Abandon Facts but Keep Feelings? (Machen)

J. Gresham Machen Liberalism is not new.  The liberal seminary magazines I get in the mail are printed in full color and talk about smartphones, laptops, and podcasts, but the liberalism in them pre-dates today’s technology.  The magazine I got in the mail last week doesn’t mention the cross, sin or the resurrection, and it barely mentions Jesus or the Bible.  But it does talk about social justice, “Christian” art, interfaith dialogues, and debt.  This kind of liberalism has been around quite some time.

J. Gresham Machen and others had to deal with liberalism a century ago.  Back then the liberals didn’t mind letting go of facts as long as they could keep their religious feelings.  In other words, it didn’t matter to them if Jesus actually came back to life.  What was important was that they could feel him living on in their hearts.  Machen addressed this false Christianity quite well:

“It seems to be such a promising solution of our apologetic difficulties just to say that science and religion belong in two entirely different spheres and can never by any chance come into conflict.  It seems to be so easy for religion to purchase peace by abandoning to science the whole sphere of facts in order to retain for itself merely a sphere of feelings and ideals.”

“But in reality these tactics are quite disastrous.  You effect thus a strategic retreat; you retreat into …an inner line of defense whence you think that science can never dislodge you.  You get down into your pragamtist dugout and listen comfortably to the muffled sound of the warfare being carried on above by those who are old-fashioned enough to be interested in truth; you think that whatever creedal changes, whatever intellectual battle there may be, you at least are safe.  You have your Christian experience, and let science and biblical criticism do what they will!”

“But do not comfort yourself.  The enemy in this warfare is good at mopping up captured trenches; he has in his mechanistic psychologists a very efficient mopping up squad.  He will soon drive you out of your refuge; he will destroy whatever decency and liberty you thought you had retained; and you will discover, too late, that the battle is now lost, and that your only real hope lay not into retreating into some anti-intellectualistic dugout but in fighting bravely to prevent the initial capture of the trench.”

“No, the battle between naturalism and supernaturalism, between mechanism and liberty, has to be fought sooner or later; and I do not believe that there is any advantage in letting the enemy choose the ground upon which it shall be fought.  The strongest defense of the Christian religion is the outer defense; a reduced and inconsistent Christianity is weak; our real safety lies in the exultant supernaturalism of God’s Word.”

Exactly.  Abandoning the facts of the faith (like the flood, the exodus, the wilderness wanderings, the monarchy, the miracles of Christ, his death and resurrection, etc.) may seem like a peaceful move, but it only exposes one to the head-on assaults of Satan.  Machen is right: “Our real safety lies in the exultant supernaturalism of God’s Word,” which gives the historical, factual accounts of God’s supernatural intervention to redeem his people from sin through Christ’s cross.  Under that banner, the Christian can bravely fight the battle!

The above quote is found on page 362 of Machen’s Shorter Writings.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54015

 

The Danger of Biblicism

Biblicism is a problem in the conservative Christian church today.  By “biblicism” I mean an over-rigid adherence to certain Bible texts or teachings at the expense of context and other biblical teachings.  Biblicism is a cousin of legalism since both are often quite rigid, demanding, and unforgiving.  Some examples of biblicism would be an inflexible adherence to things like courting, abstinence from all alcohol, and insistence on a certain way to run a home (to name just a few).  Biblicism often doubts the value of general revelation and sometimes views the Bible as a science textbook.  I’ve also noticed that many biblicists are self-taught and sometimes do not like creeds and confessions.  Biblicism can lead to many problems in a church’s life and in a Christian’s life.

Terry Johnson has a helpful section on biblicism in his book on the five solas called The Case for Traditional Protestantism.  Here’s part of it:

“Believers must not fall into an unwarranted biblicism which, in the name of biblical authority, narrows the scope of its application to only that which the Bible explicitly states and not to that which it implies as well.  This is a danger when the nature of Scripture is not understood.  There is not a verse for every occasion.  The Bible is not a book of detailed causistry providing answers for every imaginable ethical question.  No doubt some have wished that the Bible were such a book….  Yet it still applies to every occasion.  How so?  It reveals general principles which, to be grasped, must be illuminated by the Holy Spirit, and, to be applied concretely in life, must be joined with reason and wisdom.  The need of wisdom can be illustrated by this fact – almost all of life is lived between the lines of explicit biblical commands.”

“We can summarize our point in this way: The Scriptures are sufficient to reveal to us the truth and will of God when read in conjunction with biblical wisdom.  Biblical wisdom can be defined as understanding the nature of things.  To do so I must know the ‘sacred writings,’ ‘which are able to give you the wisdom that leads to salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus’ (2 Tim. 3:15).

