ seemed to assume, by its use of ‘confession’ in the singular and of ‘fathers’ in the plural, that there was readily available a patristic consensus on the doctrines with which the fathers had dealt in previous controversy and on the doctrines over which debate had not yet arisen – but was about to arise. When it did arise, the existence of such a patristic consensus became problematic.”[1]

It’s fine to speak of fathers in the plural, but we also have to speak of “confessions” in the plural too, because the fathers don’t always agree. Tradition, in other words, is shifting sand, unreliable as a basis for truth. It’s impossible to hold to both Scripture as supreme authority and tradition as supreme authority. That remains a fundamental difference between the Orthodox view of authority and the evangelical view. The seven ecumenical councils are canonical for the Orthodox. But the councils aren’t Scripture, and as G.L. Prestige wrote, “The Gospels afford a collection of material for theological construction; the creed puts forward inferences and conclusions based on that material. The one represents the evidence, the other the verdict. And be that verdict ever so correct, the fact remains that it was the evidence, and not the formal verdict which was once deposited to the saints.”[2] In the Orthodox view, the conclusions are moved into the evidence column.

Elevating Experience over Scripture. It’s exceedingly common to find people expressing dissatisfaction with evangelical worship. And indeed, much of it is vapid. But the appeal of Orthodoxy is sensual, i.e., involving the senses. Smells and bells as it’s been called. At the heart of this type of thinking is the principle of Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi. Or, as the church prays, the church believes. Attributed to Prosper of Aquitaine in the fifth century, the formulation states that how the Church worships governs what the Church teaches. In other words, liturgy is the wellspring of doctrine. But that is to invert things. Our experience of worship can never inform our doctrine. Rather, our doctrine dictates how we worship. If our feelings, our experience prescribe what our beliefs are, we open ourselves to all manner of falsehood.

Many people look to Hanegraaf for answers, and therefore he has a huge responsibility. It was interesting that in the days following his announcement, a caller asked if he could explain the differences between Catholicism and Orthodoxy. Hanegraaf gave a few examples of the magisterium vs. the oral and written deposit of truth (evangelicals reject any oral tradition as equal to the Bible), but at the end of his answer, he oddly backpedalled somewhat from his ability to speak on such things. “I don’t consider myself an expert, I’ve only been studying this for two or three years… so having only spent a mere two and half or three years on this subject I am not the expert. There are people that are far more adept at talking about these things than I am. But I am learning and at some point the treasure chest will be part of my heart and soul, and I’ll be able to communicate with a whole lot more instruction.” That’s an odd stance for the Answer Man.

Christians should not look to their fellow believer’s experience as any kind of rule or guide for what we believe. Scripture must test all things. Even how previous generations interpreted Scripture is not an authority. I can learn from them, to be sure. But quite often I learn they were wrong. In this 500th anniversary of the Reformation, we’ve been reminded of that anew. This, apparently, is something the Bible Answer Man has forgotten.

[1] Jaroslav Pelikan, The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine, Vol. 2: The Spirit of Eastern Christendom (600-1700) (Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1974), p. 21.

[2] G.L. Prestige, Fathers and Heretics (London, SPCK, 1968), p. 3.


Evangelicalism and the Post-Truth World

Posted by M.Ferris on

Are evangelicals responsible for the “post-truth” world? A recent NY Times opinion piece by Molly Worthen makes this claim, but that conclusion is far from certain. I think history argues against that – even recent history.  If one lays the blame for giving up on facts at the feet of evangelicals, one of the first data points to consider is there no easy answer to the question, “what is an evangelical?” Worthen’s own work asks this question, and she acknowledges the answer to this far from clear. In Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism, she notes:

“The term evangelical has produced more debate than agreement. The word is so mired in adjectives and qualifiers, contaminated by politicization and stereotype, that many commentators have suggested that it has outlived its usefulness.”[1]

By her own observation, then, the term is nebulous and fraught with imprecision. Worthen seems to focus on an evangelical subculture, fundamentalism perhaps as responsible for a disdain for science and other facts as informing their view of the world. To be sure, there have been skeptics of science, but it’s a more difficult claim to make that such a subculture has shaped all of contemporary American evangelical Christianity. Many evangelicals, indeed I would say most, do not fixate on the Bible as a scientific text, but are content to answer “undefined” to various questions of natural science. The biblical record is an account God’s dealings with humanity, our sin and failure, and God’s own provision of a savior in the person and work of Jesus Christ. The unfolding of his plan, and the revelation of God’s glory through Christ are the heart of the narrative. As science may touch on these things, the Bible notes that, but almost in passing; “he made the stars also.” As Herbert Lockyer wrote, “The Scriptures were given, not to tell us how the heavens go, but to teach us how to go to heaven.” The broad swath of evangelicalism I’ve been exposed to has never majored on scientific authority, much less fossils or archaeology as any formative part of the Christian faith.

