The Popes of Evangelicalism (Lints)

(This is a re-post from December, 2015)

I always think it’s ironic and comical when a Christian mocks or discredits creeds and confessions then turns around to favorably quote popular evangelical leaders on social media. While social media is new, this anti-confessional and pro-popular leader mindset is not new. It was a central characteristic of 19th century American revivalist religion. For example, Charles Finney talked said it was “highly ridiculous” for a church to recognize and utilize the Westminster Confession of Faith. Finney called the Westminster Confession a “dead Pope;” he said “It is better to have a living than a dead Pope.” Richard Lints explained this well in 1993:

“The revivalist located the ‘living Pope’ not in Rome but in the human heart. The experience of the Holy Spirit became the lens through which the works and words of God were interpreted. The work of the Spirit was severed from the confessions and creeds of the church in such a manner that an individual led by the Spirit was considered to be directly and immediately in touch with the meaning of Scripture. The work of the Spirit was not mediated by the community of past believers….”

“A curious effect of this emphasis on the subjective leading of the Spirit was the growth in power of the ‘popular popes’ of evangelicalism. Though highly individualistic in their approach to salvation and populist in their biblical interpretation, populist Bible teachers and preachers served to draw people together in a mass movement largely through the strength of their personal popularity. As Mark Noll puts it, ‘Evangelical interpretation assigned first place to popular approval.’”

“The right of private interpretation that they promoted can be understood as a desire for freedom from opposing viewpoints. It would seem that the early evangelicals were not so much interested in removing all human authority as they were in choosing human authorities with whom they agreed. And once they found these individuals, they were willing to invest them with a great deal of de facto authority.”

There’s another downside to this trend/movement:

“A striking result of the rise of the popular leader was the displacement of the theologian from the place of preeminence in the evangelical movement. The new leaders of the movement were popularizers of the gospel message, revivalists, and Bible conference preachers. This tradition persists today; the theological leadership of the movement is provided by preachers who travel the circuit of popular conservative Bible conferences” (p. 34-35).

This is not a great picture of evangelicalism: it doesn’t have a Pope like Rome, but it does typically have a pope within (the heart) and a pope without (a celebrity pastor).  Remember this next time someone criticizes the confessions and gushes over some quote of a popular preacher!

The above quotes are from Richard Lints, The Fabric of Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993).

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI

Christian Doctrine and Experience (Machen)

God Transcendent Sometimes Christians get doctrine and experience mixed up.  For example, suppose a person came to faith by experiencing the kindness of Jesus.   Then suppose the same person started teaching that the essence of conversion is experiencing Jesus’ kindness.   It is biblically true and wonderful that Jesus is kind.  But it isn’t helpful – or 100% biblical – to make one’s experience of this truth the center of a doctrinal definition.  J. G. Machen talked about this from a slightly different angle in a radio address he gave just under 100 years ago.  The title of the written manuscript is “The Creeds and Doctrinal Advance.”

In this address he said,

“…Christian doctrine is just a setting forth of what the Bible teaches.  At the foundation of Christian doctrine is the acceptance of the full truthfulness of the Bible as the Word of God.”

Here’s how he explains the statement:

That is often forgotten by those who today undertake to write confessional statements. Let us give expression to our Christian experience, they say, in forms better suited to the times in which we are living than are the older creeds of the church. So they sit down and concoct various forms of words, which they represent as being on a plane with the great creeds of Christendom.

When they do that, they are simply forgetting what the creeds of Christendom are. The creeds of Christendom are not expressions of Christian experience. They are summary statements of what God has told us in His Word. Far from the subject matter of the creeds being derived from Christian experience, it is Christian experience which is based upon the truth contained in the creeds; and the truth contained in the creeds is derived from the Bible, which is the Word of God. Groups of people that undertake to write a creed without believing in the full truthfulness of the Bible, and without taking the subject matter of their creed from that inspired Word of God, are not at all taking an additional step on the pathway on which the great Christian creeds moved; rather, they are moving in an exactly opposite direction. What they are doing has nothing whatever to do with that grand progress of Christian doctrine of which I spoke last Sunday. Far from continuing the advance of Christian doctrine they are starting something entirely different, and that something different, we may add, is doomed to failure from the start.

The first prerequisite, then, for any advance in Christian doctrine is that those who would engage in it should believe in the full truthfulness of the Bible and should endeavor to make their doctrine simply a presentation of what the Bible teaches.

