Apologetics, Apostasy, Christology, Church, Holy Spirit

Hatred for History

For all the Athenians and strangers which were there spent their time in nothing else, but either to tell, or to hear, some new thing (Acts 17:21)

. . . they soon forgot . . . (Psalm 106:13)

Richard Weaver said in Ideas Have Consequences: “It has been well said that the chief trouble with the contemporary generation is that it has not read the minutes of the last meeting. Most modern people appear to resent the past and seek to deny its substance for either of two reasons: (1) it confuses them, or (2) it inhibits them. If it confuses them, they have not thought enough about it; if it inhibits them, we should look with a curious eye upon whatever schemes they have afoot.”

Our generation is abominably, embarrassingly, hatefully anti-historical. Much of this hatred of history is the result of political liberalism, with its love affair with the present and the future, the belief that the latest generation in time is necessarily the most advanced generation of all time. The politically correct crowd love to hate the past, because it represents to them all they oppose — sexism, racism, homophobia, and religious orthodoxy. The farther we can get from that past, they think, the greater chance we have of escaping from these evils. Two factors, if they would only think a bit, may give them pause: first, they have no guarantee that the future cannot “revert to the past.” Some of the leading views of history are cyclical —the idea that history just repeats itself. This view is in error, but they have no means to disprove it. Second, the enemies of the past forget that it was often the very ideas of the past that destroyed the supposed evils they so loudly oppose. For example, they hate slavery in any form, but do not recognize it was the ideas of Jefferson (a man who owned slaves) that later in this country helped to abolish racial slavery.

The church is sometimes no better in its attitude toward history than is the wider society. This was highlighted for me at a ministerial association meeting in Cleveland I attended many years ago. The slick leaders were hyped up over the “relational” work of the Holy Spirit in “unbinding” Cleveland (apparently, the city was constipated). I soon discovered few there knew even a modicum about the heritage of the church — and most of those who did carelessly cast that history aside in favor of “the new wave of the Spirit” in this hour. Orthodox Christianity was for them passe. They wanted the spanking new, shiny, glitzy, updated version. They are this susceptible to every little fad (“move of the Spirit”) that comes along, led around by the nose by quick-speaking quacks. And they never know the difference.

When this happens, the members of church lose the gains of the past. The first gain they lose is orthodoxy. Because they hate the past, they are forced to reinvent the wheel. And they never do as good a job as their forebears did — and often they do much worse . . . heretically worse. They damn (or neglect) the creeds of catholic orthodoxy and the confessions of Reformation orthodoxy in favor of “restorationism”: the idea that without recourse to history they can restore primitive, Biblical Christianity. They do not believe the Bible when it says that God will preserve the Faith intact in history. Therefore they end up espousing some of the very heresies the fathers so capably refuted — subordinationism, modalism, docetism, Nestorianism, Pelagianism, etc. They repeat too the errors refuted at the Reformation.

The second gain they lose is knowledge of the lessons of the past — for example, that unity without doctrine is an impossibility, that the inability to distinguish primary from secondary doctrine is unnecessarily divisive, that doctrine without practice is deadly, that the church must not (under ordinary conditions) assume the sword, that a low view of the visible church is destructive, that evangelism must be comprehensive, etc. The moderns do not know that there are no new problems — only old problems in new clothes. They do not have the benefit of the past because they hate the past.

Perhaps worst of all, they develop an anti-historical and anti-intellectual arrogance, according to which they consider themselves and their own little group true Christianity. They are so ignorant that they assume they could come up with Trinitarian Christianity with no recourse to church history. They turn their backs on the Faith preserved in the martyrs’ blood. They turn up their noses at the creeds and confessions that give them any semblance of orthodoxy they may retain. They bite the hand that feeds them.

They may appear oozily and humbly spiritual, but they are peacock-proud, vacuum-headed moderns, no better in the religious realm than liberals in the political realm.

And they are an affront and embarrassment to historic orthodox Biblical Christianity.


After God’s Silence — What?

by Oswald Chambers


“Now Jesus loved Martha, and her sister, and Lazarus. When He had heard therefore that he was sick, He abode two days still in the same place where He was.” John 11:5-6.

Jesus stayed two days where He was without sending a word. We are apt to say—’I know why God has not answered my prayer, it is because I asked for something wrong.’ That was not the reason Jesus did not answer Martha and Mary— they desired a right thing. It is quite true God does not answer some prayers because they are wrong, but that is so obvious that it does not need a revelation from God to understand it. God wants us to stop understanding in the way we have understood and get into the place He wants us to get into, i.e., He wants us to know how to rely on Him.

God’s silences are His answers. If we only take as answers those that are visible to our senses, we are in a very elementary condition of grace. Can it be said of us that Jesus so loved us that He stayed where He was because He knew we had a capacity to stand a bigger revelation? Has God trusted us with a silence, a silence that is abso­lutely big with meaning? That is His answer. The manifestation will come in a way beyond any pos­sibility of comprehension. Are we mourning be­fore God because we have not had an audible re­sponse? Mary Magdalene was weeping at the sep­ulchre—what was she asking for? The dead body of Jesus. Of Whom did she ask it? Of Jesus Him­self, and she did not know Him! Did Jesus give her what she asked for? He gave her something in­finitely grander than she had ever conceived—a risen, living impossible-to-die Lord. How many of us have been blind in our prayers? Look back and think of the prayers you thought had not been answered, but now you find God has an­swered them with a bigger manifestation than you ever dreamed. God has trusted you in the most intimate way He could trust you, with an absolute silence, not of despair but of pleasure, because He saw you could stand a much bigger revelation than you had at the time. Some prayers are followed by silence because they are wrong, others because they are bigger than we can under­stand. Jesus stayed where He was—a positive stay­ing, because He loved them. Did they get Lazarus back? They got infinitely more; they got to know the greatest truth mortal beings ever knew—that Jesus Christ is the Resurrection and the Life. It will be a wonderful moment for some of us when we stand before God and find that the prayers we clamoured for in early days and imagined were never answered, have been answered in the most amazing way, and that God’s silence has been the sign of the answer. If we always want to be able to point to something and say, ‘This is the way God answered my prayer,’ God cannot trust us yet with His silence. Here is where the devil comes in and says, ‘Now you have been praying a wrong prayer.’ You can easily know whether you have—test it by the word of God. If it has been a prayer to know God better, a prayer for the baptism of the Holy Ghost, a prayer for the interpretation and understanding of God’s word, it is a prayer in accordance with God’s will. You say, ‘But He has not answered.’ He has, He is so near to you that His silence is the answer. His silence is big with terrific meaning that you can­not understand yet, but presently you will. Time is nothing to God. Prayers were offered years ago and God answered the soul with silence; now He is giving the manifestation of the answer in a revelation that we are scarcely able to compre­hend.


From When Ye Shall Ask


Two Gospel Heresies

Salvation by works is heresy.  Salvation without works is heresy.  Both are damnable. 

In the history of the Church the battle for the gospel has often centered on two extremes that eviscerate it.   They are equally damning.


First, there is the heresy of moralism. This is the horridly humanistic idea that man can somehow obtain salvation by his merits, virtue, or “good works.”   Many of the Jews during the time of the New Testament had apostatized and had adopted this false teaching.   They believed that their physical lineage and their circumcision and their external law-keeping could save them (the Old Testament never taught this).   Paul attacked this heresy with great vigor in the book of Romans, but particularly in the book of Galatians.   So did Jesus Christ, when He told the unbelieving Jews of His day that only those who do the works of Abraham — that is, those who have faith in Him — will be saved (Jn. 8:33, 39).   This is the only “work” that saves!   Salvation by merit or “good works” or “morality” is a false Gospel (Gal. 1:7–9).   It is an attack on the redemptive work of Jesus Christ.   This is Paul’s implicit message in Galatians 3-5.   It is true also of his comments in Ephesians 2:8-10.   If salvation were by works, some would boast and thus undercut the great redemptive work of Jesus Christ.

Many people today have transformed religion into a system of merit and virtue, a “covenant of works.”   They think that the law is made in order to obtain eternal life, despite the fact that Paul plainly declares that the law could never, under any conditions, grant eternal life (Gal. 3:21).   This, again, is the fatal heresy of moralism.


But there is another heresy. This is the heresy of antinomianism. It is just as deadly.  It is equally damnable. This is the idea that since salvation is by grace, God makes no demands on the Gospel.   The gospel is “fun-city” religion.   But the Bible tells us plainly that the Gospel is not only a message to be believed; it is a command to be obeyed (2 Thes. 1: 6-9; Rom. 1:5; 16:26).   The Gospel makes demands of sinners.  The Gospel is the message of the great King, Jesus Christ.   He comes to rebels with the gracious, but firm, proposal — “Trust in my atoning work on the cross and my bodily resurrection, submit yourself to my Lordship, and you will be forgiven your debt and you will become my disciples.”   Too much of today’s “Gospel preaching” ignores this vital element.   It is simply “fire insurance.”   Rebels want the luxury of assurance that after they die they will float around on ethereal clouds with halos hearing beautiful harp music.   They want to have their sins, and they want to have Heaven, too.   So a “gospel” has been developed to appease them.

But this is a false gospel.   It is antinomian to the core.   Jesus expostulates that those who refuse to deny themselves and take up their cross and follow Him will “lose their own souls” (Mt. 16: 24-26).  Only disciples are saved.

Consequently, there are two heresies to avoid: moralism and antinomianism.   No person is saved by good works, yet no person will be saved without good works.   Faith alone saves, but the faith that saves is never alone (Jam. 2).   We today have “Christians” whoring on Saturday nights and singing hymns on Sunday morning.   They obviously know nothing about the Gospel.   Some of these are the same folks who attack Roman Catholics for believing in salvation by good works.   But their own error is no less damnable than the error of moralism.

Never forget — salvation by grace is not a salvation without demands.    And it is totally by grace through faith apart from any merit of any kind.

Theological Method

Theologies to be Skeptical About

Christian systematic theologies abound today, and the themes around which one may orient any theology are legion: Protestant, Roman Catholic, Baptist, Pentecostal, feminist, dispensationalist, Afro-American, liberation, liturgical, evangelical, Marxist, Asian, Indian, and on and on.   On the basis of Biblical revelation, I thought it might be useful to list 10 traits of theology that should inspire us to be skeptical when we detect them.

Be skeptical of any theology that:

1.   Situates the Person of Jesus Christ anywhere except at its absolute center (Col. 1:15-19; Heb. 1:3).

2.   Prefers knowledge to love (1 Cor. 1:8; 13:8).

3.   Assumes one can know doctrine without first obeying Christ (Jn. 7:17).

4.   Produces cruel, pharisaic people (Mt. 7:1-20).

5.   Pits personal revelation against propositional revelation (Jn. 1:1-3; 17:17)

6.   Refuses to acknowledge its own sinful, finite, tentative, human character (Is. 55:8-9; Rom. 3:4)

7.   Forbids any tradition to be judged by the written Word of God (Mt. 15:1-6)

8.   Sees apologetics anywhere but in the Gospel (1 Jn. 5:6-10).

9.   Draws people to the theologian or his theology rather than to Jesus Christ (1 Cor. 1:10-13).

10.   Tries to win acceptance in the eyes of sophisticated unbelievers (1 Cor. 1:18-31).


Prophetic Preaching or Expository Preaching?