Worthen acknowledges “evangelicals are not the only ones who think that an authority trusted by the other side is probably lying.” But while evangelicals believe the supernatural is real, the fact that others believe only in the natural doesn’t mean they are any less contemptuous of the other side. There is an entire school of thought (aka worldview) that says the Enlightenment certainty about the scientific method and rational conclusions is flawed. Structuralism and Post-structuralism cast these assumptions aside, and with it, one can credibly argue, any certainty about truth. These are the heirs of Nietzsche, not exactly a friend of evangelicals, who said, “There are no facts, only interpretations.” That is just as presuppositional an apologetic as Cornelius Van Til or any other Christian may offer. It’s a worldview that is exclusive and rules out all others.

While focusing on a few evangelicals whose embrace of science caused them to run afoul of their Christian institutions, Worthen does not address the treatment of science as a faith in and of itself. It is an objective source of truth, a canon by which its adherents measure fact. One need only look at the numerous revisions to “settled science” to see that as a tenuous claim. In the 18th Century, it was settled science to bleed a patient suffering from any number of maladies. That, of course, is now considered medical hokum. Or more recently, A 130-Year-Old Fact About Dinosaurs Might Be Wrong. Our knowledge of science doesn’t represent a static body of doctrine, but something that is always changing. “We might be wrong” is something one hears too infrequently from the scientific community. The mandarins of science today have often coalesced with atheism; Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, et. al, to posit a worldview that is just as dismissive of any view that doesn’t accord with their its orthodoxy. To paraphrase Worthen, they too have one worldview, the one based on faith in an inerrant Science, [that] does have a claim on universal truth, and everyone else is a spiritually-deluded simpleton. There is plenty of truth denial on the other end of the theological spectrum as well. The new definition of gender fluidity contradicts the science of XX and XY, but this didn’t emerge from evangelicalism.

Worthen also observes that Christian academia can become an uncomfortable place for any who would challenge the received orthodoxy, but that goes both ways. It’s long been the case that Christians or others who disagree with the prevalent academic mindset (i.e., left of center) have experienced that kind of marginalization. The claim of the Bible is that there is such a thing as truth, it matters, and it is knowable. That’s actually the opposite of “post-truth.” The truth is preeminently a person, Jesus Christ.  We shouldn’t confuse poor or sloppy handling of the truth with “post-truth.” Atheists and others who share no beliefs with evangelicals have just as firm a commitment that theirs is only correct version of reality. That’s not the provenance of evangelicalism. Evangelicals have a duty to handle the truth carefully, as a trust that we pass on to the next generation. But it’s simply inaccurate to claim that evangelical faith in the Bible as God’s authority has given us the world of “post-truth.” There’s a whole lot of blame to go around for that.

[1] Worthen, Molly (2013-10-01). Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism (Kindle Locations 88-95). Oxford University Press, USA. Kindle Edition.


Ignorance of the Old Testament is a threat to New Testament faith

Posted by M.Ferris on

I’m not a fan of red letter Bibles, because I think they promote a view of inspiration and the canon that is inconsistent and unsustainable. The words recorded by the apostles as well as those of Jesus are equally the product of the Holy Spirit. The idea of some parts of the New Testament as more inspired than others is an impoverished view of the Scriptures. But another view of inspiration has crept into the church, and it is more dangerous than red letter editorial decisions. That is, a demotion of the Old Testament as Christian Scripture. In one sense, this is but a return to Marcion, an early heretic who rejected the Old Testament (and much of the New) as Christian Scripture, reducing his revelation to Luke’s gospel, and Paul’s writings. I don’t claim that Christians who ignore the Old Testament are endorsing Marcion. Rather, they are achieving by default what he actively pursued: a reduction in scope and authority of God’s Word. By infrequent visits to the OT, they are making the world of the Hebrew Bible foreign territory to themselves. Brent A. Strawn’s new book, The Old Testament is Dying: A Diagnosis and Recommended Treatment, is a wake up call to the church to reclaim the theological ground it has abandoned, by a practical disuse of the Old Testament. Strawn relates an anecdote from his own teaching that proved a sobering realization of the extent of the problem. He was teaching a Sunday School class on biblical poetry, working his way through various parts, and came to the cry of dereliction that Jesus utters from the cross: “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”  Strawn goes on to say:

“Given what I had just said, I figured the class was following me and that it was relatively clear that this saying from the cross was (a) poetic and (b) a citation from the Old Testament. So I asked the class of hoary heads what Jesus was quoting. Where, I questioned, did his words come from? Total silence. No one knew. Or if they did know, they certainly weren’t telling. But the pause was long enough and the silence deafening enough to make it clear to me that this wasn’t a case of being tight-lipped. It was a case of not knowing. One sweet-faced, white-haired woman finally shook her head, confirming my suspicion. No, they did not know the answer to my question. Not even this elderly group of “saints” knew that Jesus’s cry was a direct quotation of Psalm 22.”

Strawn’s book proceeds in a certain direction, that of likening the OT to a language, a dialect, through which one perceives the world, and by which one constructs a worldview. A big part of what he has to say has to do with the primary languages of the OT; Hebrew, Aramaic, and ancillary languages such as Akkadian. I don’t doubt the value of that approach. But I would submit that for most Christians, learning Hebrew is a hill they are unlikely to climb, and yet they can still immerse themselves in the OT. Indeed, we must immerse ourselves in the OT if we are at all to understand the NT.  The examples of this are many, and I am tempted to say, so obvious as to not need citation, but this is one of Strawn’s points: they do need citation because we have become ignorant of them.