Johnson later notes how a person may know what the Bible says but not really understand the nature of things and therefore misapply the Bible’s teaching.  The farmer doesn’t plant in the spring because the Bible commands it.  “He does so because he correctly percieves the nature of things and acts in harmony with it.”  The wise Christian understands general revelation and special revelation, and conforms his life “to the reality that both books (nature and the Bible) reveal.”

Yes, the Bible is the Christian’s highest authority in all of life, and yes, Scripture is sufficient for doctrine and life.  But that doesn’t mean we should ignore general revelation.  It doesn’t mean that there’s a Bible verse for everything.  It doesn’t mean we can ignore context and flatten out the Bible.  It doesn’t mean we don’t have to use wisdom in all areas of life.  Biblicism sometimes sounds good because it uses Scripture so much, but we have to remember there is a wrong way to use it!  And typically, as Augustine said, the person who has himself as a teacher has a fool for a student (cf. Prov. 1:7, 12:15, and 28:24). So we need to humbly listen to wise counsel and fervently pray for wisdom ourselves, which – thankfully! – God gives to those who ask in faith (James 1:5-6).

The above quotes are found in chapter two of The Case for Traditional Protestantism by Terry Johnson.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI

Divine “Hunches” and the Sufficiency of Scripture

Why are Reformed Christians not charismatic or pentecostal?  How does a Reformed view of Scripture lead away from believing in continuing revelation from God?  Why don’t Reformed preachers and teachers say things like “Last night God told me….”?  Paul Woolley answered these questions well in his 1946 essay called “The Relevancy of Scripture”:

“…Scripture contains all the information which a man needs in order to set forth the way of salvation.  Further, the Bible contains all the guidance which is needed for the continuous living of the Christian life.  It is completely sufficient at this point.  If there are absolute rules which must be followed, the Bible states them.  In the absence of such rules the Christian is at liberty to follow a course or courses which accord with the general principles presented in Scripture.”

“There is one very important consequence of this fact [of the sufficiency of Scripture].  God does not today guide people directly without using the Scriptures.  There are no divinely given ‘hunches.’  God does not give people direct mental impressions to do this or that.  People do not hear God’s voice speaking within them.  There is no immediate and direct unwritten communication between God and the individual human being.  If the Scriptures are actually sufficient, such communication is unnecessary.  On the other hand, if such communications were actually being made, every Christian would be a potential author of Scripture.  We would only need to write down accurately what God said to us, and we would legitimately be adding to the Bible, for such writings would be the Word of God.  Many people have thought they were writing new Bibles.  Many more people have thought that God spoke to them directly.  But when these supposed revelations are examined, what a strange mass of nonsense, contradiction, and trviality this so-called Word of God proves to be.  Many of my readers could construct a pot-pourri of such supposed revelations from the accounts which they have heard themselves – and what a sorry mess they would make!”

Paul Woolley, “The Relevancy of Scripture” in The Infallible Word, p. 191-192.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI, 54015

 

Servants Bowing Before the Word (Monod)

 Thy Word Is Still Truth  Adolphe Monod was a French preacher in the first half of the 19th century.  After serving as a pastor for some years, he became very ill and could no longer preach.  Yet even on his sick bed he would write sermons and preach sermons to the people who came to visit.  These sermons were later put into book form: Farewell to His Friends and the Church.  I was reading sections of Monod’s work recently and was impressed at how he talked about Scripture.  Here are a few helpful quotes:

“I commend to you, my dear friends, the Word of God as something for constant, in-depth study and meditation.  It will lift us up above everything else.  It will, through Jesus Christ, be the strength of our lives, the joy of our hearts, and our powerful consolation in life and in death.”

“When Scripture proclaims God’s will or the way of salvation or the great doctrines of sin and grace, and of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, what it tells us is no less true and no less certain than if heaven were opened above us at this very moment and the voice of God resounded, as it once did at Sinai, saying these same things to us.”

“Oh, how can we surround this book [the Bible] with enough attention and respect?  No doubt Scripture is not the truth that saves us, but it is the road to that truth.  It is not salvation, but it is the book that reveals our salvation, a salvation we would never be able to know without it.  Through Scripture and in proportion to our growth in understanding it, we will also become better acquainted with Jesus, the Savior of our souls.”

“The greatest of all God’s servants are those who bow before that Word.  Saint Paul, David, Luther, Calvin were jealous to humble themselves in the dust before it, and if possible they would have gone still lower.”