Over the past thirty years or so, there has been a big emphasis on “expository” or “expositional” preaching. This is the practice of preaching straight through the Bible (or a portion of it) sequentially, exegeting a particular portion and expounding it. This surely is an acceptable way to preach, and it has a long history. For instance, Chrysostom in the ancient church preached this way.

Advocates of this sort of preaching, however, often criticize those who do not preach this way. Anything but their way is considered substandard or even not preaching at all. But this is hardly the case. In the Bible itself, there are not unambiguous examples of this type of preaching. In the Old Testament, Ezra stood up publicly and read the law; and this is an important part of public worship. In the New Testament, Jesus entered the synagogue and commented powerfully on a pre-selected text from the Old Testament to be used for that Sabbath day. None of the sermons recorded in Acts, however, is, strictly speaking, expository. None is “exegetical.” If you look at the sermons of Jesus and Paul and Peter, you will find that they are generally summaries of Biblical truth. They did not take a few Old Testament verses and expound them. Rather, their entire life was suffused by the Old Testament and, therefore, virtually everything they said in their sermons was Biblically grounded.

Their preaching was Spirit-filled, Old Testament-based, direct, urgent, immediate. It was prophetic; they were not speaking what they considered an antiquated word and simply “applying it” to the contemporary situation. Rather, they assumed that the ancient Word was designed for the contemporary situation. This is the sort of preaching that we need today.

Virtually all Biblical preaching is topical in the sense that the preacher addresses a specific topic and weaves scriptural truth in his preaching.

Some liberals use the fact that New Testament preachers (and writers) did not quote the Old Testament verbatim as proof that they did not hold what is today termed verbal inspiration. It teaches nothing of the kind. It teaches, rather, that the Old Testament was such a part of their thinking and entire life that they spoke it with ease without any attempt at scholastic accuracy.

When the Bible shapes the preacher’s life, it will commandeer his words in the pulpit.

Theological sociology

Toward a Catholic Calvinism

I put myself on guard whenever I observe speakers and writers neatly classifying individuals into distinct, mutually exclusive, and seemingly airtight categories. One factor that makes individuals what they are is their own distinctiveness, a fact that renders most attempts at classification somewhat arbitrary. Nonetheless, the Bible itself classifies individuals again and again (saved and unsaved, carnal and spiritual, Jews and Gentiles, weak and strong, foolish and wise, and so forth), and any attempt to chart characteristics and trends that involves individuals demands classification of some sort. The categories of blond-haired people, self-taught people, two-income people, and gregarious people are relevant categories. The fact that these categories have fuzzy edges, and the fact that they can be used for foolish or malicious purposes, do not detract from their usefulness.

My concern in this essay is briefly to set forth three identifiable sectors within today’s conservative Reformed camp. By “conservative,” I mean conservative theologically — holding to the time-honored tenets of the Christian Faith, such as the inspiration and authority of the Bible, the deity of Christ, His sacrificial atonement, His bodily resurrection, His second advent, salvation by grace through faith, and so on. By “Reformed,” I denote those who maintain an allegiance to the Calvinist tradition springing from the Protestant Reformation and crystallized in the Reformed confessions of faith hammered out during the 16th and 17th centuries. Its chief theological distinctives are the sovereignty of God, the final authority of Scripture, the unity of the Biblical covenants, salvation wholly by the grace of God, and the application of the Faith to all areas of life.  From the standpoint of a belief system only, this is what it means to be “conservative Reformed.”

The conservative Reformed camp is not a denomination, though several denominations are — or wish to be considered — both Reformed and conservative (I am including here many Presbyterian denominations).

Within this broadly aligned camp, three identifiable variations exist today. I have denoted them the TRs (Truly Reformed), the BRs (Barely Reformed), and the CRs (Catholic Reformed). I am intending in this essay, first, a description, delimiting the leading characteristics of each group.  Second, I would like the first two groups to consider a third alternative (Catholic Reformed), which holds firmly to the essentials of the Reformed Faith and which assimilates the best in both of the other camps but which jettisons some of (in my view) their less attractive features.  I do not wish to further divide the Reformed camp.  Indeed, this essay constitutes a proposal to further unite that camp (and other Bible-believing Christians) for the glory of God and the advancement of His kingdom.

The Truly Reformed (TRs)

While there are certainly variations in this company, it is fair to say that the TRs are conservatives of the most intense sort; and they are fervently committed to the scholastic, Reformed orthodoxy of the 16th and 17th centuries. Almost all are “strict subscriptionists,” holding that statements of faith like the Westminster Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, the Canons and Decrees of the Synod of Dordt, the Belgic Confession, or the London Baptist Confession are virtually summary duplications of Biblical teaching. They are strongly committed to the scholastic formulation of Calvinist doctrine as it comes to the fore, to take an example, in the Westminster Larger and Shorter Catechisms.

The Great Doctrinal Defection

TRs see the great crisis of the modern church as a deviation from this formulation of doctrine or theology. The great enemies of this doctrine are, first, evangelical Arminianism, the almost perpetual opponent of Calvinism, which originated in its midst, and particularly today as it is manifested in a form of evangelicalism within Reformed and Presbyterian denominations. This Arminianism is often linked with a dangerous revivalism, especially the Second Great Awakening, most notably with men like Charles G. Finney, and more recently D. L. Moody and Billy Graham.

To the TRs, the second great enemy is Protestant liberalism as it sprung from the pietistic tradition in men like Friedrich Schleiermacher. This liberalism completely transformed the older orthodox Protestant tradition by questioning or denying the infallibility of the Bible, the miraculous character of our Lord Jesus Christ and His great redemptive work in history, and a God-centered understanding of salvation.

The third great enemy to the thinking of the TRs is Roman Catholicism.  TRs perceive Rome to have changed little since the Council of Trent (1545-63), convened to counter those pesky Protestants.  Trent anathematized the leading Protestant distinctives of sola Scriptura (Scripture alone) and sola fide (faith alone).  This opposition created a chasm in the relation between the two sectors of Christianity that, despite dialogue pressing for reunion, remains to this day.  TRs radically oppose this dialogue.  They believe that today’s Rome is an enemy of the Faith, and that she deserves nothing other than opposition, obloquy and exclusion.

TRs see in evangelical Arminianism, Protestant liberalism, and Roman Catholicism the most pernicious forms of religious humanism and believe that they are perpetual enemies of the Faith — including within the Reformed camp. TRs thoughtfully and rigorously fight the battle to preserve strict, confessional Calvinism; literal, six-day creation; male church leadership; the regulative principle of worship (only that which is commanded in public worship is permitted); Presbyterian church polity (government by elders); the soteriological doctrines of sovereign grace (the so-called Five Points of Calvinism); and so on.  They believe that to lose these battles is to lose critical aspects of the Faith itself.

To the TRs, the chief solution to the pervasive evils within the church and the world is a return to the doctrine and practice of 16th- and early 17th-century scholastic Reformed orthodoxy.

The TRs, it should be mentioned, are highly suspicious of any doctrinal or theological development later than the seventeenth century, and they are particularly suspicious of any such development within the last hundred years. They would allow exceptions for Cornelius Van Til’s presuppositional apologetics, and Gordon H. Clark’s “axiomatic” apologetics, either one of which many TRs affirm. In matters of “pure theology,” though, the TRs are committed to the 16th and 17th centuries.  In other words, TRs tend to believe in the doctrinal development that the Reformation engendered, but none or little since (more on doctrinal development below).

The Barely Reformed (BRs)

I do not intend the expression “Barely Reformed” to be pejorative, but simply to denote that this group within the Reformed camp are much more committed to a broad evangelicalism than the confessional form of the Reformed Faith. In any case, this is what the TRs often label them, and the label has stuck. It is not that they are uncommitted to the Reformed Faith and the Reformed church as an acceptable ecclesiastical and sociological tradition, or even that they repudiate the tenets of Reformed orthodoxy. Rather, these are not matters of great concern to the BRs, for whom the preaching of a simple, earnest gospel of the Bible is the true commission of the church.

The BRs are pragmatists (and sometimes admittedly so). They are strongly committed to reaching the unsaved, and therefore the evangel, the gospel, means a great deal to them. They often pastor or attend the largest conservative Reformed or Presbyterian congregations in the United States, and they are tireless in their efforts to win souls and increase the size of the congregation. They tend to be less concerned with what they consider secondary doctrinal disputes over literal, six-day creation; women in the ministry or in other church leadership roles; the inroads of Arminianism; evangelistic strategies; the nature of the sacraments; and so forth.

The BRs are not to be confused with the truly “liberal” wing of the Reformed camp associated with certain mainline Reformed or Presbyterian denominations committed to Biblical higher criticism, female elders, theistic evolution, tolerance of homosexuality, and so on. The BRs are more accurately identified as evangelicals within the Reformed camp than as liberals. They are more interested in an irenic denomination and warm-hearted Christianity than in haggling over theological niceties. They are inclined to believe that the TRs are not so much wrong as wrong-headed: the latter need to get about the real business of preaching the gospel, discipling the saints, supporting the weak and weary, and building larger churches.

In most conservative, Reformed and Presbyterian denominations, the TRs and BRs are avowed foes.

The Catholic Reformed (CRs)

In the spirit of full disclosure, I am saying up front that I occupy a third sector. I have tried to describe the TRs and BRs as accurately and objectively as possible before describing my own view and that of this more recently emerging group of Calvinists. By “catholic,” it almost goes without saying, I do not denote Roman (or Eastern) Catholicism, but the manifestly Biblical notion of the universality of the Faith and church (Eph. 4:4) and their description in the Nicene Creed and among the patristic church as “one, holy, catholic and apostolic.”  While there may be (and certainly are) variations and sectors of orthodox Christianity, there can be only one Christian Faith.  This is what Catholic in “Catholic Reformed signifies.”

Affirmation and Dissent

Now, where do the CRs agree and disagree with both the TRs and the BRs? We CRs agree with the TRs in identifying three main problems in the modern church as evangelical Arminianism, Protestant liberalism, and Roman Catholicism. We agree that evangelical Arminianism has undermined the gracious character of the gospel; that the European Enlightenment, joining later with Romanticism to produce Protestant liberalism, precipitated a great crisis in the Western church; and that Roman Catholicism undermined the catholicity of the church by insisting on its hegemony and subverts a gratuitous soteriology by insisting that man in some way merit salvation. We agree with the BRs, however, in wanting to focus attention on the preaching of the evangel, the gospel of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. We agree that incessant dispute over comparatively secondary doctrines to the exclusion of the energetic preaching of the gospel has things just backwards, though we by no means consider any Biblical doctrine unimportant.  We are not latitudinarians.