When one opens John’s gospel, at 1:19, we read of “priests and Levites.” This presupposes a knowledge of the OT, and what a Levite is. When Paul tells the Philippians that he is being poured out as a drink offering upon the sacrifice and service of their faith, he assumes they understand his reference back to Numbers 15. The book of Hebrews is unintelligible without reference to the OT, citing quotations over 30 times.  22 of the 27 books of the NT cite the OT, for a total of about 850 citations or allusions. Hear the apostle Paul on the importance of the OT in our faith: “Whatever  was written before was written for our learning, that through patience, and comfort of the Scriptures, we might have hope.” (Rom. 15:4), and “Now these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come.” (1 Cor. 10:11).  I would put it thusly:  Ignorance of the Hebrew Bible is a direct threat to Christian belief. It opens Christians to the very thing Paul warned the Ephesians of, being tossed about by every wind of doctrine, and human cunning.  The promise of a redeemer is there in the proto-evangel of Genesis 3. Substitutionary atonement is there in Genesis 4, and throughout the rest of the Pentateuch. The doctrine of justification by faith is there in Genesis 15. The gospel itself rests on these biblical foundations, and if we do not know them, we are apt to cast aside the need for something such as substitutionary atonement.

I also had an experience like Strawn, a few years ago, when I was in a small group Bible study. This was a study on the life of Moses, so although it was in a sense topical, the material of course comes from the Pentateuch. One of the participants admitted, “I’ve always been more of a New Testament kind of guy, so this has been good for me.”  But one cannot be a New Testament type of Christian without the foundation of the Old Testament. The narrative of biblical history, the progressive revelation of salvation history – these things rely on the Hebrew Bible, and ignorance of this portion of Scripture means at best an incomplete understanding, and at worst leads to error.

If you are daunted by the prospect of acquiring a deeper familiarity with the OT, it is not as difficult as you may imagine. I can scarcely think of book with more drama than Genesis, and even those parts which people seem to love rolling their eyes at – Leviticus, for example, are deeply rich troves of pictures of Christ and his work.  And despite the fact that there has never been more helps to understanding of the OT, engaging with the text of Scripture itself is still the best method. The word of God will do its work in our hearts if we but expose ourselves to it. Do not give in to the temptation for a pre-digested version of the OT story. Read for yourself, and re-read. One of the best ways to understand is to read a book of the OT through several times. Each time you go through, you’ll find more than the previous time.

The Christian faith is a faith based on historical events – the incarnation, the crucifixion, the resurrection. But prior to these, there were other events that we cannot be ignorant of.  Since nearly 80% of our Bible is made up of the Old Testament, it is imperative for Christians to cultivate a deep knowledge of this part of God’s Scriptures.



The Church/Reformation

When Reform Brings Schism

Posted by M.Ferris on

 Hus at the Council of ConstanceIn this 500th anniversary of the Reformation, I think it’s important to revisit certain truths, not only doctrinal, but historical as well. I’ve written previously about the idea of the Reformation being over. That is, in the view of some, the level of agreement between former ecclesiastical foes is now so small that we can put the Reformation behind us and join together. That is a non-starter, in my view, not because I have anything against unity, but because there is still a chasm between the fundamental definition of salvation between Protestants and others. Salvation is doubtless the most important difference,  but there are also other important doctrines such as the definition of the Church, the person and work of Christ, where there remain wide divergences between evangelicals and sacramental traditions.
But there is the historical as well. One sometimes hears that prior to the Reformation, though there were certainly problems in the Church, there wasn’t the kind of division that the Reformation brought. But that is not historically accurate. Long before the Reformation there were deep divisions in the Church, or perhaps it’s better to say, Churches.

   A major fissure was caused by the “filioque” clause. If you’re not familiar with this issue, it came about due to the addition of a clause to the Nicene creed, to say that the Holy Spirit proceeded from the the father and the son (filioque). The decision to add that to the creed, (putatively at the Council of Toledo in 589) was made without consultation with other bishops, specifically those of the East. The Eastern churches greeted this as a heresy and a doctrinal innovation that could not stand. The issue festered for centuries, amid (truly!) Byzantine politics, with bishops and patriarchs trading anathemas back and forth. The added clause was formally accepted by Rome in 1014. Forty years later in 1054, the “Great Schism” officially came about. This pre-Reformation separation of East and West continues to the current day.