These are very helpful statements to keep in mind when thinking doctrinally and writing doctrinally.  We need to be sure don’t let our experiences in the Christian faith lead the way in defining biblical truths.   Our experiences – as valid as they may be – are subjective.  But God’s word is objective and foundational.  So let’s be careful when we define biblical truths.  If we’re only giving a partial definition, it’s good to state it so we don’t mislead people.  And if our definition has a subjective aspect to it, we should state that as well – or perhaps get rid of it altogether and save it for one  example of application.

Speaking of confessions, one reason I very much appreciate the Reformed/Presbyterian standards is because they do typically give an objective, well rounded summary of Christian truths.

You can read Machen’s entire address in chapter 16 of God Transcendant (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1982).

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI

No Creeds! (Except What Celebrity Preacher Says)

Democratization of American Christianity  “The study of the religious convictions of self-taught Americans in the early years of the republic reveals how much weight was placed on private judgment and how little on the roles of history, theology, and the collective will of the church.”

So writes Nathan Hatch in his assessment of American religion in his excellent book, The Democratization of American Christianity.  Many of the major weak spots in the American church today were already prevalent in the 19th century (e.g. “no creed but the Bible” was a common sentiment in the 19th century).  Hatch writes,

“In a culture that mounted a frontal assault upon tradition, mediating elites, and institutions, the Bible very easily became, as John W. Nevin complained, ‘a book dropped from the skies for all sorts of men to use in their own way.’ …In the assertion that private judgment should be the ultimate tribunal in religious matters, common people started a revolution.”

Hatch calls this “populist hermeneutics” because it wasn’t necessarily a Christian hermeneutic, a churchly hermeneutic, or a confessional one – it was a hermeneutic of the common individual divorced from the church and the historic Christian tradition.  “Solo Scriptura” had its American origins in the 1800s.

Ironically, this populist hermeneutic was led by “a few strong [religious] figures imposing their own will.”  Nevin, who was critical of this hermeneutic, said this:

“The liberty of the sect consists at last, in thinking its particular notions, shouting its shibboleths and passwords, dancing its religious hornpipes, and reading the Bible only through its theological goggles.  These restrictions, at the same time, are so many wires, that lead back at last into the hands of a few leading spirits, enabling them to wield a true hierarchical despotism over all who are thus brought within their power.”

In other words, the [celebrity] leaders of this “populist hermeneutic” told common Americans to read the Bible as if they were the first ones reading it and forget about the creeds and Christian scholars before them.  On the other hand, the leaders were ultimately dominating the movement and many of the people were following them.  Rather than follow in the footsteps of those Christians in history who went before them, these people were forgetting those who had gone before them and following the current popular [celebrity] leader.

Sadly, this still happens today.

The above quotes were taken from pages 182-3 of The Democratization of American Christianity.

shane lems
covenant presbyterian church (OPC)
hammond, wi

Sola Scriptura, Creeds, and Confessions

From Wittenberg to Geneva to London, the Reformers stressed the centrality and authority of Holy Scripture.  They argued from Scripture that Scripture alone is God’s necessary Word to us for our salvation and for living the Christian life.  However, the Reformers also stressed the need for and importance of creeds and confessions.  In other words, the slogan “Sola Scriptura” does not imply that Christians have no need for creeds or confessions.  Lutheran scholars Robert Kolb and Charles Arand explain it this way:

“All Christians have recognized that sinful  minds and emotions misinterpret the Word of the Lord and twist it to their own devices.  So all Christians always have some summary of God’s Word to help guide public teaching and the congregation’s public confession of faith.  Scripture is indeed a primary authority for most Christians, but all Christians have secondary authorities alongside or directly under it.  Early in the church’s history the practice of identifying the church through a statement of faith, a creed, flourished.

There are, to be sure, fellowships within the larger body of Christ that claim to have no creed but the Bible.  Yet such groups automatically reject certain interpretations of Scripture and guide their people without discussion or contemplation to a specific construal of individual biblical passages.

Whether formally codified and recognized or only informally put to use (and thus often in more arbitrary fashion), these secondary authorities assist believers in formulating their understanding of the biblical message and provide a vehicle for public confession of the faith and regulation of the church’s life and teaching.

“…By the end of the sixteenth century, the majority of German Lutherans had settled on the ‘Book of Concord’ as their standard for public confession, their ‘symbol,’ in the sense of the Greek word used by the ancient church for ‘creed.’  They called its documents [ ‘the Lutheran confessions’ because Philip Melanchthon had named his Lutheran creed, prepared in Augsburg as an explanation of Lutheran reform and a statement of Lutheran adherence to the universal tradition of the church, a ‘confession.’”

