Eight Principles for Holding the Truth in Love

hands.jpegAt the end of 2 Peter 3:18 Peter prays that the church might grow in grace and knowledge. Truly, when that happens Christians not only learn truths about God, they come to know God and share his character through studied communion with him. Likewise, in becoming like our heavenly Father we learn what is most important to God, and how, in our fallen world, can and should give grace to people who do not perceive as we do (rightly or wrongly) what is most important.

Extending grace to others has application in all areas of life, including theology. Yet, too often in an attempt to give grace to others, well-meaning (and well-deceived) Christians can compromise the truth. Therefore, learning to contend for the faith while growing in the fruit of the Spirit can be a difficult. Yet, nothing is more important than knowing how to hold the sound doctrines God has given to us.

lutzer

On this subject, how to hold the truth in love, there are very few books. Albert Mohler’s article on Theological Triage is instrumental here, but for books, the list is short. One book that should be included, however, is Erwin Lutzer’s The Doctrines that Divide: A Fresh Look at the Historic Doctrines that Separate Christians. In this book published in 1998, Lutzer considers nine different theological debates. They include

  • Is Christ Truly God?
  • Is Christ Truly Man?
  • Was Mary the Mother of God?
  • Was Peter the First Pope?
  • Justification: By Faith, Sacraments, or Both?
  • Why Can’t We Agree about the Lord’s Supper?
  • Why Can’t We Agree about Baptism?
  • Predestination or Free Will?
  • Can a Saved Person Ever Be Lost?

With pastoral wisdom, Lutzer explains various angles to the subject and argues with great winsomeness for his own position. In fact, showing the complexity of the predestination and free will question, he spends four chapters, considering differences that arose at different points in church history. Continue reading

How the Doctrine of the Trinity Cultivates Church Unity (1 Corinthians 1–2)

 

paulHere is a long-form piece that came from our recent sermon series on 1 Corinthians. While many commentaries do not recognize the trinitarian nature of 1 Corinthians 1–2, Paul highlights doctrines related to each member of the trinity in order foster unity in the church at Corinth. May the Lord grant doctrinal unity to his church, as its members tether themselves to his triune gospel of grace.

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What do you do when a church begins to fight? What do you say when members of the church begin to take sides and misrepresent the other? Where do you turn? What truth(s) do you recall? How do you bring peace to a divided church?

Sadly, many faithful followers of Christ find themselves in churches divided by various doctrines and competing practices. In one church I served controversy broke out concerning the doctrines of election, regeneration and faith, and the extent of the atonement. Or at least, those “doctrines of grace” appeared to be the problem. From my vantage point, those problems were merely used to protect a deeper, darker problem—the baleful commitment for various groups in the church to maintain control over what their church.

Commitment to self-interest in the church is all too common. It appears in modern churches who fracture over various worship styles, and it appears in ancient churches who sought to identify themselves with certain charismatic leaders. It appears on the pages of church history and it is found in Scripture itself, especially in the book of 1 Corinthians. Continue reading

Theological Triage (pt. 3): Love Covers a Multitude of Differences

loveToday, we finish our three-part series on “theological triage.”

In part 1, I suggested genuine Christians stand united in mere Christianity against those who deny the Trinity, the deity of Christ, and justification by faith. At the same time, I explained in part 2 how churches and individuals must pursue unity in the gospel, even when we differ on matters of church government, church ordinances, or charismatic gifts. This gospel unity that overlooks ecclesial differences does not deny the importance of these secondary matters, but it keeps in mind that some doctrines are more essential than others. Some doctrines separate Christians from non-Christians (first-level), some separate genuine believers into different congregations (second-level), and others remain points of disagreement even in the same local church (third-level). This tripartite division has been labeled “theological triage,” and it is this third section we consider today.

The Doctrinal Core

Members of any orthodox church must share the core convictions delineated in the first level (e.g., the Trinity, the Incarnation, the resurrection of Christ, salvation by grace alone, and so on). Likewise, every church must also come to biblical conviction about baptism, the Lord’s Supper, church polity, etc. In most churches, these doctrines (first and second level) are found in their statement of faith.

The practical function of such a confession (or statement of faith) is that when the church gathers there is no need to debate why the Bible is central, why men lead, and why babies are not “baptized.” The confession functions as a general consensus—a doctrinal core if you will—of what the church believes the Bible to teach about the most important tenets of the faith. Still under the banner of a church’s confession (which derive it’s ministerial authority from the Scriptures themselves), there are other doctrines that are not defined. Wisely, confessional statements are abbreviated statements of faith that do not attend to every doctrine. Accordingly, there are other views, beliefs, or questions that members may hold differently.