   A couple of hundred years after that, the Western Church (aka Roman Catholic) had its own schism. This was due to nothing doctrinal, but all political. There came a time when there were three simultaneous popes. If the Church sets up a system where one man sits atop the org chart, then having three CEOs makes it difficult to know who’s in charge. That schism was officially ended at the Council of Constance in 1414-1418. But, notably, one of the decrees the Council published was this: “All persons of whatever rank or dignity, even a Pope, are bound to obey it in matters relating to faith and the end of the schism and the general reformation of the Church of God in head and members.” In other words, the Council issued a papal takedown, and demanded that pontiffs obey conciliar decrees as the highest law of the Church. The schism was formally healed, (and future popes more or less ignored the outcome) but the ideas of conciliarism never really went away. This, too, had nothing to do with the Reformation. One need only look to very recent history to see that all is not well in the Roman Catholic Church. There is consternation among many about the current pope and where he may be taking the Church.

   These examples from history represent the fact that the roots of division may not be doctrinal at all, and are quite often political. Both underlying causes can (and have) resulted in division. In a sense, the Reformation can be seen as just one more example of the Church dividing itself, but with important differences. The doctrinal matters surrounding the Reformation put divisions based on political differences into their proper perspective. They were most often the result of pride and selfish ambition. The Reformers held the gospel itself in highest esteem, and that is why they spoke out as they did. What the previous divisions had in common was that they assumed that the highest authority was the Church itself. As some have said, they operated on the principle of sola ecclesia. The Reformation of course came about due to different principles; that the Church was subject to Scripture. The Word of God is over the people of God. This was needed reform in a Church that had lost its way. When a division such as the Reformation became inevitably necessary, we should remember that there are some things worth fighting for. Paul makes it fairly clear at the start of the Galatian epistle that the integrity of the gospel message is one of those things.

The next time someone shakes their head in dismay over the divisions the Reformation caused, remember too that it represents a great recovery of truth, and that legacy is still one worth standing up for.

The Church

Why you should banish the word “layman” from your vocabulary.

Posted by M.Ferris on

Clergymen One sometimes hears the phrase “in layman’s terms…“ followed by a description of some process or situation to explain to the untrained exactly what is going on. There are certainly times where I want a trained professional performing some task. The guy who replaces my water heater, or the one who took out my gall bladder – I don’t want someone with no credentials doing that work. But that sort of thinking can be problematic when brought into the church. It can (and did) lead to a caste system within the body of Christ, a spiritual hierarchy where some are the privileged few, others are deemed lesser in ability, and in extreme cases, even in their standing before God. There are two main areas where caution needs to be exercised:

Thinking that pastoral training equates to privilege or ability. I am not at all denigrating training, but it’s really critical to understand that if you are a leader in a local church, your training doesn’t set you apart from your congregation. This is not a new problem. The development of this can be traced historically and in parallel to the Roman Empire. Earlier Christians such as Cyprian had a background in civil service that they imported into the Church. Stuart Hall notes that “a bureaucracy parallel to that by which the Empire was run, managing dossiers of letters and documents had grown up, and for Cyprian only those recognized in the system belong to it. His own training in public affairs made him take this for granted.”[1] W.H.C. Frend also comments, “the clerical career had become designed to rank pari passu with the grades of the imperial civil service, just as bishoprics were becoming coterminous with civil boundaries.”[2] What this demonstrates is that thinking about leadership in the church was influenced if not dominated by governmental structures, and those structures from a state that opposed the Lordship of Jesus.

When we turn to the New Testament, however, there’s a very different model of leadership presented, and it is absent of officialdom or of hierarchy. The qualifications for those in leadership are related to character, and these emphasize humility, knowledge of Christian doctrine, and conformity to Christ. Evangelical churches don’t model themselves on government (they shouldn’t anyway), but they have certainly looked to the corporate world for how to do things. This can be brought into the church in subtle and seemingly innocuous ways. For example, stressing leadership skills or organizational effectiveness, at the expense of these other issues of life. And if you are a leader, how you exercise those skills can make all the difference. This is what Peter refers to, I think, when he cautions fellow elders not to lord it over the flock. (1. Pet. 5:3). Training may help you and your congregation in many ways, but one thing it should not do is convince you that you are the only one equipped to do a job. And, our sinful hearts being what they are, it is far too easy for someone in leadership to take umbrage at opposition, or to feel their turf is being encroached upon. Insert your story here of a case where a local church was blown up because of leaders becoming heavy-handed. We all have them, and it’s so important for those in ministry to remember that what leadership brings is not added qualification for ministry, but added responsibility.

Making a distinction between clergy and laity.

The word “lay” comes from the Greek λαός (laos) for “people.” But any kind of distinction between the “called” (κλῆρος=clergy) and the laity is completely unfounded in the New Testament. Paul refers to all believers by this title, when he says to the Romans, “among whom are you also the called of Jesus Christ (Rom. 1:6). The effects of a sharp distinction between pastor and people have been harmful to the body of Christ. Every single Christian is a priest to God, and on an equal standing before him. Training or vocation does not influence this at all. “There is no clergy-laity distinction. All are called of God. The ‘secret call’ of the preacher or pastor does not make him or her more called than the carpenter.”[3] When we use terms like clergy and laity, we are drawing a distinction foreign to the New Testament, one which encourages the kind of caste system which finds no place in the body of Christ. We are in fact undermining the kind of Church God is building. I am thankful that when our pastor greets newcomers from the front, he states his name and says, “I am one of the pastors here.” The implications of that are profound. He is not putting himself forth as lead pastor or senior pastor, but one of the shepherds. And that is an encouragement to the rest of us that the body is to build itself up in love. That a pastor supports his family and earns a living through giving himself wholly to the work of the Lord is not in conflict with this in any way. We should honor and respect those who do so, but it is the responsibility of the whole church to seek the welfare of the whole church.