Robert Kolb and Charles Arand, The Genius of Luther’s Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2008), p169-170.

shane l ems

The Brilliant Ambiguity of the Westminster Standards

The Theology of the Westminster Standards: Historical Context and Theological Insights (Refo500 Book) Confessions and creeds are useful tools and teachers for Christians who want guidance for standing firm in the faith.  Sadly, some people view Reformed creeds and confessions as straightjackets or paper popes that bind and restrict Christians in  many ways.  However, the Reformed confessions and creeds are purposely ambiguous on certain doctrines; this allows for some disagreement while fostering unity at the same time.

For example, John Fesko says that Reformed confessions of faith in the early modern period “were typically written to define a truth and fence off heterodoxy and heresy while allowing a degree of doctrinal latitude within the boundaries of the confessions.”  In other words, just because several people wholeheartedly agree with a certain confession doesn’t mean they must see eye to eye on every single doctrinal point.  The beauty is that they can still be firmly united around the central truths of the Christian faith.  Fesko puts it this way:

“…At many points the [Westminster] Confession is very specific in terms of what it rejects or teaches, but at other points it is brilliantly ambiguous or vague, thus allowing various theologians to assent to the document even though it might not advocate each theologian’s precise view on a particular subject.  Such deliberate ambiguity or vagueness can only be discovered by reading the Confession and catechisms in tandem with the minutes of the assembly and works of the period.”

“For example, one of the more complex issues in theology, whether in the present day or in the seventeenth century, is the relationship of the Mosaic covenant to the other covenants in Scripture; or alternatively stated, what is the Christian’s relationship to the Mosaic law?  Today many might not realize that at least five different views were held by various commissioners to the assembly. The Confession states the basics of what was the most common view, but when it came to its rejection of other views, it singled out only one position, namely, that of Tobias Crisp (1600-1643).  Crisp advocated that there were two covenants of grace, something the Confession explicitly rejects (7.6).  It is silent with regard to the other views held.”

I appreciate the term “brilliantly ambiguous,” and am thinking this discussion also holds true of the Three Forms of Unity.  But more on that some other day.

The above quotes were taken from pages 27-28 of Fesko’s The Theology of the Westminster Standards.

shane lems

Why Christians Need Confessions

  What good are confessions in a church?  Or, in other words, biblical confessions are a blessing for the church and the Christian.  But how?

1) Confessions delimit church power.  …This is what stops churches from becoming cults: clear and open statements about where church authority begins and ends, connected to transparent processes of exercising that authority.

2)  Confessions offer succinct summaries of the faith.  The church with a good confession and a good catechism has a ready-made pedagogical tool for instilling the truth into its people.

3) Confessions highlight that which is of importance.  A good, elaborate confession provides the church…with a fine resource for teaching the people about what really matters and why.

4) Confessions relativize the present and connect us to the past.  …The use of creeds and confessions is one intentional means of connecting ourselves to the past, of identifying with the church of previous ages, and thereby of relativizing our own significance in the grand scheme of things.

5) Confessions fulfill a vital part of Paul’s plan for the post-apostolic church.  …Without a ‘form of sound words,’ [the church] would drift from her theological moorings, losing touch with her past and with other congregations in the present.  A ‘form of sound words,’ a confession, [is] crucial for maintaining both continuity with the apostles and unity among the Christians in the present.

These are five (edited) points of seven found in Carl Truman’s helpful little pamphlet, Why Christians Need ConfessionsIf you’re in a Reformed and confessional church, this pamphlet is a good one to buy in bulk (for a discount!) and hand out to visitors wondering “Why confessions?”  Or, if you yourself are not convinced that confessions are a blessing, I recommend Trueman’s book length discussion of this topic: The Creedal Imperative.  Confessions aren’t an unbiblical “paper pope;” they are a way for churches to stay biblically sound in an age where truth is not prized.

rev. shane lems

sunnyside urc

Wright, Reformation, and Gospel

The Gospel of Free Acceptance in Christ I’ve found Cornelis Venema’s The Gospel of Free Acceptance in Christ to be a great Reformed resource for interacting with recent revisions of justification as found in the New Perspectives on Paul.  Venema’s chapter describing N. T. Wright’s perspective on Paul is especially helpful, clear, and fair.  As I read this chapter (5), I tried to capture the main points by writing marginal notes.  I’m going to put those marginal notes below along with a summary of Venema’s comments, which I hope is beneficial for our readers.  I strongly recommend getting this book and reading the chapter; these points obviously need to be explained more than I do here.