Some of these doctrines include the doctrines of grace, the way spiritual gifts continue in the church today, and the timing of the millennium. The point of this post is not to address these doctrines, nor to suggest what to include or exclude in the confession. The point to be made here concerns how to handle these third-level doctrinal disagreements in the local church. Continue reading

Theological Triage (pt. 1): Rightly Dividing Truth from Error

TriageTriage.

It is not a word that we often associate with church life, or if we do, the connotation is probably not positive. However, I think the word has great potential for helping us understand and promote unity in the church—local and universal.

In its original context, triage “means the process of sorting victims to determine medical priority in order to increase the number of survivors.”  While the term is usually placed on the battlefield or in the wake of a natural disaster, it also has an important application in the church for knowing how to rightly hold the doctrines we believe.

Applied to biblical doctrines, the term has been labeled by Albert Mohler as “theological triage,” and it basically indicates that we should sort out three different kinds of biblical belief—(1) those that separate Christians from non-Christians, (2) those that separate different churches and denominations, and (3) those that individuals may disagree about but which are overcome by greater unity on more primary matters.

Today, I will consider the first level, and later this week days I will follow up with the second and third levels to help us think about our relationship with other faiths, other churches, and other individuals in our church. Continue reading

The Language of Election in the Bible: A Few Word Studies

electionIn today’s sermon on Titus 1:1–4, I considered the question: What is election?

I stated the New Testament teaches that election is individual and unconditional. This, of course, is not an undisputed interpretation, but it is my conviction after wrestling with the doctrine over the last dozen years. In my sermon, I only had time to quote Ephesians 1:4–6 and Romans 9:15–16, 18 as evidence for an individual and unconditional election.

Even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved. (Ephesians 1:4–6)

For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy. . . . So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills. (Romans 9:15–16, 18)

However, for those who are interested in considering this subject in greater detail, I have outlined the following word studies. I wrote these a few years ago and edited them this week. For those desirous of seeing what Scripture says about election, predestination, and other related subjects, these documents will introduce and comment upon a number of important texts.

All together the studies comprise over 30 pages. Therefore, to help arrange it, I’ve broken them up into smaller studies. Since I haven’t had time to add the Scripture reference in every case, you should read these word studies and theological reflections with an open Bible. (Because they were written with my congregation in mind they are based on the English Standard Version, not the original languages. Perhaps, at some time in the future, I update the contents with further attention to the Greek and Hebrew).

Word Studies

Theological Reflections

Let me know what you think and what questions remain concerning the doctrine of salvation. I believe iron sharpens iron and that humble, honest discussion about this biblical truth is good and needed in the church.

Soli Deo Gloria, ds

 

 

David Wells, World Vision, and the Need for Truth

wells

In No Place for Truth, David Wells demonstrates how the last two centuries, and especially the last fifty years, have witnessed the evacuation of theology in evangelical churches. He attributes the cause of this theological decline to a number of factors, but two in particular: modernity (with its denial of biblical authority and its elevation of individual autonomy) and modernization (with its increase in technology, urbanization, cliché cultures).

Wells shows the pernicious effect that modernity and modernization have had on the church, and how evangelicals (like the liberals before them) have opted for life over doctrine, and as a result have lost both. His book is a clarion call to return to the Scriptures and to care once again about sound doctrine. Though, this book is short on solutions, it rightly diagnoses so many problems in the church, and causes pastors and churches alike to reconsider what they are doing, or better, what they are believing.

Wells book is full of quotes and insights. Here are a number on the (diminishing) importance of theology among evangelicals. (In trying to get a handle on his thesis, I typed a number of these quotes. Here’s a selection, the rest can be found in this PDF). Continue reading

Biblical-Theological Reflections on the Doctrine of God

In the first chapter of his book The Ways of Our God: An Approach to Biblical Theology, Charles H.H. Scobie concludes by highlighting 9 theological reflections that come from an investigation of the doctrine of God worked out in the Scriptures.  Let me share three.

First, he asserts that the canonical understanding of God is consistently monotheistic, and asks what is monotheism’s significance.  Responding to that question, he cites an illuminating quotation from M. Burrows Outline of Biblical Theology (1946), which reads,

It [monotheism] is at bottom the question whether there is any unified, any reliable control of the universe, or whether we are at the mercy of an unpredictable interplay of forces in a welter of worlds that is not a cosmos, a system, a universe at all.  The polytheistic Babylonians and other Gentile peoples were in constant fear and uncertainty; Israel worshipped the one God whose ways had been made known, and whose faithfulness reached the clouds (Burrows 60, quoted by Scobie, 144).