That some are appointed to leadership in a local congregation is absolutely right, but that leadership is decidedly non-clerical. Alexander Strauch well summarizes the ethos of this. “It is a simple but profound fact that no clergy-laity dichotomy appears in the New Testament. Paul, the great church planter, taught that there is a wide divergence of gifts and services among the brethren, but no sacred clergy. In his many greetings to fellow workers and helpers, Paul never greets anyone as a clergyman or a layman. The more one comprehends Paul’s teaching on the gospel and body of Christ, the more one realizes the falsehood of the clergy-laity division. In fact, the very concept of a small, professional, ministerial body that is vested with superior rights and privileges over the sacraments and the Word, and is alone qualified to ‘minister’ would be unthinkable to the inspired writers of Scripture. Such a concept is foreign to the New Testament writers, who taught that the whole body of Christ is ministerial, saintly, and priestly.”[4]

If you a Christian but are not serving in full-time ministry, remember that you are every bit as much a priest as anyone. You are sealed with the Spirit of God, and you are a worshipper. You too, have the responsibility to study to show yourself approved, rightly handling God’s word. You, too, have the responsibility to build up the body of Christ, to “grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.” (Eph. 4:15-16).


[1] Stuart G. Hall, Doctrine and Practice in the Early Church,(Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1991), p. 90.

[2] W. H. C. Frend, The Early Church (Minneapolis, Fortress Press, 1965), p. 238.

[3] R. Paul Stevens, Liberating the Laity: Equipping All the Saints for Ministry (Dowers Grove, Intervarsity Press, 1985), p. 29.

[4] Alexander Strauch, Biblical Eldership: An Urgent Call to Restore Biblical Church Leadership (Littleton, Co., Lewis & Roth, 1988), p. 257.


Caveat Credor: The Hazards of Confessionalism

Posted by M.Ferris on

According to Wikipedia, Confessionalism is “a belief in the importance of full and unambiguous assent to the whole of a religious teaching. Confessionalists believe that differing interpretations or understandings, especially those in direct opposition to a held teaching, cannot be accommodated within a church communion.” It is not an unalloyed blessing. Confessionalism arises in times of theological pluralism, as an attempt to define the borders, and to mark the boundaries of orthodoxy. In this sense, the Bible itself promotes confessionalism. The apostolic gospel summary that Paul provides in 1 Cor. 15 is a least common denominator, apart from which one cannot be a follower of Jesus. And at the start of the Galatian epistle, Paul excoriates those who preach a different gospel from the one he previously announced to them. You cannot hold this “other gospel” of justification by works of law and be considered a follow of Jesus. That sort of boundary-marking is Scripturally endorsed, and not problematic. In a day of pluralism, the appeal to mark off what is and is not orthodox is great. But confessionalism can also create an artificial confidence. If you look at the early examples of the regula fidei or rule of faith, you see not detailed explanations of various doctrinal points, but broad outlines of what on must believe to be considered within the Christian faith. When confessionalism moves beyond that, to fine-grained delineations of a faith community, then we encounter the problems of it.

Confessionalism can diminish the mysteries of the faith.

When I use the word mysteries, I am not equating that with mystagogy. It is not hocus pocus (hoc est corpus meum – this is my body – morphed into hocus pocus by those who viewed transubstantiation as some magical transformation of Christ’s body.) Nor do I mean the biblical definition of a truth that was keep hidden in the counsels of God, but later revealed to us. (“which was not made known to the sons of men in other generations as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit.”) I mean those theological paradoxes, or putative paradoxes that we, by our nature want to solve, but which remain unexplained in Scripture. How can God have planned from eternity past that Jesus would be put to death on the cross, and yet hold mankind responsible for this? “This Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men.” (Acts 2:23) Or the perennial example of how God is sovereign over all his creation and creatures, and yet he has given them choice and will to act. Attempts to solve these paradoxes have resulted in confessionalism, which while defining the borders, nonetheless can reduce the counsels of God to what we understand. We are uncomfortable with a prolonged – perhaps lifelong – tension between these things. Paul writes at the end of Rom. 11, “How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!” Confessionalism in some way says, “we have searched his judgments and at last found out his ways.” In some areas, I still feel the need to say “I don’t know.” Be careful that confessionalism isn’t back door hubris about the things of God, a different way of saying “there are no ambiguities.”

Confessionalism can be a pretext for division.