Conservative and Progressive

We CRs, however, disagree with both the CRs and the BRs. While we hold with the TRs that evangelical Arminianism, Protestant liberalism, and Roman Catholicism are big problems, we do not agree that the restoration of Protestant scholastic confessionalism is the only (or perhaps even the best) solution. We are more conservative in that we do not wish to throw overboard the great gains of the pre-Reformation period — the patristic and medieval eras. We do not wish to perpetuate the errors of those eras, but neither do we wish to perpetuate what we believe to be certain errors of the Reformation era. We are more progressive in our willingness to explore new, Biblical ways to meet today’s challenges to the Faith. This distinguishes us from the TRs, who are reluctant to talk about or acknowledge such errors from the Reformation era, and who are convinced that a return to — or adoption of — the Reformed confessions is really about all that the church needs.

Theological and Dogmatic Development

CRs are committed to the fact of theological and dogmatic development.  For instance, it is evident that the sub-apostolic church did not have an entirely clear picture of the relation between the Persons of the Godhead or between the divine and human in Jesus Christ; if they had, the early church councils setting forth that teaching would have been unnecessary.  In other words, the sub-apostolic church did not fully grasp what we today would call orthodox Trinitarianism or Christology.  This does not mean that they “denied the Trinity,” or that they did not see Jesus as the God-Man sent from heaven to redeem us mortals from sin.  It simply means that they were not afforded the opportunity to participate in the later doctrinal debates that clarified the Biblical teaching on these (and other) matters.

The same is largely true of the Reformation’s innovative definition of the doctrine of justification by faith alone.  No one until the era of the Reformation expressed it quite like Luther and Calvin, and particularly like the Protestant scholastics.  This is not to imply that salvation by grace was “lost” in the sub-apostolic era and only “rediscovered” at the Reformation.  Augustine, for one, highlighted justification by faith alone in his battle with Pelagius.  But his formulation of this doctrine was not that of the Reformers (for one thing, he included infused righteousness in his definition of justification), and he warred against synergistic soteriology (God and man cooperating in man’s salvation) without benefit of a Protestant-type doctrine of justification.  It was given to the Reformers to revisit this doctrine in an intense, sweeping way; and we can grateful for the product of their theological labor.

The truth expressed in the Bible does not change, but Christians’ and the church’s views about what the Bible teaches do change.  Usually this occurs because a certain controversy erupts which forces Christians to go back and re-examine what the Bible actually teaches.  Often they find not that they were flatly wrong, but that they had inherited certain teachings that do not give full justice to the full sweep of Biblical evidence. It often takes controversies to force the church to a deeper understanding of the Bible.  This is how the church’s understanding of the Bible deepens over time.  We thus know more about the Bible today than the Church Fathers did, not because we are inherently smarter or more spiritual, but because those who have gone before us have blazed the trail a little further than their predecessors.  Likewise, we should expect that the faithful who follow us would enjoy a greater understanding of the Bible than we do today.  This is how theological progress is possible.

Of course, not all new understandings of the Bible are progress. Protestant liberalism, for instance, has warped the Christian message by denying the truthfulness of the very Book from which we learn that message, not to mention the supernatural character of Christianity, without which it cannot exist.  This is not progress, but apostasy.  The problem with liberalism is not that it is new (actually, it is quite old by now!), but that it is anti-Biblical.  Gnosticism, by contrast, is a very old teaching; but it is not legitimized simply by virtue of its antiquity.  Similarly, new understandings of the Bible are not to be excluded merely because they are new.  Old does not necessarily make right, and new does not necessarily make wrong.

We do enjoy an inherited Christian orthodoxy (expressed in the early ecumenical creeds) not alongside, independent of, and coordinate with the Bible, but a dogma, in the language of Philip Schaff, which flows out of the Bible itself.  We CRs hold to this dogma as good, Biblical theology.  We believe it delimits the dogmatic structure of Christianity.  We hold it not because it is inherited church dogma (though we do give universal ecclesiastical consensus great weight), but because it is a summary of Biblical dogma. We do not believe that the Bible contradicts orthodox Christianity.

How does this understanding of doctrinal development apply to the CRs’ view of the Reformation? We heartily affirm the form of doctrine set forth in scholastic, Reformed orthodoxy — the sovereignty of God, salvation by grace alone (monergistic soteriology), the centrality of the covenant, the unity of the Old and New Testaments, and so on. Nonetheless, we are convinced that the scholastic formulations of these and other doctrines, while useful and necessary at the time, are less useful and necessary today and, in any case, a few do not accurately duplicate Biblical teaching. Some examples include the identification of the papacy with the Antichrist in the original Westminster Confession of Faith; the isolation of the doctrine of justification from an earthly, covenantal context and from “the obedience of faith”; the over-emphasis on the theoretical and judicial elements in the Bible and an under-emphasis on its practical and experiential side; and the general lack of acknowledgement of the broad, orthodox catholic tradition.

We CRs are less critical of the scholastic Reformed tradition than we are critical of the attempt to reproduce that tradition today without any conservative, cautious, critical, revision in light of the Bible. We CRs are opposed to abandoning the confessional tradition, but we are in favor of cautiously asking whether certain elements of that tradition are in need of revision. We are less interested in changing any doctrinal assertions than in reformulating those assertions in light of the world in which we presently live, and challenges we immediately face.

Holistic Faith

Moreover, we CRs are not convinced that doctrinal deviation alone is the church’s problem.  We are not “doctrinalists,” that is, those who see the Faith in almost exclusively doctrinal terms.  Unlike most TRs, we do not believe that the great defection within the Reformed church we observe today originated in an erroneous theology or deviation from a confessional tradition.  Rather, we see these problems as the effects of a more profound problem — coldness or apostasy in the heart (Ezek. 6:9).  If theological deviance is not the core problem, we do not believe that recovery of theological accuracy, essential though it may be, is the core solution.  If men apostatize first not in their intellect but in what some Puritans called their “affections,” our initial concern for the church must be those affections.

Because we see man as a “holistic” being, we see his problem as a holistic problem.  It is not enough to attack just one part of the problem; we need to get to the source of the problem, and that problem is apostasy of the heart — refusing to love God with all one’s being, and his neighbor as himself (Mt. 22:37-40). In the words of my late friend Rev. C. L. Stover, “If loving God with all your heart is the greatest commandment, what do you imagine the greatest sin is?”  We therefore accent Biblical piety, and give it no less attention than we do Biblical theology.  We do not see these two facets of the Faith as competing, but complimentary; and we do not believe true reformation is possible without both. We want a fervently Christ-centered rather than theology-centered Faith, though we fully recognize that there can be no legitimate Christ-centeredness without accurate theology. We seek a delicate but Biblical union of doctrine and practice, creed and obedience, theology and life.  We want to be intensely practical and pastoral.

A Fervent Charity

Part of that practicality is the calling to charity toward our brothers.  And we CR’s believe that this has been grievously lacking in much of the Reformed camp, whether TR or BR. As noted above, the first great commandment of the law as defined by our Lord is loving God with the totality of our being.  The second great commandment is loving our neighbor as ourselves.  We believe this has been given inversely proportional emphasis in much of today’s Calvinism.  In other words, while Jesus Christ put it near the top of the priorities for His disciples, we have often placed it quite low on our list of priorities.  At least we act as though we do.

We CRs want to correct this in our own lives, and we want to inspire the church to greater charity. Steve Schlissel once asked me how it is possible that love was never considered as one of the “three marks” of the Reformed church.  After all, love is given a huge place in the Bible.  The Reformed “marks” traditionally have been considered the faithful preaching of the Word of God, the administration of the sacraments, and the maintenance of discipline. One might wish to argue that love is an aspect of discipline, but this is not what we see in many Calvinistic churches today. The centrality of love in the Bible is undisputed (1 Cor. 13; 1 Jn. 3:16). This compassion within the church values fellow believers as brothers in Christ and as brothers of the human race made in the image of God. It does not see people as part of an agenda, or a means to some end. People are an end in themselves.

We CRs want to manifest this love as a true mark of the church.  We believe that the day the Reformed churches are as disturbed by the absence of love in their midst as they are the presence of heresy, they will have approached a more Biblical balance in their churches.  When we are as troubled by the evil of lovelessness as we are the evil of Arminianism, we will come close to the Bible’s requirements of the saints.

A Full-Orbed Gospel

Just as we both agree and disagree with the TRs, so we agree and disagree with the BRs. While we agree with the BRs on the centrality of Jesus Christ and the gospel, we do not believe that the BRs often understand or at least preach and teach that gospel in its Biblical fullness. We believe that in the attempt to win as many people as possible (particularly in the so-called Church Growth Movement), they often sacrifice theological integrity and Biblical (Calvinistic!) soteriology. We believe that the BR gospel is often truncated; we believe that the gospel of Jesus Christ must be full-orbed, a heartfelt, compassionate, even emotional gospel message to the unbeliever that nonetheless requires repentance and submission to the Lordship of Jesus Christ, and which seeks to bring all areas of life and culture under His authority.  We see the omission of this comprehensive faith as a serious defect in the BR sector.

The objective of the Great Commission is worldwide Christian civilization.  We are called not merely to evangelize, but also to disciple (Mt. 28:18-20). And we are called to not only to evangelize and disciple all possible individuals, but also all nations.  This is nothing less than Christian culture and, eventually, Christian civilization.  This means that we must preach a full-orbed gospel and practice a full-orbed faith.

The Orthodox Christian Tradition

TRs often identify BRs as operating within “broad evangelicalism.” In many cases, this charge is accurate. We CRs have a broadness of our own, but it is the broadness of the orthodox Christian tradition itself. We are committed to what Thomas Oden terms “classical Christianity,” the early ecumenical orthodoxy of the undivided church as set forth principally in the Apostles, Nicene, Chalcedonian, and Athanasian Creeds. We believe that this broad consensus must underlie the more narrow (though also more specific) Reformed dogma. We do not see Reformed orthodoxy as the foundation of Christianity. We see Jesus Christ as the foundation of Christianity (1 Cor. 3:11), Christian orthodoxy laid upon that foundation, and the Reformed Faith as the apex of the Christian building. We see Biblical Calvinism, therefore, as the logical conclusion, and not the presupposition, of Christianity. We CRs are fervently committed to the Bible as a pre-creedal, pre-dogmatic, primal, divinely inspired and infallible revelation. It is the very living Word of the living God. We do not claim that the Bible does not teach a binding theology; it surely does. We simply claim that it is necessary constantly to mine that revelation in terms of new events, experiences, and ideas and to judge all of them by the Bible. We don’t mean by this that the Bible could ever be pitted against the form of doctrine in orthodox Christianity. Indeed, we believe that orthodox Christianity is the paradigm within which we should understand the Bible and right theology. In this sense, we are ardent traditionalists. However, we believe it is necessary for us today to maintain the same frame of mind as did the original Reformers. They met the theological and ecclesiastical crises of their age with a fresh study of the Bible and a reformulation and reapplication of its doctrine — always within the bounds of orthodox Christianity, of course. We believe that we are in no less of a crisis today — indeed, that we are in more of a crisis — than were the Protestant Reformers of the 16th century. Therefore, we must mine the Bible for truth as it applies specifically in our day.