These quotes can be found in Thy Word Is Still Truth, chapter 35.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI

A Good Theologian or a Bad One? (Sproul)

Knowing Scripture These are some helpful words from R. C. Sproul in his 1977 publication, Knowing Scripture. It was true 40 years ago; it’s still true today:

“Countless times I have heard Christians say, ‘Why do I need to study doctrine or theology when all I need to know is Jesus?’  My immediate reply is this: ‘Who is Jesus?’  As soon as we begin to answer that question, we are involved in doctrine and theology.  No Christian can avoid theology.  Every Christian is a theologian.  Perhaps not a theologian in the technical or professional sense, but a theologian nevertheless.  The issue for Christians is not whether we are going to be theologians but whether we are going to be good theologians or bad ones.  A good theologian is one who is instructed by God.”

R. C. Sproul, Knowing Scripture (Downers Grove: IVP, 1977), 22.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54015

Giving the Text the Benefit of the Doubt (Blomberg)

After a cursory reading of two texts that seemingly contradict each other, many New Testament critics simply say the Bible has errors.  Their logic usually goes like this: “Mark said one thing, Matthew said another.  Both can’t be right.  Therefore, the Bible has errors and you’re foolish to trust it.”

But it’s not that simple.  Different authors use different methods and different words to write about the same thing.  Some NT authors spoke more generally, some more precisely, but it doesn’t mean they erred or contradicted one another.  Craig Blomberg wrote on this quite well in his essay, “A Constructive Traditional Response to New Testament Criticism.” In this essay, Blomberg goes through a handful of seemingly contradictory NT texts and reasonably explains how they might be harmonized.  At the end of the article, he basically says that even if his explanations are wrong, the point is that there are plausible solutions to seeming contradictions:

“…When one has examined a large number of the apparent contradictions in Scripture and time and again discovered plausible solutions – at times even more than one plausible solution – it is only natural to reach a point where one gives the text the benefit of the doubt on the rare occasions of confronting seemingly more intractable problems.  These are the kinds of replies that are important to give a professor who asks a student, whether Bart Ehrman or anyone else, ‘Why not just admit that Mark [or any other scriptural author] made an error?’

I very much agree.  I’ve had it in my own experience when I thought two texts seemed to be contradictory.  I didn’t know what to think, so I studied the texts and read other authors’ comments on them.  Indeed, I found various reasonable explanations for the seeming contradictions.  I’m at the point now that when I see something in the Bible that seems to be contradictory, I believe the weakness is in my own mind and reasoning, and I give the text the benefit of the doubt.  And, of course, I believe that “the Lord’s word is flawless” (Psalm 18:30 NIV).  My mind, however, is not!

The above article and quote by Craig Blomberg are found in Do Historical Matters Matter to Faith? edited by James K. Hoffmeier and Dennis R. Magary.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI

 

Keeping Your Assurance

A Treatise of Effectual Calling and Election If you’re assured of your salvation in Christ; if you know you’re a child of God by grace, how can you stay strong in that assurance and knowledge? Or how can you grow in assurance?  Christopher Love (d. 1651) gave some biblical answers to these questions in a sermon on 2 Peter 1:10: “Therefore, my brothers and sisters, make every effort to confirm your calling and election” (NIV).  I’ve edited some of them and posted them below:

  1. Keep close to God in the duty of prayer.  Ask and you will receive, and your joy will be complete (John 16:24).  Jesus’ words imply that if you keep close to God in the duty of prayer, your spirits shall be complete and full.
  2. Keep close to God in the duty of reading the Word often.  By often reading the Word, you will often meet with promises and supports for your comforts.  That is the reason men lessen in comforts, because they  do not frequently read the Word; you cannot read a Chapter, but you will find there a prop for faith, and a prop for assurance. Keeping constant to the Word, that is the way to keep your assurance.  “These things have I written to you that believe, that you might know that you have eternal life” (1 John 5:13). These things have I written, not only that you have life, but that you might know it. By reading the writings of John, John tells them they might better know they shall live for ever, and everlastingly be saved. Keep close to God in reading his written Word, and this will be of great use because there are promises scattered throughout the veins of Scripture. There is almost no Scripture you can read where there isn’t a promise or support for your faith one way or other.
  3. Keep close to God in constant and conscientious hearing of his Word.  This is a great means to get assurance. …Live under the ministry of the Word, and that ministry will give much assurance of your salvation!

In summary, if you want to grow in assurance of salvation, pray for it, read the Word often, and regularly listen to it preached!

The above (edited) quotes are found on pages 191-193 of Christopher Love, A Treatise of Effectual Calling and Election, (Morgan, PA:  Soli Deo Gloria Publications, 1998).

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54015