I tread carefully in this area because it’s exceedingly important to note that the truth does divide. “Do you think that I have come to give peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division.  For from now on in one house there will be five divided, three against two and two against three.” (Luke 12:51-52) But the division Jesus speaks of is between those who accept him, and those who reject him. This is a division between the children of God and the children of the devil. Distinction and division of this kind is important. That is not what I refer to.  Elsewhere the Twelve come to Jesus saying “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” But Jesus said, “Do not stop him, for no one who does a mighty work in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. For the one who is not against us is for us. (Mark 9:38-40). The one casting out demons was doing so in Jesus name, and Jesus says do not prevent him. The objection was, “he does not follow us.” He is a follower of Jesus, but not in our group. I don’t think it’s difficult to see a warning of when confessionalism could become sectarianism. I should add that I think it’s proper for a church to require consistency among leaders. (But we easily come into issues of membership, constitution, by-laws, and other things about which Scripture does not speak). If a leader holds strongly to a premillennial position, but the church as a whole does not, it may well be right that this leader not teach his view from the pulpit, in classes or home groups. And before coming into leadership, those discussions should take place. What I’m speaking of is more general, perhaps restricted to one’s attitude. Confessionalism may arise when one joins a local church, but even if one signs on the line in such an instance, (and I don’t say this is wrong) it need not mean that you are taking your input only from denominational or confessional sources alone. Indeed, it should not mean this.

Confessionalism can stunt theological understanding and engagement.

Here are some questions to ask yourself to see if confessionalism is shaping your view of Scripture in potentially unhelpful ways. Do you read books, or listen to sermons and podcasts only from your confessional camp? It’s important to engage with opposing viewpoints on big theological issues. Confessionalism can lead to an echo chamber, which leaves you with an impoverished understanding. Creeds are general and non-specific, but confessional documents get to more detail and if those documents are elevated to authoritative status, it is a warning sign. The same holds true for our theological heroes. Do you disagree with your theological champions on anything? The collected writings of (fill in the blank) are never the final word on anything. If you find yourself agreeing with everything a person wrote, that, too is a warning flag.

Confessionalism appears to offer certainty in a time of confusion. When those around us are abandoning fundamental doctrines of the faith, then the attraction of planting our flag with a particular community is real. Evangelicalism is in a state of flux if not crisis, and many are casting about for something definitive. But one should be careful when your sole input is from one confessional viewpoint. One can learn a lot from confessional documents, but if you are tuned to one channel only, turn the knob once in a while.


The Value of Reading Scripture in Print

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Nothing will show you a generation gap like the media one uses to read the Bible. Roughly stated, the older crowd reads in print, younger Christians in electronic format. The benefits of a Bible app are many; portability, and having the Bible always at the ready, for example. Plus, the possibility of having several versions, and perhaps study tools along with that are also advantages. On the other hand, the advantages of print Bibles are considerable. Nicholas Carr’s 2010 The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains is a jeremiad against the diminished attention spans that come with online reading. His book is backed up with formidable research, but even anecdotally; ask yourself, when you read online, are you generally reading long articles or shorter snippets of things? And if you’re like most people, you are far more likely to jump around from page to page – to hyperlink. That convenience is a tremendous benefit of online reading. So, while I’m not suggesting you give up your app entirely, I am suggesting that I think what Carr observed has merit, and especially with the most important of books, print should hold sway over our reading.  Now at the risk of being labeled a Luddite, let me add that I use a Bible app with some frequency. I also have an app for the Greek New Testament, which is incredibly convenient. But, for my daily Bible reading, I use a hard copy Bible. The benefits of this, in my view, far outweigh the convenience of app reading. The value shows itself in a few ways:

Distraction-free reading. A print Bible doesn’t give you notifications, it doesn’t ding when another commentary has a message. Since apps live in the smart-phone ecosystem, there are all kinds of things working against concentration. In short, where Bible apps live is the land of distraction and multitasking, and as many have discovered, multitasking is a ruse. Concentrating on the words of Scripture is a single-threaded activity that should have all of our brain. Apps – even Bible apps -conspire against that. I have found that just plain staring at the page is a real aid to soaking in what the inspired writers have recorded. Plus, I find it annoying at times that I have to look at the words through what is really a small view port. You’re reading in the New Testament and you want to look at something in the Psalms. It takes several taps, going to the table of contents, finding the book, finding the chapter. It’s quite inefficient. It’s still far easier to just flip over the physical page, keeping a finger in the NT so you can go back to where you were. Staring at a page, poring over it, is a way to counteract and overcome the effects that Carr discusses in The Shallows. Is there anyone who can’t do with more focus on God’s word?

The following two benefits apply more specifically to writing in your Bible, but I think they are worth considering.

Organizing your thoughts. For years, I didn’t write in my Bible. My wife has always done so, and a few years back, I started using a wide margin journaling Bible, and it has been a tremendous aid in my study and reading. When you encounter an idea, a theme that recurs throughout Scripture, writing this in the margin at each occurrence is a great help in remembering and in being able to bring this to mind. Take, for example, a big-picture idea such as the Abrahamic covenant. Can’t you get that from a study Bible? You can, but someone else has done the work for you. You value the gems you mine. I’m not suggesting that you discount the scholarship behind study Bibles. I use study aids extensively. But it’s good to check your conclusions in these resources after you’ve come to them, and adjust if necessary.