Biblical Eclecticism

We CRs, therefore, are willing to explore the entire orthodox Christian tradition for Biblical truth that can be legitimately and effectively employed in today’s world. Commitment to Reformed Christianity does not prohibit — no, rather it demands — such a catholicity of doctrine. For instance, if traditional Wesleyanism is somewhat incorrect in its doctrine of sanctification but correct in its stress on the experiential nature of Christianity, we have no qualms in “borrowing” that emphasis (even with attribution!), if it is Biblically justified. If the Eastern form of Trinitarian dogma (which is where orthodox Trinitarianism developed) cannot be improved on within the Reformed tradition (and we don’t believe it can!), we have no problem championing the Eastern view; in other words, we do not feel it necessary to create a “Reformed version” of every doctrine (which may easily lead to heresy). Just as the Reformation church assimilated the Latin view of the Atonement (the satisfaction theory of Anselm), so we today are eager to launch out and employ Christian teachings which we believe are in line with the Bible, even if they did not originate within the Reformed tradition. The CRs, that is, are committed to a theological eclecticism, as long as its components are Biblically legitimate. We do not claim to possess all of the truth, and we are willing to find Biblical truth wherever it is located.  We do not believe that Calvinists hold a monopoly on Christian truth.

The CRs are distinctively Reformed, therefore, not in assuming that Biblical Christianity flows from 16th century Calvinism, but that the leading themes of the original Reformation are essential to a healthy Christianity.  We are further Reformed in that we do not believe that the need for reformation ended in 1540.  We believe in ecclesia reformata quia semper reformanda est — “the church reformed because it must always be reforming.”  The cautious, principled eclecticism of the CRs was a part of the Reformed Faith from the very beginning.  In fact, had it not been willing to unite the inherited Latin view of the atonement with its innovative view of justification, Calvinism as we know it would not have been possible.  This eclecticism presupposes that Calvinism is interested primarily in fidelity to the Biblical faith and not any particular historical manifestation of it — 16th century scholastic Calvinism included.  We believe the latter is a striking example of Biblical Christianity, but we do not believe it is infallible, and we do not believe it is above revision, any more than we believe today’s CR view is above revision.  The Bible alone is our final authority.  We must champion — and practice — sola Scriptura.

Catholic Intensity

This leads naturally to the issue of catholicity.  We are catholic in spirit, or intensity — at least we try to be. We do not try first to cut off other Christians who don’t agree with us on all points, but we want to work with them in whatever ways we can. We could not, for instance, invite a dispensationalist to teach his distinctives at our Bible conferences, but we could work with him in establishing a city rescue mission. We would never ask a Roman Catholic priest to lecture to our congregations on the primacy of the Pope, but we would work with him diligently to decrease and eventually eliminate abortion in our society. We would not invite an Arminian to champion his synergistic soteriology in our publications, but we would work with him in getting sound science curricula in his Christian day school. We want to work with our brothers and sisters as closely as we can on as many ventures as we can without compromising our distinctives.

Our appreciation of and sensitivity to the development of dogma in the history of the church renders us less combative than others in the Reformed tradition. A good example of this is the development of soteriology in different branches of the church.  Soteriological synergism is surely very bad (just as pharisaic Calvinism is), but it dominated both branches of the church for about a thousand years; and the church, while severely weakened, did not become non-Christian as a result of this error. Erroneous, yes; anti-Christian, no. If soteriological monergism is essential to Christianity, then, of course, there was no Christianity of any kind until the Protestant Reformation (even Augustine did not hold Luther’s view of justification). The same is true on issues as diverse as eschatology, ecclesiology, sacramentology, epistemology, and so on. I am not suggesting that these are in any way unimportant issues, only that the position one takes on these issues, as long as he is otherwise within the orthodox Faith, in no way disqualifies him from that Faith.

Catholic Extensity

We see ourselves, in addition, as catholic in extensity. We believe that the Faith should dominate all of life. We are thus committed to Christianity as a means of transforming culture. This is also true of some TRs and BRs, but there is a somewhat different element among the CRs. Like the TRs, we believe in purging and reforming the church, and like the BRs we believe in preaching the gospel to all men; but we do not believe that the battles of yesterday are the battles of today, and we do not believe that an ecclesiastical gospel will suffice. We cannot agree with those who say, “Just reform the church; everything else will take care of itself.” This was largely true in the 16th and 17th centuries, when society itself still carried on the medieval notion of a church-dominated culture. The battle today is not between 16th century scholastic Reformed orthodoxy and 19th century non-supernaturalistic Protestant liberalism, but between a relevant, Biblical Christianity, and relevant, pagan postmodernism.  This latter error does not stand outside the professing Christian church, but often finds welcome within the professing church. While during the medieval era, religious error moved from within the church out to the culture, today the religious error moves from the broader secular culture back into the church. At the time of the Reformation, reforming the church would largely guarantee the reform of society.  This is simply no longer an option.  The evil of secular society is too pervasive.  We CRs believe, therefore, that we do not have the luxury to battle only on the narrow ecclesiastical front. We are committed to a full-orbed Faith that must dominate in the individual, family, church, and the wider society.

In summary, the CRs attempt to be catholic in doctrine, in spirit, and in culture.


It has not been my objective to malign either the TRs or the BRs, but simply to set forth a description of all three sectors within the conservative Reformed camp. Obviously my own sympathies lay with the CRs, and I hope that this brief essay has outlined why I believe what I describe as the Catholic Reformed approach is a viable and valid one within today’s Reformed context.


Christianity as Empire

And in the days of these kings the God of heaven will set up a kingdom which shall never be destroyed; and the kingdom shall not be left to other people; it shall break in pieces and consume all these kingdoms, and it shall stand forever.

Daniel 2:44 

If evangelical Christians are to have an impact for the transformation of this society, in which they constitute one of the largest and most highly motivated minorities, but in which their influence is largely felt by default, it will be necessary to kill the sacred cow of pluralism.


Harold O. J. Brown[1]


A Tale of Two Pluralisms

Perhaps no word more accurately describes the modern and postmodern[2] age than pluralism.  Pluralism is the peaceful coexistence of multiple world-views, religions and ethical standards in a single society — negatively, the refusal of society (and notably the state) to select a single, popular explanation of reality by which to order itself.  Pluralism implies that Buddhists, New Age adherents, atheists, Christians, Muslims, National Socialists, Marxists, Hindus, and Fascists can and should live together harmoniously in the commonwealth.  The guarantee and security of this harmony is the state, which provides maximum freedom of expression for any and every world-view and protection from coercive hostility by the others.[3]  Implied in the devotion to pluralism are two assumptions: (1) that world-views are a private and not a public matter, and (2) that these world-views should not be embraced too passionately, so as to upset the neutral public order by assuming that all citizens must and should embrace one (the correct) world-view.  Competing world-views can survive because they keep their beliefs out of the public square and because they do not insist that everybody else see things their own way.  In this arrangement, a détente of world-views is the hallmark of pluralism.

Structural pluralism.  Christianity embraces one chief definition of pluralism but not the other.  We must distinguish between structural pluralism and substantive pluralism.  Christianity supports structural pluralism.  This is the view that the structure of a society, and especially the state, should not be tilted to advantage Christians or adherents or any other religion or world-view.  For example, the state should not issue quotas for religious adherents in the labor force, should not require that only one world-view be represented in government, should not dictate that anyone become a Christian or any other religion or life-system or punish anyone for apostasy from that religion or life-system (as, for instance, Islam does).  Structural pluralism creates a level playing field of society.

Christianity supports structural pluralism because it relies on the power of the Holy Spirit and (subordinately) human persuasion for its success.  Individuals come to Christianity by faith, a voluntary act of trust in Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord (Rom. 10:9-11).  Christianity is happy to have a society comprised of Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus, New Agers, and atheists because it does not need the coercive power of the state to win converts.  This is why Christianity has been at the forefront of constitutional democracy and the liberties it affords.[4]  Christianity is a religion of peace (Ac. 10:36), and it can afford for the structure of a society to be pluralistic; Christianity is not a statist or coercive religion.

Substantive pluralism.  However, Christianity does not countenance substantive pluralism.  This is the idea that multiple, mutually exclusive world-views, religions and ethical standards can peacefully coexist because none is entirely correct, all containing truth and contributing to the beautiful “mosaic” of a “diverse” society.  No religion or other world-view should hold its views too strongly, knowing that each is only relatively valid.  Belief itself, not merely the structure of a society, is pluralistic.  The social pests, therefore, are those who insist that their own view is right.  They are troublemakers, because they lead people to believe that one specific way (their way) is right and all others are wrong.  Substantive pluralism, by its very nature, is relativist.[5]

Obviously Christianity — or, at least, a Christianity that takes its Founder, Jesus Christ, and its founding document, the Bible, seriously — cannot embrace substantive pluralism.  Jesus himself claimed to be the — not a — “way,” “truth” and “life” (Jn. 14:6) and excoriates as “thieves and robbers” (Jn. 10:8) all who try to approach God in any alternative way.  The primitive Christians preached that Jesus’ is the only name by which men must be saved (Ac. 4:12).  It was everywhere assumed that those who do not follow Jesus Christ are on the path of destruction (Mt. 7:13-14).  Christianity as originated by its Founder and interpreted by His earliest followers is hostile to today’s substantive pluralism.

Severe hostility to substantive pluralism can be perceived also when one grasps the so-called Great Commission that Jesus gave to His disciples just before His ascension (Mt. 28:18-20; Mk. 16:15).[6]  He charged them to preach the Gospel to all creatures, discipling and baptizing all nations.  Clearly His goal was to bring all peoples in subjection to Him by means of the Gospel message centered on the fact of His redemptive work on the Cross and from the empty tomb (1 Cor. 15).  Joyous reception of this exclusive Gospel is simply incompatible with all other alternatives.  Christianity (like the authentic Jewish faith of the Old Testament) is the antithesis of syncretism — its goal is not the union of all religions and viewpoints but the vanquishing of all other religions and viewpoints.  This is just what the Gospel is calculated to accomplish — the worldwide victory of Christianity.[7]

Imperial Faith

When the Great Commission calls for global evangelization and discipleship, it equally and necessarily calls for global Christianization.  The first necessitates the second.  It is manifestly inconsistent to appeal for laborers in the Lord’s harvest to reap a world’s field overgrown with lost souls while simultaneously opposing global Christianization.  Why?  Every soul that trusts in Jesus for salvation, bowing the knee to His Lordship, begins the process of sanctification by which he or she gradually is conformed to the image of Jesus Christ and begins to influence the social environment in which God has placed him or her (Rom. 6; 12:9-21).  As more individuals are saved and sanctified, the more the society will enjoy the salt and light (Mt. 5:13-16) of God’s truth and grace.  As that salt and light pervade the world, individuals walk in the path of righteousness and re-shape the institutions of which they are a part, subordinating them to Jesus Christ.  This is precisely how Christian culture emerges (or re-emerges).[8]  Evangelization (properly implemented) necessitates Christianization.