Next, Scobie reflects on the personal nature of God.  Throughout the chapter, he reiterates the significance of God’s name and revealed character, and in this final section, he quotes from P.D. Hanson, who like Burrows emphasizes the way in which a the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Jesus (re)defines all reality.

Impersonal models, such as one finds in some versions of process philosophy, inadequately express the biblical vision of reality.  In the Bible, reality, understood with historical specificity, is guided towards its goal by a divine Purposer who is not limited to the sum total of the physical substance of the universe and who therefore is best described with personal metaphors like Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer (quoting P.D. Hanson, The Diversity of Scripture; Scobie 145).

Scobie also reflects on the ways in which modern theology has been distorted by feminist distortions of God.  Even though, it is correct to denote God with ‘personal metaphors like Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer,’ these should be representative of the entire Godhead and not used to redefine the personal and specific revelation of the triune God.  Urging for Biblical Theology to overrule contemporary interpretations, he writes against extra-biblical labels replacing the Bible’s own revelation.  He asserts,

Proposals have been made to avoid gender-specific terminology, e.g. that “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” be replaced by some such phrase as “Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer” [or worse, Mother, Child, Life-giving womb].  Such formulae, however, do not adequately express the personal nature of God nor the interrelationship among the persons of the Trinity.  Moreover, this approach suggests the biblical terminology is ‘merely’ metaphor that can be changed at will, rather than the way in which God has chose to reveal himself (Scobie 146).

These are just a handful of Scobie’s summarizing reflections on the doctrine of God in biblical-theological perspective.  He shows clearly that Biblical Theology is not just a sub-discipline in theology that outlines what the Bible ‘meant’ in its archaic context; he shows how a thorough-going Biblical Theology informs what the Bible ‘means’ for today.  In this way, he demonstrates how Biblical Theology should guide and direct Systematic Theology so that the final analysis and modern application is true to the text.

As we think ‘theologically,’ may we do so with a similarly robust biblical theology that shapes our understanding, and not vice versa.

Sola Deo Gloria, dss

Doctoral Reading List: The Mountain and the Molehill

The Mountain: A Systematic Reading List

Standing in his study, talking about doctoral studies, Southern Seminary professor Dr. Mark Seifrid commented that the doctoral degree is much like climbing a mountain.  In every discipline, there is a mountain of scholarly literature that must be traversed.  It is the academic responsibility of every student to summit that mountain.  Standing at the base of that mountain with sparse climbing gear in hand, I am daunted by the task. 

So walking by faith, and not by sight, I have uploaded a new page on Via Emmaus that lists the systematic reading list at Southern.  I include this page in order to record comments about these resources as I study and to share with others who are interested in theological studies.  Its intent is to help me catalog thoughts about the material as I go through, and I hope it may help others who love God and enjoy theology.

A little explanation of the list:  First of all, I cannot take credit for its compilation, that goes to the systematic professors at Southern Seminary.  It is the comprehensive examination list of books for which every doctoral student is responsible.  It is sub-divided according to theological loci, and it contains some of the best reading material in each area of systematic theology.  It is not a beginners list, but if you are looking for detailed works in an area of theology, this is a good starting place.   I hope to update these lists over time and to include more basic works.  Stay tuned.

The Molehill: A Selection of Evaluative Comments and Summaries on Selected Resources

The Molehill is simply my attempt at climbing the mountain.  In the months to come, I hope to add notes and comments evaluating these various resources and others.  More extended interaction will take place in blog posts; while links to the books will be found on the doctoral reading page, as well as, links to reviews of the materials.  But, I hope that, this is not a individual endeavor…

I would love to hear your comments about any of these works (and/or others) and their benefits or dangers to the church and the study of the Bible.  Maybe you are thinking about doctoral studies.  If so, I would encourage you to read John Stackhouse’s blog, “Thinking about a PhD?”  which has some great evaluative questions and to pray.  Even as I begin, I am reminded that knowledge puffs up, but love builds up (1 Cor. 8:1).  I pray that your theology and mine will fuel our love for Jesus, for the church, for one another, and for the lost.

To see the reading list check out “The Mountain and the Molehill.”

Sola Deo Gloria, dss

Purpose-Driven Predestination

As “The Year of Living Dangerously” continues at Southern Seminary, School of Theology Dean, Russell Moore, took a bold step to preach a message on election from Romans 8:26-9:6 in the Southern’s chapel service today. His point could not have been clearer: Election is not a theoretical head game that seminarians debate in local coffee shops, it is instead a spiritual truth and a biblical reality that empowers prayer, promotes peace, and propels the Great Commission. You can listen to the whole thing here.