Creating your own cross-references. Research has shown that when we write in longhand, it has an effect on comprehension. Briefly stated, if you are typing something, it just doesn’t stick in the same way it does when written in longhand. That’s why putting a note in your app isn’t the same as writing it on the page of a Bible. There’s nothing like doing the leg work yourself to come up with passages that are linked to one another. You simply remember more.

If you haven’t read the Bible in hard copy in a while, take and read (and write!)

Worship/The Church

What should corporate worship look like?

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A couple of years prior to becoming a christian (and while still attending a mainline, liturgical church), I remember asking myself, “Where do the robes come from?” I had been reading the New Testament, and it struck me that I didn’t find anything there about pastors wearing special garments or vestments. The answer is tradition. When we approach the question of worship, the things we do when we gather corporately, tradition has assumed immense importance. One of the chief reason for this may be that the New Testament is in many areas non-specific about what is done, and and how it is done. Into this perceived void, tradition purports to offer the guidance we need to organize corporate worship.

When we examine the New Testament, there we find only two ordinances, or sacraments: baptism and the Lord’s Supper. And there is plenty of argument about the form and meaning of just these two. But the other conspicuous absence is any form of order of worship, any liturgy of any kind. What did the first Christian gatherings look like? How were they organized? We can’t say with certainty, though a few things can be drawn from the record in Acts.

1) It is likely that gatherings were on Sunday evenings, because Sunday was a work day. Acts 20 has Paul speaking late into the evening.

2) When the church gathered for worship each Lord’s day, the Lord’s Supper was a part of what they did. It has become tradition in protestantism to celebrate the Lord’s Supper monthly in many churches, but an honest look at the biblical record shows this practice doesn’t rest on anything there. I am not commenting on the meaning behind the Supper, but only on the frequency. However, the frequency can inform a bit of our understanding that remembering the Lord’s death was not something tacked on to the end of their meetings, rather it was a vital and central feature of the gathered church.

3) Any kind of ‘order of worship’ is very difficult if not impossible to discern. The evidence is simply too thin to say what the first gatherings of Christians looked like in terms of details.

The point in all of this is to say while we don’t have detail, we do have major elements and principles. Acts 2:42 is a key verse for this. “And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.”  Instruction in the apostle’s doctrine is still an important part of a christian gathering. Indeed, the careful exposition of scripture is vital to growth in the knowledge of God. Secondly, they were devoted to fellowship, to sharing together. Fellowship means sharing together, and the thing Christians have in common is that they all belong to Christ. There can’t be fellowship if this isn’t the case. It also argues against the idea that one doesn’t need to gather with other believers corporately to be a christian. Indeed, you don’t have to be in a crowd to accept Christ, to enter into new life in Him. But having become a believer, you do need to join with others. It is the apostolic model and admonition to not forsake the assembling of yourselves together. Breaking of bread was quite likely a meal that the believers took together, which at some point included the bread and wine taken in remembrance of Jesus’ death. In Acts 20:7 we read that “On the first day of the week, when we were gathered together to break bread, Paul talked with them, intending to depart on the next day..”  Here, too, one gets the impression that the Lord’s Supper was always a part of the weekly gathering of the church. Finally, they prayed. In Acts 2:42, it is in the plural, which likely means that they were offering the customary Jewish prayers in the temple, but it is also clear that Acts is a transitional book. The apostles themselves take some time to fully move away from the patterns and habits of their Jewish life. Later, in the epistles, it is obvious that prayer is encouraged, commanded, and valuable in the life of the church.

At the distance of some 20 centuries, when we look at our own gatherings for worship, many of these look very different than what we read in Acts. Is this to be expected? Are we to understand that with the passage of time it is only natural that things should change, develop and evolve? That there has been change is evident, but the question to ask is, is that change legitimate? This becomes particularly important when the changes are imperious to the point of displacing what we clearly find in the New Testament. Paul F. Bradshaw’s The Search for the Origins of Christian Worship makes interesting contributions to this question. I assume Mr. Bradshaw is a Roman Catholic, (though it is not stated in his book), due to his faculty position at Notre Dame University, but if he is not, no matter – his book is a fair-minded and nonpartisan presentation of the early evidence for various rites and liturgies. The most interesting part to me is chapter 3, “Ten principles for interpreting early christian liturgical evidence.” Bradshaw puts forth guidelines that are as much cautionary as anything. A sampling:

1. What is most common is not necessarily most ancient, and what is least common is not necessarily least ancient.
3. Authoritative statements are not always genuinely authoritative.
5. When a variety of explanation is advanced for the origin of a liturgical custom, its true source has almost certainly been forgotten.
6. Ancient church orders are not what they seem.

The Gershwin brothers may provide the most apt paraphrase of what Bradshaw posits with early liturgical sources: “It ain’t necessarily so.”