Nebuchadnezzar’s dream.  This Christian culture becomes a worldwide empire under the authority, not of any nation-state, but of Jesus Christ Himself.  The Jewish prophet Daniel (Dan. 2:24-45) interpreted King Nebuchadnezzar’s dream, which, employing a huge human image as a metaphor, unfolded history as a succession of empires: the Babylonian, Medo-Persian, Greek, and Roman.[9]  Each empire from the second onward not merely succeeds but also supplants and supplements the preceding one.  This imperial sequence is precisely what occurred historically in the ancient Near East.  Daniel identifies the final worldly empire as the image’s feet comprised of iron and clay.  There can be no doubt that this is the Roman Empire.  In his interpretation of the dream, Daniel sees a small stone hurled supernaturally against the image’s feet, and the feet are thereby crushed, crumbling the entire image.  The little stone then grows to fill the entire earth, constituting an unshakable kingdom-empire.  What is most notable is that this stone-induced empire, established in the days of the ancient empires and specifically supplanting the Roman Empire, will stand eternally and never be shaken and supplanted.

This empire can be none other than the empire of Jesus Christ — birthed, executed, resurrected and exalted during the Roman Empire under the reign of Caesar Augustus.  This Christian Empire established at Jesus’ first (not second[10]) Advent is, according to Daniel, the final, ultimate, and unshakable empire, and none can supplant it or compete with it — not an Islamic Empire, not an Ottoman Empire, not a National Socialist Reich-Empire, not a Soviet Empire, not a British or an American or United Nations Empire.  The era of worldly empires is past, and the only empire is the global empire over which Jesus Christ rules and reigns from heaven (Ac. 2:29-36), progressively subordinating His enemies by the Gospel until every knee bows to Him (1 Cor. 15:22-28).

N. T. Wright argues that primitive Christianity was anti-imperial at its very core[11]  — that is, it was calculated to overturn the pagan Roman Empire and replace it with the Gospel Empire of Jesus Christ.  In His death on the Cross, He trounced Satan and his hosts, who had led the world into sin’s slavery, and in His resurrection He inaugurated God’s new order, his new Kingdom of righteousness designed to flood the earth.  Jesus of Nazareth is now King Jesus, Who subverts and condemns Caesar as the Roman emperor and any other pretenders to empire.  While Christ’s is not a political kingdom, His Gospel crushes the devotion of man to any political emperor or empire and redirects that devotion to Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord.  Jesus, not Caesar, is Lord — and Emperor.

Description of Jesus Christ’s Empire

The empire of Jesus Christ is His rule in the earth.[12]  He rules by means of His written Word, the Bible.  Whenever individuals, convicted and repentant of their sin, trust in Jesus alone for salvation, bowing the knee to His authority, they become members of His Empire (Col. 1:13).  They are baptized, join His people in the church, and they live in accord with His Word by the power of the Holy Spirit.  This means, concretely, that husbands love and lead and sacrifice for their wives; that wives assist their husbands in family life; that parents train their children to love and serve God at all times and in all spheres; that children and young adults surrender their lives to the Lord to obey His Word and His Spirit.  It means that Biblical faith does not stop at the family hearth or the church’s four walls but bursts out into society:[13] Christians as salesmen and mechanics and scientists and politicians and teachers and businessmen and -women and software engineers and in all other vocations apply in their daily calling the truth of God’s Word appropriate to that vocation.  The Christian salesman adheres to Biblical truth in representing products and services and seeks to benefit his customers (in Biblical language, his neighbors) while also validly seeking to benefit himself and his family.  The Christian software engineer or computer scientist employs Biblical principles of creativity and mathematical order to devise new digital programs for human use or to render the market more successful and more honest. The Christian politician mines the Bible for the truth of justice as it relates to the state and incorporates this truth in his or her legislative, judicial or executive capacity.  And so on.

While faithful to legitimate subordinate authorities like family, church and state, Christians’ ultimate allegiance is to Jesus Christ, their Emperor. They do His will in the specific realms in which He has placed them.

Politics.  While this empire includes politics, it is not essentially a political empire at all.  In fact, its chief concern with politics is to ensure a civil government that grants religious (and other) liberty and minimally protects the judicially innocent and punishes the judicially guilty (Rom. 13:1-7).  The Christian stake in politics is not to impose Christianity on citizens but to preserve and perpetuate the liberty-inducing structural pluralism of Christianity: freedom of religion, assembly, speech and press; protection of minorities (constitutionalism); and checks and balance (legislative, judicial or executive branches), for example.  Christianity’s substantive exclusivism demands structural pluralism.  Christian empire relishes religious and political liberty because Christianity believes that God alone possesses the power to change individuals religiously by the preaching of the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit.  Christians therefore champion political and religious liberty precisely because they champion God’s sovereignty.  Jesus Christ’s global empire depends on the Gospel and the Holy Spirit, not on politics and the state.

Hostility to Imperial Christianity

We should not be surprised that competing faiths like Islam abhor imperial Christianity, since Christianity’s global success spells the latter’s global failure; but we may be perplexed why Christians oppose it.  For instance, in An Emergent Manifesto of Hope, Samir Selmanovic writes that for too long Christianity has been influential in the West.  He writes:

Looking back nostalgically to the times when Christianity was an empire, we tirelessly monitor our power, our growth, our numbers, our financial success, our political strength.  Maybe the time has come for Christianity to lose.[14]

To argue that Christianity needs to fail really is implicitly to argue that the Gospel needs to fail and that Jesus needs to fail and that (for instance) Satanism and Islam and the New Age need to succeed, winning converts and leading professed Christians to deny their faith and eventually overwhelm the earth with hostility to Jesus Christ.  If this proposal from a professed Christian sounds perverse, that’s because it is.

The Anabaptist strain, too, has long been heavily invested in the social failure of Christianity.  In this view, following our Lord means obedience to and life monopolized by “the gathered church.”  Culture and society are irretrievably evil, and the Christian’s job is to come apart from them and join with other sequestered Christians in the local church, preparing for the imminent coming of the Lord.[15]  Society and culture are to be abandoned to their rightful owner, Satan.

Similarly, the Protestant fundamentalists, drinking deeply from the world-denying well of dispensationalism,[16] emphasize separation not only from sin (a good thing) but also from Christian influence in culture and society (a bad thing).  Bob Jones III, chancellor of the Protestant fundamentalist Bob Jones University, writes:

I don’t see a scriptural mandate for the believer to Christianize the culture.  That certainly wasn’t the early church’s mission.  Preaching the Gospel and evangelism was the church’s responsibility to the lost world; and from that, the foundations of the Roman Empire were shaken.  We need look no further than Constantine to see what happens when an attempt is made at merely Christianizing the culture.[17]

The church’s early mission, despite the political powerlessness of most Christians, was successful largely because it created a successful alternative culture to the collapsing Roman Empire surrounding it.  Evangelism dictated discipleship, and discipleship dictated a new culture — an entirely new way of living within (not separate from) the wider pagan culture.[18]  This full-orbed Faith is what shook the foundations of the Roman Empire.

Emergents, Anabaptists and Protestant fundamentalists, despite their differences, join together in condemning imperial Christianity, the present reign of Jesus Christ over all things.


Hostility to Jesus’ Empire will come from three distinct sources: (1) from false religions like Islam, seeking their own global — and often politically coerced and terrorist-secured  — empire; (2) from substantive pluralists, usually secularists, who hate any religious truth claims exercised beyond anybody’s two ears; and (3) from (justifiably) anti-pluralistic Christians who (unjustifiably) believe that Jesus’ Empire is doomed to defeat or who think that reclaiming the world for an imperial Gospel is misguided.

In these face of this hostility, we imperial Christians must work prayerfully, patiently and resolutely to press the claims of our crucified and risen Emperor everywhere God places us, expecting eventually victory on His timetable, not our own.  And we may never shrink back from imperial Christianity in the face of pervasive and intimidating pluralism.

Jesus is the world’s Emperor, and we dare not compromise his exclusivist claims.

[1] Harold O. J. Brown, “Evangelicals and Social Ethics,” in eds., Kenneth S. Kantzer and Carl F. H. Henry, Evangelical Affirmations (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1990), 279.

[2] On the relationship between modernity and postmodernity, see David Harvey, The Condition of the Postmodern (Cambridge, Massachusetts and Oxford, England, 1990), 3-65.

[3] Chris Rohmann, A World of Ideas (New York: Ballantine, 1999), 307.

[4] See, e.g., John Eidsmoe, Christianity and the Constitution (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1995).

[5] For a critique of substantive pluralism (though never naming it that), see Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1987), 25-43.

[6] Alfred Plummer, An Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel According to Matthew (London: Elliot Stock, 1909), 429-436.

[7] John Jefferson Davis, Christ’s Victorious Kingdom (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1986).

[8] Christopher Dawson, The Historic Reality of Christian Culture (London: Routledge and Keegan Paul Ltd., 1960).

[9] Edward Young, Daniel (Edinburgh: Banner or Truth, 1949, 1972), 72-80.

[10] The Second Advent will punctuate Jesus’ imperial authority, the final exclamation point to His Gospel Kingdom.  See 1 Corinthians 15:22-28 and F. W. Grosheide, Commentary on the First Epistle to the Corinthians (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1953), 366.

[11] N. T. Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997), ch 3.

[12] George E. Ladd, Crucial Questions About the Kingdom of God (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1952), 77-81.

[13] Carl F. H. Henry, Twilight of a Great Civilization (Westchester, Illinois: Crossway, 1988), 54.

[14] Samir Selmanovic, “The Sweet Problem of Inclusiveness: Finding Our God in the Other,” in eds., Tony Jones and Doug Pagitt, An Emergent Manifesto of Hope (Baker Books, 2007), 198.

[15] Robert Friedmann, The Theology of Anabaptism (Scottdale, Pennsylvania: Herald Press, 1973), 36-48, 101-133.

[16] Charles Caldwell Ryrie, Dispensationalism Today (Chicago: Moody Press, 1965).  For a refutation (though sometimes too polemical), see John Gerstner, Wrongly Dividing the Word of Truth (Brentwood, Tennessee: Wolgemuth & Hyatt, 1991).

[17] Bob Jones III, June 10, 2002, in private correspondence with the author.

[18] Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1997).