What are some of the main points of N. T. Wright’s perspective on Paul?

1) First-century Judaism was not legalistic.  Wright’s perspective is that Paul was not concerned about Jewish legalism because Judaism in the first century wasn’t really legalistic.  Wright says it this way: “The tradition of Pauline interpretation has manufactured a false Paul by manufacturing a false Judaism for him to oppose.”   One implication of this perspective of Wright is that the Reformers and the Reformed Confessions are completely wrong in their interpretation of Paul, works, the law, faith, and justification.

2) Paul was not opposing legalism, but nationalism.  Paul’s problem with Judaism was not ‘works-righteousness’ or ‘legalism,’ but perverted and prideful nationalism.  For Paul, Wright says, the law doesn’t have to do with legalism, but national privilege of which the Jews became proud.  One implication here is that the Reformers and the Reformed Confessions are wrong when they talk about legalism, antinomianism, justification, and Christian liberty.

3) The gospel is not primarily about salvation of sinners.  Instead, for Wright, the gospel is about who is Lord.  The principle message of the gospel is that Jesus is Lord and King who gained a victory in the cross and resurrection.  But the gospel does not really have to do with how to be saved, or how to find favor with God.  That, in Wright’s perspective, distorts and narrows the gospel into individualism.  One implication here is that the Reformers and Reformed Confessions are mistaken when they say the gospel has to do with a sinner being saved from sin, God’s wrath, and hell.

4) Justification is not about soteriology, but ecclesiology.  In other words, Wright says that Paul’s doctrine of justification doesn’t have much to do with being accepted by God.  Rather, justification is about who belongs to “the community of the true people of God.”  “Justification,” Wright notes, “is not a matter of how someone enters the community of the true people of God, but of how you tell who belongs to that community.”  Again, one implication here is that the Reformed and confessional discussions of justification as a judicial act of God’s grace alone through faith alone are totally misreading Paul and therefore incorrect.  In fact, Wright clearly says that the Reformation tradition turned the doctrine of justification “into its opposite.”

5) God’s righteousness is not something he can give to his people.  Wright’s view is that “the righteousness of God” means only that God is faithful to his promises, that he is trustworthy.  Wright denies that the righteousness of God can be credited or imputed to the account of a sinner.  Wright doesn’t deny that there is some forensic aspect to “the righteousness of God,” but he does deny imputation.  One implication here is that the Reformers and Reformed Confessions are wrong when they talk about imputation (i.e. our sins being imputed to Christ and his righteousness being imputed to us).

6) Faith is a badge of membership, not an instrument that receives a gift from God.  The nationalistic Jews saw the works of the law as something that distinguished them from Gentiles and thus Gentiles were excluded from the covenant community, in Wright’s perspective.  However, since Christ has come, the only badge of belonging to the covenant community is faith.   This of course goes against the grain of the Reformers and the Reformed confessions, which explain that saving faith is an instrument that receives God’s free gift of righteousness and shows itself by good works.

7) Substitutionary atonement isn’t overly important.  For Wright, the main point of Christ’s death and resurrection was a fulfillment of Israel’s exile and restoration, but not necessarily a substitutionary atonement for condemned sinners.  Christ’s death and resurrection are the means whereby the promise of the covenant is extended to God’s people worldwide, but not necessarily a propitiative, expiative, and penal substitution through which the curse was removed for sinners.  Since Wright’s definitions of justification and faith aren’t primarily about salvation from sin, so his discussion of Christ’s death and resurrection isn’t primarily about salvation from sin.  Obviously, the Reformers and the Reformed confessions very much stress substitutionary atonement.

All of this information is found in chapter five of Venema’s book, The Gospel of Free Acceptance in Christ.  I’ve edited it to keep it brief, but again, I recommend reading it for yourself.  I trust the perceptive reader will now at least begin to understand why confessional Reformed, Presbyterian, Baptist, and Lutheran churches have strongly spoken out against the New Perspectives on Paul and N. T. Wright’s revision of these key Christian doctrines.  N. T. Wright’s views are critical of and contrary to Reformation doctrine.  One cannot hold to the truths of the Reformation and to Wright’s revisions; it is logically impossible.  Both cannot be right.

And as our regular readers know, I’m with the Reformers and the Reformed confessions.  I believe they are much closer to Paul’s teaching than that of the NPP and N. T. Wright.  Venema’s book has been helpful for me in this area.  The Gospel of Free Acceptance In Christ (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2006).

rev shane lems