This becomes important when faced with authoritative sounding statements about what the church “has always” believed or practiced. Bradshaw’s caveats remind us what an elusive task it is to find the true source of some practice.  But the other point is this: Secondary sources, sub-apostolic documents are just that; they are not Scripture, and therefore they may provide some descriptive value, but they do not provide prescriptive (or proscriptive) information on how Christian worship is done. For example, the Didache presents a brief outline of how the Lord’s Supper is to be done. Departing from other evidence, it has the giving of thanks for the cup before that for the bread. I have never heard of, nor witnessed a communion celebration where the cup was passed before the bread. Despite the early date of the Didache, no one follows this outline.

When a gathering of Christians assembles for worship, the essential elements of what Acts 2:42 outlines should be present, but beyond this, it isn’t necessary to have any sort of liturgical uniformity or homogeneity. Differences in culture find expression in the body of Christ, and corporate worship is one of the chief places where such differences appear. This is not disunity or problematic. Indeed, what is problematic is when local Christian gatherings are forced to conform to some imposed formula that finds no basis in scripture.


Is the Reformation to be repented of?

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It is not so surprising to find calls for unity among Christians in this 500th anniversary year of the Reformation. So has the Archbishop of Canterbury (and earlier, Pope Francis) done in recent remarks. But we should be clear to distinguish between the effects of social upheaval,  and the ideas – the doctrines – that were the impetus preceding that upheaval. The Reformation was a massive shift in European society that came about for many reasons. But when it comes to doctrine, it’s clear what motivated the Reformers, and it wasn’t a desire to bring division or schism. If such came as a result of proclaiming the truth, that is not a fault of the truth itself.

Diarmaid MacCulloch’s The Reformation spends the first 50-odd pages laying out the case that in the centuries prior to Luther, the locus of salvation had been shifted away from the person of Christ, and to the Church. Looked at in this way, one can reframe the argument that Justin Welby wants to make. Was it not this shift itself that brought division? Was it not a replacement of Christ with the church as the vessel of salvation that brought such division? It is certainly true that the Roman Catholic church has changed massively since those days, but not in the points of doctrine that ultimately animated Luther. Infused righteousness, versus imputed righteousness – this is still Rome’s position. Look in the catechism and you’ll see. “No one can merit the initial grace which is at the origin of conversion. Moved by the Holy Spirit, we can merit for ourselves and for others all the graces needed to attain eternal life.” (CCC, 2027).  That is vastly different than what Paul says in Romans 5:1 “Therefore being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” This is justification as completed act, not as aspiration or potentiality.

It’s not quite as simple as “moving beyond the controversies and disagreements that have often prevented us from understanding one another”.  When people behave badly toward one another, that is something to be repented of. But it’s not a matter of misunderstanding that explains the differences between justification by faith and its alternatives. These are deeply held doctrinal convictions, founded on scriptural exegesis, not tradition. On the part of evangelicals, these cannot be compromised without a fundamental redefinition of the gospel itself.

I concur with Archbishop Welby that unity should be sought with those who name the name of Christ; we should repent of our sins and failures, but the clear proclamation of justification by faith is no failure.


Whither Evangelicalism?

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An article at Religion News Service on the Future of Evangelicalism in America examines (once again) the questions of what lies ahead for an admittedly amorphous movement. The article is really just a teaser for the book the same name, and I say once again because this has been a topic of discussion and research in the recent past. Molly Worthen’s Apostle’s of Reason: the Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism is a good piece of both history and journalism, and chiefly because Worthen squarely faces the question of “What does the term evangelical mean?” Her answer, and that of several others: not much.

Mark Silk, who coedited the book, mentions David Bebbington’s “Evangelical Quadrilateral” in the article, but only to say that his co-editor wanted to stick to that as a working definition, while admitting the “movement” may have outgrown the designations. Much of what Bebbington identified as essential elements of evangelicalism is absent from its current forms. And that is why I agree with Worthen that the label has really come to have no meaning. For many, “evangelical” has more significance to identify a voting block, rather than core theological convictions, and that is a sad fact of evangelicalism’s current state.

Growth in numbers may mean a certain demographic is on the rise, and for evangelicalism in its American forms of today, that’s about all one can say. Numbers are rising in various churches, (“demographically, evangelicalism is holding its own. It has supplanted the Mainline Protestantism as the normative form of non-Catholic Christianity in America.”) but how has the substance changed?  I wrote previously about evangelical heterodoxy, and I’m sorry to say I don’t see this trend changing. Nor is mysticism or sacramentalism the answer. No matter what moniker we want to wear – evangelical, protestant, seeker – if we aren’t moored to Scripture and to its authority, any future we have won’t much matter.

These concerns aren’t new, but Christians always need to be reminded to hew close to Scripture, and to keep mining the riches of the word of God. It’s only in the word we learn about the Word, Jesus. The need for the Church today is the same as it’s always been. Speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, Christ. I recall early in my Christian life, someone asked me what I was looking for in a church. “Good preaching, good music.” I said. This brother answered me in a way that has stuck with me ever since. “How about Christ-centered?” I had never thought of that before, but it made immediate sense. Evangelicals are no more immune to drifting away from their foundation than anyone else. Mature believers know they never outgrow their dependence on the Bible, which properly read, will continually lead them back to Christ.