Theological sociology, Uncategorized

Man Without a Movement

Dedicated to John M. Frame, who for four decades has successfully resisted the lure of movements

What is a movement?   As I am defining it here, a movement is an informal association of individuals united by adherence to a particular ideology (a highly structured, generally comprehensive view of reality) dominated by one or more influential personalities.   The Protestant Reformation, the French Revolution, Marxism, National Socialism, and Neo-Conservatism are all movements.   Almost all movements, even those radically secular, manifest religious characteristics.   Each has its own apostles who communicate revelation, its sacred texts that preserve that revelation, its community that creates and fosters a sense of belonging, its ethical system that stipulates acceptable behavior, and its threat of ex-communication that enforces an orthodoxy.

While movements are multitudinous, it is a mistake to equate them with ordinary religious institutions or non-religious organizations.   Businesses and political parties and magazines and churches are not movements, though they may generate movements.   What distinguishes movements is a comprehensive view of reality (the intellectual dimension) wedded to a plan for implementing that view of reality (activist dimension), enforced by dominant individuals (the ontological dimension).    Only if the intellectual, activist and ontological components ignite fire in the heart of the individual, however, can they truly be said to generate a movement.

The Longing for Belonging

There is something very comforting about belonging to a movement.   The “belonging” itself is a comfort.   Loneliness is an undesirable emotional state, and in the company of others, we gain comfort and joy.   Of course, a movement does not merely banish loneliness — it actively creates a sense of belonging.   We are part of something bigger and more important than ourselves.   The movement itself becomes an abstraction, almost a fictional corporation or individual in our own mind.   We become wedded to A (The!) Great Cause, which seems to validate our commonly petty, insignificant lives (Eric Hoffer’s The True Believer addresses this phenomenon quite insightfully).   A movement is appealing also in that it liberates us from the burden of hard thinking.   The bigger-than-life personalities that dominate a movement confidently issue doctrines and instructions, and these are quickly adopted and followed by the party, school, or denomination.   Intellectuals dispatch interpretation; denominations or prominent pastors issue instruction; politicians release manifestos—in this way, ordinary individuals are guided in life’s choices without recourse to the laborious process of their own investigation and original thinking.

A movement, in addition, is appealing in that it furnishes identity.   Most humans dislike ambiguity.   They prefer that life’s meaning   — and even they themselves — be clearly defined.   Movements tend to define themselves—and everybody around them—rather definitively.   In its most basic sense, those in the movement are considered part of the “in” crowd, and those outside the movement are considered, well, unenlightened outsiders.   In some movements, identification extends even to clothing — uniforms.   If a movement attains political power, it can even mark the identification of its opponents’ uniforms (example: the Star of David that Jews were forced to wear in Nazi-occupied territories).

There is, I imagine, a case to be made for movements, and even for the inevitability of movements.   But I have come to believe that movements are generally bad things, and I myself wish to avoid them (without starting an anti-movement movement!).

The Joy of Outsider Status

There is something liberating about not being part of a movement.   You are free to think on your own, and critically judge the major pronouncements issued from the moguls of movements.   You are not worried about disbarment or excommunication from a movement, simply because you are not a member of one.   You are free to make alliances with particular individuals within a movement, without buying a membership card to the movement itself.

The price to pay for this liberty, of course, is that you are deemed an outsider and not afforded the protection of the movement’s “old boys’ network.”   The movement troops are suspicious of you, and perhaps a little envious, and may likely consider you subversive.   Individuals who have broken the seductive shackles of movements are inclined to say and do things that will break others’ shackles, too.   Movement members convinced that separation from the movement is separation from God or life or reality find manumission from movements a dangerous thing indeed.

Those of us standing consciously outside movements appreciate the benefits that some movements afford.   However, not being impressed with ideologies, and being less impressed with personalities that dominate movements, we delight to go our own way as Christians following the Word of God and our God-created conscience rather than the movement mavens.   Being part of a movement may be comforting, but some of us are more interested in liberty than comfort.

We enjoy the thin but clear air on the mountaintop bereft of movements.

Theological sociology

Questions for The Calvinist International

I was pleased to see that my old friend Peter Escalante (as gracious as he is bright) had joined Steven Wedgeworth (whom I’ve not yet have the privilege of meeting) in launching not simply a new web site, The Calvinist International, but also a new (or, rather, as will presently be seen, reviving a very old) theological school of thought. When my son Richard and I met Peter for a delightful lunch in Berkeley last week, Peter was putting his finishing touches on this web site, and it is has been well worth waiting for. It represents a serious foray into recent developments in American Reformed Christianity, and, despite its laudable commitment to irenics, is clearly in a reactionary mode against specific theological developments.

In his introductory post, Peter presents seven programmatic points that serve as distinctives for The Calvinist International. Each of them brought to mind a question or two I’d like to pose to get a better handle on what Peter and Steven are really up to:

  1. The bold affirmation of Biblical inerrancy is a Godsend in an era of tragically unreliable evangelicals like Pete Enns. But I suspect you’re interested in more than formal inerrancy. The fact that you (creditably) suggest that inerrancy implies its own hermeneutic might lead the reader to gloss over the diversity of hermeneutical methods that inerrantists espouse. Are you suggesting that most of them are wrong? I agree with you in “critiqu[ing] neo-allegoricism which seeks to find ‘meaning’ in the Bible apart from its historicity,” but what, in fact, is its historicity? The immediate historical context? The entire canon? The NT interpretation of the OT? And who are these erroneous expositors of “neo-allegoricism which seeks to find ‘meaning’ in the Bible apart from its historicity”?
  2. By “intellectual constipation and sectarian spirit (or sometimes, historical role-playing) of hyperconfessionalism” to whom or what schools do you refer? Westminster Seminary in California, for example? Is this language compatible with your professed commitment to “patient, charitable, intellectually responsible consideration of [competing theological] claims”?
  3. When in enlisting the philosophical tools derived from “the utility of the liberal arts” you “assert the harmony of what is true in philosophic knowledge with what is known from the Word,” to what specifically do you refer? Would “philosophic knowledge” include philosophy broadly conceived, as in what was once known as “natural philosophy,” or today simply as “science”? If so, and if a cornerstone of modern science is inherent tentativeness, how would it harmonize with your theology? Is the currently tentative (but doggedly dogmatic!) notion of the evolution of all species such philosophic knowledge? Or are you talking about philosophy more narrowing conceived, as in Thomist or Aristotelian or Kantian philosophy and such? How does your aversion to “irrationalistic ‘Hellenistic-Hebrew’ dichotomies” square with your commitment (point 7) to the Hebraic veritas, “given the early tainting of the Gentile churches by pagan practices and mentality”? Isn’t that “tainting” the very rationale for positing “‘Hellenistic-Hebrew’ dichotomies” by everyone from A. Harnack to C. Van Til? Or are you suggesting that the incontestably Hellenic aspects of patristic Christianity are unrelated to the “pagan practices and mentality” you criticize?
  4. In endorsing “[c]lassical theism and classical apologetics,” are you repudiating the apologetics of Van Til and, to a lesser degree, Kuyper, Bavinck and Dooyeweerd? Do you know of any recent theologians (excepting possibly Barth) who “claim that even natural knowledge, as such, depends upon regeneration”?
  5. Do you intend to follow in general Richard Muller’s historical theological method? Does your historical theology occupy a normative role in Biblical and systematic theology? If so, what is it?
  6. Is it possible that your terms “essentials and theologoumena,” “odium theologicum,” “Hebraica veritas” can themselves become “undefined theological buzzwords which are used all too often as substitutes for thought and argument, always muddy discussion, and smuggle irresponsible meanings into discourse under cover of unexamined prestige”? More uncomfortably, is it possible for “[c]areful attendance to the texts of old and recent masters,” many of whom are not greatly known and without whose intimate knowledge the (Reformed) church seems, at least, to have survived quite well, to become a “substitute fanatical gnosticism for Biblical Christianity”?
  7. Is your commitment to investigating “ancillary inquiries of Second Temple and intertestamental studies, and host conversations about the meaning and significance of these new lines of research” designed simply to throw light on grammatical-historical interpretation, or will you allow the actual theological suppositions of the contemporaries of the Second Temple and intertestamental eras to shape your own interpretation of Scripture? In any case, how does this commitment comport with your devotion to the “inerrant Word read as a unity according to the historico-grammatical method, [a] method which is definitive, [and] contains within itself all appropriate modes of literary analysis”?

The Goodness and Severity of God in the New Testament


Hi Andrew,

Once again, a superb sermon chock full of practical application. Thank you for bringing us the Word so faithfully each and every week.

… [I]n light of today’s sermon (and amazingly the opening Psalm we read about the Israelites in the wilderness), I have a question. It pertains to God’s dealings with the Israelites. He provided for them performing miracle after miracle and yet they grumbled, murmured, and longed to go back to Egypt. They even started worshipping a Golden Calf after all God had done. I was particularly astounded by how they begged for meat and God sent the flock of quail. He sent it and simultaneously sent a plague so that some would die as a punishment for their grumbling. He also sent the snakes to bite and kill and then he let them be healed when they looked at it on the pole. These were his chosen people yet his punishment for their sin was often death. How do we reconcile this with how God deals with us today? We know God is the same today and forever. HE has not changed. How does one explain this …?

No rush to respond. Thank you so much!


What a great question….

There’s no discrepancy between the goodness of God (what I preached about today) and severity of God (read Rom. 11:22) or between his dealings with His visible community in the OT and the NT. It’s true that God’s judgments were often more graphic in the OT (just as were the miracles!), but God was using the Jews as an eternal example for His church (1 Cor. 10:6), so it stands to reason that He was creating “object lessons” that could powerfully impress themselves on Christians in the NT era.

Also, the fact that the Jews were God’s “chosen people” doesn’t mean that all of them were truly saved or had hearts for God (Num. 11:14). God leveled His judgment on the pretenders (unbelievers) among His people, and at times they were the majority (Heb. 3:8-4:2). His promises of eternal grace are given only to those who trust Him and obey Him, not those who disbelieve and disobey Him. This is much like the church today, and Hebrews makes clear that God’s judgment today on those in the church who turn their backs on Jesus will be worse than in the OT (Heb. 10:29)!

This is to say that God’s goodness is reserved for those who trust in Jesus and obey Him. He’s even long-suffering toward those who do not trust in Jesus and obey Him (2 Pet. 3:9). But His judgment is reserved — both for those inside the church and outside it — who turn their backs on Jesus and hate His Gospel and goodness and grace and law.

This shows that God is a good God, and He is both loving and just. He loves His people, and He loves righteousness. But many people who say they are His people (both in the OT and today) are enrolled among His community but are not true believers. God will judge them if they do not repent and turn to Jesus — even though they are among His people in the church…..


Boil the Frog Slowly

Most of us have heard the morality tale of the frog that leapt from the boiling pot when tossed in but allowed himself to be placed in a pot of cool water over a stove and boiled slowly to death.  Myth or not, it describes the pernicious deceptiveness of apostasy.  The unwary, foolish young man mentioned in Proverbs 7 allowed himself to be enticed by a harlot.  He did not begin his ultimately fatal odyssey by considering the end of the apostate road he’d chosen (“the chambers of death,” v. 27).  But little by little the harlot led him to his spiritual doom:

 Immediately he went after her, as an ox goes to the slaughter, Or as a fool to the correction of the stocks, Till an arrow struck his liver. As a bird hastens to the snare, He did not know it [would cost] his life (vv. 22–23)

The same is true of theological apostasy. The theologians and ministers toying with diabolically situated accommodationist doctrines rarely think all the way to the end — when their lives and ministries are destroyed — and when their evil doctrines have ripped the faith from the minds and hearts of young, impressionable students.

When theologians toy with limiting Biblical infallibility to the “core teachings” of the Bible, positing that in historical issues (like the historicity of Adam) it may be in error, they may think they are making the Bible more palatable to modern skeptics (as that prototypical liberal Friedrich Schleiermacher did in On Religion: Speeches to its Cultured Despisers), in reality they are only ambling further along the primrose path of apostasy until in the end not even the “core teachings” survive their acidic unbelief.  Even if they themselves don’t quite travel to that diabolical destination, their students and church members likely will.

When pastors give up on Christ’s substitutionary atonement because it reflects a God angry at sinful mankind (and, after all, God is all about man’s comfort level, isn’t He?), they will, if consistent, never end with eviscerating the Bible’s incontrovertible teaching about substitutionary atonement.  No, they must then tamper with the Fall, with salvation by grace through faith, and with the very character of God. In the end, they serve a new, and false, god.  This is the history of Protestant (and post-Vatican II) liberalism.  It’s gradually becoming alive and well in evangelicalism.

Accommodationist doctrines (like Biblical errancy, exclusively exemplary views of the atonement, and mythical and non-literal views of creation and Adam and Eve) are simply opening gambits in a protracted game that Satan always wins, concluding in man’s moral destruction.

They are (to switch metaphors) rest areas on the highway to Hell.

Moral: Don’t start on the highway.  Never leap into the pot.


Liberals Are Smarter Than Conservatives

It’s remarkable that conservatives don’t understand how Genesis (creation) and John 3:16 (redemption) hang and fall together, because liberals understand it all too well.  In one of the most quoted liberal works of the first part of the 20th century, Harvard Professor of Church History Kirsopp Lake writes:

 [T]he Fundamentalists are perfectly right in thinking that Genesis is the keystone of all biblical theology (p. 86) …. Apart from a belief in the historic Fall, an historic redemption is meaningless (p. 88).  

The Religion of Yesterday and Tomorrow (1925)


The Gauntlet Tossed to “The Grace Movement”

It is perhaps surprising that an essay published by group with such a fully deserved reputation for vilifying other Christians as the Trinity Foundation should be so theologically on target, not to mention uncharacteristically judicious and charitable as Timothy F. Kauffman’s “Sanctification, Half Full: The Myopic Hermeneutic of the ‘Grace Movement.'” Can a leopard change his spots and an Ethiopian his skin?  In this case, it appears so.

Kauffman puts his finger on the heart of the issue: whether a gracious soteriology eliminates the need for an obligatory (intentional) obedience.  The Lutherans (not Luther!) have long said that sanctification is “getting used to justification” and that if the former becomes more, the latter becomes less.  I’ve never considered Kauffman’s conceptual handle that in “The Grace Movement” (GM) “justification completes our sanctification” and the function of the Word and Holy Spirit assigned by the WCF to sanctification get short shrift (in favor of the forensic righteousness of justification) in the GM.  That description sounds about right.

What was particularly galling was his evidence that proponents of the GM are so careless (sometimes egregiously so, as with Luther’s Galatians commentary) with historical sources.  At this point, their shoddy scholarship isn’t just embarrassing; it’s positively harmful. Timothy Keller’s comments about avoiding Biblical texts that don’t conform to his preconceived idea of redemptive-historical preaching stunned me — and not in a good way.

Kauffman’s metaphor of myopia is equally accurate.  I revel with the GM in their desire to accent God’s lavish grace in Jesus Christ’s redemptive work, but I wonder why they always seem to stop at God’s grace in purging the (judicial) penalty of sin and never move on to delight in his grace to (progressively) eliminate the (existential) corruption of sin. That, too, is the glory of salvific grace.

In the last few years I’ve been teaching through Hebrews, James, 1-2 Peter, 1-3 John, and Mark.  It seems that the calling in these books to sanctifying obedience (and the hard work necessary to obey) — and the judgment if we refuse to obey — is evident on nearly every page. If sanctification is “getting used to justification,” somebody forgot to tell these guys.

The myopia is ecclesially injurious because the GM has glossed over a significant portion of Biblical teaching in order to stress their pet project.  It’s as though a theologian wanted to teach on justification by faith without consulting Romans and Galatians. They’re getting it wrong because they’re not looking at the entire Bible.

I’d quibble that Kauffman doesn’t say anything about what John Murray called “definitive sanctification,” which, as Murray notes, is even more prominent in the Bible than (traditional) progressive sanctification, but that omission doesn’t affect his basic argument.

This is a fine piece, judicious and fair-minded, without rancor, by which Kauffman throws down the gauntlet to the GM.

I hope they consider his points and respond.


Are We Really Bible-Believers? Synchronic versus Diachronic Theology

In contemplating Christian theology, it’s vital to distinguish synchronic from diachronic theology.

The Bible is not chiefly about theology (as in “systematic theology”), but about God’s revelation in history, centered in the Person of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.   However, the Bible does set forth theology (John’s account of Jesus’ teachings, Paul’s interpretation of Jesus’ redemptive work, etc.), and there can be no Christianity without it.   When Jude exhorts his hearers to contend vigorously for the Faith once for all delivered to the saints (v. 3), he assumes a body of belief without which the Faith cannot exist.

Two Kinds of Theology

We may call this synchronic theology, theology as it was originally given to the apostles and recorded in God’s inspired Word, the Bible.   It underwent slight development in the apostolic era as it was revealed to the Biblical writers; but when that age ended, and when that theology was later given permanent form in the text of the Scriptures, it became a fixed body of doctrine.   It became Christianity’s deposit of Faith.   This is synchronic theology, synchronic meaning that it is not subject to historical development.   Once it has been solidified in the Bible, it becomes unchangeable.

However, godly men since the apostolic age have reflected on that Biblical theology.   They have interpreted it, and they have drawn out its implications.   We may call this diachronic theology, that is, theology as it has developed over time.   This form of theology started even in the apostolic age, and parts of it were given universal, binding authority at the early church councils.   This theology, inscribed in the Apostles, Nicene, and Athanasian Creeds, is orthodox Christian theology on which the vast majority of Christians agree — and have agreed.   It is not inherently authoritative (only God and His Word are), but it is ecclesiastically authoritative.

The Diachronic Theology of the Reformation

 Diachronic theology got a big push at the Reformation, because its churches wanted an extensive, binding interpretation of many doctrines of the Bible.   It gave this interpretation in such “symbols,” or confessions of Faith, as the Augsburg Confession, the Westminster Confession, the London Baptist Confession, and the Thirty Nine Articles of the Church of England.   In the medieval era, the church itself was vested with the authority to interpret the Bible — within the boundaries of the early ecumenical creeds, of course.   The Reformation churches vested that authority (in principle, at least) in its confessions of Faith.   The confessions, rather than the church, became the lens through which synchronic (Biblical) theology was interpreted.

Diachronic theology is desirable and, in case, inescapable.   Why?   For one thing. All of the Bible’s teachings on a certain topic (like the deity of Christ, baptism, predestination, faith, and so on) are not found in one place in the Bible.   Whenever we systematize those teachings, we are practicing diachronic theology.   For another thing, historical situations demand answers from the Bible that are not explicitly given in it.   In the patristic church, the question arose as to how the infants of Christian parents should be included in the church, and how that inclusion should be formalized.   This is how infant baptism gained almost universal acceptance.   The Bible is not explicit about infant baptism, but the pressure of historical circumstances forced the church into a diachronic theology out of which the practice arose.

Roman Catholics, with their view of the church (their church) as the interpreter of the Bible, have sometimes blended synchronic and diachronic theology.   The church’s reflection on the Bible (the Old and New testaments and the Apocrypha, the orthodox Trinity, the assumption of Mary, the infallibility of the Pope) has sometimes become as normative as the explicit teachings of the Bible.   Protestants have created a greater distance between synchronic and diachronic theology.   They want the Bible’s teachings to be normative, and they recognize human interpretations of the Bible to be reflective.   This does not mean that they abandon the normative character of all diachronic theology (though some “radical reformers” have done this).   The Protestants (at least the conservatives) hold the early ecumenical creeds to be normative but — and this is the key — only because these creeds teach what the Bible itself teaches.   Synchronic theology always takes precedence over diachronic theology.  

Normative and Reflective

 The problem comes when synchronic theology becomes reflective, and diachronic theology becomes normative.   The former is usually the problem of liberals, and the latter of conservatives.

Liberals do not believe the Bible and its teachings are normative.   They see it as it best human authors’ reflection on God’s revelation to them.   Because the Bible is not the inspired Word of God, its synchronic theology cannot be normative.   In fact, sometimes it seems as though for liberals, synchronic theology (their own, of course) is normative, while the Bible’s theology is not.   A flagrant example is Gary Conmstock’s book (published by the United Church of Christ) Gay Theology Without Apology.   Here, diachronic theology has clearly supplanted synchronic theology.

I have already noted how that Roman Catholics have blended diachronic theology with synchronic theology.   But Protestants, especially (and ironically) the most conservative Protestants, have sometimes done the same thing.   This happens often among the “strict” confessionalists, those who permit no deviation from (or questioning of) their confessions of faith.   Confessions of faith are simply examples of diachronic theology.   When they are held to be above revision and amendment, they supplant the theology of the Bible.

Theology and History

A main goal of those committed to synchronic theology is to illumine the historical circumstances under which that theology arose.   In other words, they try to understand the Bible and its message in its original historical circumstances.   This is the task of historical criticism and grammatical-historical interpretation.   When conservative Protestants oppose these tasks by deferring only to their confessions, they are denying the role of the normative character of diachronic theology.   The Bible arose in particular history and a particular time to a particular people.   Theologians call this the “scandal of particularity.”   If we try to bypass the Bible’s history in ascertaining its meaning, and in deferring to later confessions of faith, we will not only hazard misunderstanding the Bible’s message; we will also undercut our faith’s very ground, which is (first-century) historical to the core.

Investigations into the Bible’s meaning in its historical circumstances are often met with assaults from conservative Protestants. These investigations are sometimes good, sometimes bad, but they are necessary.   If we say that we do not want to learn more about the Bible’s message from those who investigate the history in which it emerged, we are really saying that the Bible is not ultimately authoritative.   If we assert that a greater grasp of the Bible could never cause us to amend our confessions, we, like many Roman Catholics, merge diachronic theology into synchronic theology.

Diachronic theology, particularly orthodox, ecumenical theology, is ecclesiastically normative.   Synchronic theology, the theology of the Bible, is ultimately authoritative.

If we really believe the Bible, we must never jettison diachronic theology, but we must always subordinate it to synchronic theology.







We are conservative evangelicals. But let us make sure our conservatism is a theological conservatism and not a temperamental one…. We are conserving, preserving the unique revelation of God in Christ and in Scripture. But let us be clear that we are not conservative temperamentally, or in our prejudices, or in our lifestyles, or in our resistance to change. If we must be conservative evangelicals, let us also be radical evangelicals at the same time. Now the radical is somebody who asks awkward and irreverent questions of the Establishment. The radical is somebody who scrutinises [sic] tradition and convention with a critical eye…. Nothing is sacrosanct to the radical conservative evangelical except Scripture itself, by which all our traditions and our conventions are going to be tested and tried.


John R. W. Stott on Temperamental Versus Theological Conservatism


The False Teaching of “Transitioning” into Discipleship

Not all false teachings in the church are properly classed as theological heresies, such that they would violate a specific doctrinal statement or confession of faith.  Some of the most pernicious false teachings, ordinarily more implied than explicated, can pass muster at the bar of almost any traditional confession of faith — and in fact are found in almost all kinds of churches.  These are often procedural assumptions about the Faith and the Christian life that, lying just beneath the surface of a church’s vocal teachings, are never uttered but always presupposed.  In many cases, it is these assumptions, and not explicit heresy, that pollute the church and eventually drive it into apostasy.

A prime example of such teaching is the error of assuming that Christians “transition” into discipleship.  It goes like this: When we preach the Gospel, we are trying to get people to trust in Jesus.  This trust (engendered by the Holy Spirit, of course) is a huge step, and we cannot expect that those who take that step will also take the second, and always subsequent, massive step of living obedient lives; spending time in prayer; attending public worship faithfully; reorienting their thinking in family and cultural issues; and so forth.  The goal of the church is to convince new converts of the need to be disciples; it is simply too much to demand discipleship of new Christians.[1]

Exponents of this teaching will point to texts like 1 Corinthians 3:2, Hebrews 5:12 and 1 Peter 2:2, which distinguish between immature and mature Christians, between those who can consume spiritual milk from those who can masticate meat.  There can, in truth, be no doubt that differing levels of growth characterize different Christians, and we dare not dismiss this fact; but it in no way refutes the notion that all Christians are disciples.  Even babyish and immature Christians desire to please Jesus Christ, labor to obey His Word, and long to worship with the church, no matter how often they fail and how imperfectly they succeed.  Jesus’ apostles were constantly sinning and failing — but they were His disciples.  Even though they all (except John) abandoned Him at His crucifixion, a few days later they repented and worshiped Him in all of His resurrection glory.

Not long ago a young friend of mine trusted her life to Jesus Christ.  From the beginning she knew that being a Christian means following Jesus.  She knew that her father, an unbeliever, would be upset by her new faith.  She told me, “But I know that I must tell him that I’m a Christian.”

“Yes,” I replied, “there are no ‘undercover’ Christians.  People need to know that your allegiance is to Jesus Christ.  This is why baptism as a public act is so vital.  It says, ‘I am a Christian, and I don’t care who knows.’”

This young lady did tell her father, who took the news much better than she had expected.

In an authentic Christian economy, this example is the routine, not the exception.  In trusting Jesus Christ, saved sinners become disciples of Jesus Christ.

The High Cost of False Teaching

A severe poison has infected our churches as a result of the inability or refusal to see the error of the teaching of transitioning into discipleship.  Pastors imply and operate the entire church’s ministry as though a prime ministerial job is to convince Christians, those who have “said ‘yes’ to Jesus,” to become disciples rather than working, as these pastors should, to make better disciples of Christians who already have submitted to Jesus Christ.  It is simply assumed that church members and regular attendees will live much like the world lives — in fornication, hatred, pornography, avarice, racism, laziness, self-centeredness, abortion, machismo, envy, homosexuality, feminism, and so on.  These churches do not understand, or they deny the fact, that in trusting in Jesus Christ, an internal act formalized externally at baptism (Rom. 6:1-6), sinners make a radical break with their previous life of submission to Satan.  They now serve another Master (Rom. 8).  “This [fact] does not ignore the need for Christian growth,” writes Charles T. Carter, “nor does it imply absolute perfection.  However, a perfect (or full, complete) commitment must be made to Christ as Lord.”[2]

The church that does not demand such commitment as an incontestable aspect of its Gospel message will gradually be filled with unbelievers who are nonetheless assured that are converted on the grounds that they have trusted in Christ.  But this trust, or faith, according to the Bible is more than intellectual assent.  It is a wholesale casting of oneself on Jesus Christ, whose atoning work on the Cross and victorious work from the empty tomb washes away our sins and whose exaltation as Lord governs our lives.  When we trust Jesus, we trust him totally — to save us not just from the past penalty and future presence of sin but also the present power and pleasure of sin.  Only disciples are saved.[3]  Moreover, not all forms of faith are valid.  Faith without works is dead (Jas. 2:14-26).  An authentic, saving faith is a submissive, working faith.[4]

Gradually churches that separate discipleship from salvation become hotbeds of false believers, assured of their salvation on the basis of their profession, which is seemingly never questioned, no matter how profligate their lives may be.  In the sacerdotal churches, it is assumed that all those baptized and in weekly communion are united to Jesus in that they are united to the church.  The fact that throughout much of the history of the Old Testament, the vast majority of the Jewish males, bearing circumcision as the mark of covenant inclusion, lacked any circumcision of the heart, flatly refutes any teaching that covenant inclusion (“church membership”) in the New Testament economy confers salvation.  The first epistle of John is clear — though no one is sinless in this life, people who do not live lives dominated by righteousness, that is, lawless individuals, are simply not believers, no matter how tied to the church they are.

Churches will never escape this lawless morass until they understand that the goal of salvation is not principally to allow sinners to escape God’s judgment but, rather, to create a redeemed people who love God and obey Him (Tit. 2:14).  It is clear that the book of Romans, the most sustained treatment in the Bible of God’s plan for the world, teaches that God’s objective is to clean up this sinful world by the redemptive work of His Son Jesus Christ.  God does this, first, by getting rid of the judgment that stands against sinful man — God judges us as righteous on the basis of Jesus’ righteous death and resurrection, which are imputed (credited) to all who trust in Jesus (Rom. 3:21-4:12).  God also gets rid of sin by changing our sinful desires and implanting a righteous nature within us, created and sustained by the Holy Spirit (Rom. 6:6-23; 8:1-17).  The target of salvation is draining the world’s swampland of sinful poison and replacing it with the fresh water of eternal salvation accomplished by Jesus’ redemptive work.  God is not only in the rescue business, important though that is; He is chiefly in the clean-up business.

And if we do not live “cleaned-up” lives, we are exhibiting a lack of God’s saving work.  Therefore, the task of the church is never to implore Christians to become disciples; it is to assist disciples in becoming better ones.

[1] Charles Ryrie, Balancing the Christian Life (Chicago: Moody, 1969), ch. 17 and Zane Hodges, Absolutely Free! (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1989).

[2]  Charles T. Carter, “The Lordship of Jesus Christ,” Beeson Journal, Spring 20098.

[3] Daniel P. Fuller, “Only Disciples Are Saved,” http://www.fuller.edu/ministry/berean/disciple.htm [accessed June 28, 2008].

[4] Norman Shepherd, The Way of Righteousness (Mount Hermon, California: Kerygma Press, 2009).


Spontaneous Obedience

In his otherwise helpful essay defending the traditionally Reformed view of justification, Michael Horton writes, “The gospel of free justification gives rise to a spontaneous embrace of the very law that once condemned it” (105).  Horton is explicitly countering the argument that if one situates justification at the center of Pauline soteriology, he is hard pressed to explain how Paul can draw ethical imperatives from anything other than antithetical judicial indicatives.  In short, if it’s all about justification by faith alone apart from works, what part do good works (of sanctification), in opposition to justification, play in salvation?


Calvin’s answer solved the problem. Neither justification nor sanctification is central, but rather union with Christ, in which one equally receives justification and sanctification.  Calvin doesn’t privilege justification, firmly though he stresses it, but wants to say that by faith (alone) one takes hold of Jesus, in whom both justification and sanctification are gifted to the believer.


Calvin will also solve Horton’s tendency to reduce sanctification to “a spontaneous embrace of the … law.”  Horton cites Galatians 5:16–26 as proof of this spontaneity, yet this passage hints at active, persevering obedience (v. 17, “you are not to do whatever you want,” and v. 21, “I warn you”), not spontaneity.


Moreover, no one reading Paul’s comments in Romans 6–8 would ever conclude that he saw Christian obedience as “a spontaneous embrace of the … law.”  However it may be interpreted, Romans 7 depicts an intense inner (and consequently outer) struggle.  We are under obligation (8:12) to live according to our godly nature and not our lingering sinful nature.  Obligation, not spontaneity.


Jesus himself declared that the way of gospel obedience is hard (Mt. 7:14; Mk. 10:17–31).  The writer of Hebrews again and again exhorts believers to persevere, lest they fail and miss eternal life in the end (2:1–4, 3:1–6, 12–18, 4:1–13, 5:11–6:8, 10:26–39, 12:3–17, 25–29). 


Justification is God’s judicial declaration of “right with God” (righteous standing in the heavenly court) solely on the basis of Jesus’ atoning death (Rom. 3:25–26) and victorious resurrection (Rom. 4:25).  Justification is a verdict, not a process, and it can neither increase nor decrease.  Like virginity or fatherhood, it admits of no qualifications.  One is either a virgin or not, a father or not — and justified or not.


Sanctification is a process, and it does admit of qualification; one is more or less sanctified.  Sanctification, unlike justification, is a lifelong battle.  No one is perfectly sanctified in this life, but we are called to make progress (1 Thes. 5:23; Gal. 5:16–25).  And if one fails to persevere in sanctification, he can expect only judgment in the end (Heb. 12:14).  He cannot have recourse to justification as an existential category if he does not persevere. Calvin might say, “Since both justification and sanctification are equally God’s gifts, and inextricably indissoluble ones at that, if you lack sanctification, you also lack justification.” Grace in Jesus means justifying and sanctifying grace. 


And since sanctification is a lifelong struggle, there is no “spontaneity” to it.  It’s a long, hard process, and just as we prove our faith by our works (Jas. 2:18), so we verify our justification by our sanctification. 


Sanctification as a gift of union with Jesus Christ solves the alleged dilemma posed by a justification that keeps good works at arm’s length.


Any view of justification that implies that a sanctification requiring long, hard, arduous work is optional is not the justification of the Bible.  And any view of justification holding out hope that those who don’t persevere in sanctification can still expect eternal life at the final day is equally false.