Blog Archives

What’s Wrong with Our Gospel?

If you haven’t seen it yet, I’m doing a series over at Western Seminary’s new blog on What’s Wrong with Our Gospel? The first post looked at Paul’s Gospel summary in 1 Cor. 15:1-3 and pointed out that Paul assumed that his readers already knew the story of redemption as the proper background for his concise summary. But, since most people today don’t know the story, we need to be much more careful about offering story-less Gospel summaries. And the second post, which just went up this morning, offers a brief summary of the story.

These two posts are really just setting me up for the real focus of the series: three key ways people misunderstand the Gospel when they only hear our story-less Gospel summaries.

Follow along over at Transformed and let me know what you think.

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What is Heresy? Final Answer

What is heresy? This has proven to be a remarkably difficult question to answer. Along the way, we’ve tested a number of possible solutions:

And, with each, we saw that there were good reasons for rejecting it as an adequate definition of heresy. So, we still don’t seem to have a particularly good answer to our question.

But, instead of trying to take each as an adequate definition in its own right, what if we took the strengths of each and used them all to build a definition of heresy? What might that look like?

1. Heresy requires an exercise of authority.

Both the Conciliar Answer and the Just Shut Up! approach recognize that some kind of authority is inherent in the idea of heresy. After all, someone needs to make the final decision as to what does and doesn’t qualify as heresy. I’ve already explained why I don’t think authority alone suffices to define heresy, but that doesn’t mean authority isn’t part of the equation.

Now, as a good evangelical Protestant, the question always arises: Whose authority? Alister McGrath suggests that heresy requires the authority of ecumenical gathering (Heresy: A History of Defending Truth). In other words, unless Christians everywhere can agree that something is heretical, we shouldn’t use the term. And consequently, he pretty much limits heresy to the first few centuries of the church. But, he fails to mention that even these earliest councils weren’t as “ecumenical” as we think (a few hundred bishops from mostly Greek-speaking churches hardly qualifies as fully representative of the whole church, regardless of how good their conclusions might have been). And, as I’ve argued before, such an approach necessarily robs us of the ability to deal with any possible heresies that arose after this time.

But, if I can’t appeal to ecumenical gatherings or to an official magisterium, where can I turn? I’m comfortable saying that the authority in view here is the authority of whatever ecclesial body you are a part. I realize that this makes “heresy” a bit messy in that something might qualify as heresy for one group of Christians and not another. But, complex issues like heresy and orthodoxy are rarely simple.

What this primarily means is that my view would reject the idea that heresy can be a purely individualistic affair. I can’t determine by myself what “heresy” is, though I can certainly offer opinions as to what some group should declare to be heresy.

2. Heresy necessarily involves power and exclusion.

If heresy involves the authority to identify something as “off limits,” then it necessarily involves both power and exclusion. I don’t mean the power to physically coerce someone into believing what you think is correct, though power has often been used that way in the history of heresy. I’m simply talking about the fact that any authoritative declaration that something qualifies as heretical is inherently an exercise of power. And, when that power gets exercised, it necessarily identifies some group as an “other” who lies beyond the pale of orthodoxy.

And, there’s nothing necessarily wrong with either of these. In and of themselves, neither power nor exclusion are bad. Church leaders sometimes need to use both for the benefit of the body (e.g. excluding a dangerous person from a children’s ministry).

But, I think it’s important to be clear that when we use the label “heresy” we are wielding the power to exclude. My fear is that if we don’t make this explicit, we’ll wield the power without being aware that we’re doing so. And, that is exceptionally dangerous. It’s like giving someone a box and not bothering to mention that there’s dynamite inside. We can’t wield carefully what we don’t know that we’re wielding.

So, we must always be mindful that calling something “heresy” is necessarily an exercise of power that should be done with care, prayer, and great hesitation.

3. Heresy undermines the Gospel.

As I mentioned in Sugar in My Coffee, the idea that heresy at its core is something that undermines the essence of Christianity is the approach I resonate with the most. And this for two reasons. (1) Heresy is about essential, rather than peripheral, matters. Granted, it’s not always easy to tell the difference. But, it’s still important to emphasize this throughout. And, (2) heresy comes from within. We make a mistake when we see heresy as something that attacks Christianity from without. Instead, we must realize that heresy is always something that arises from within the body and must be dealt with as such.

But, although I like this approach, I think it needs to be strengthened in several important ways. First, it needs to make the appeal to authority/power more explicit as I’ve done above. Rather than simply presume that heresy is self-evident, we need to recognize that sifting heresy from orthodoxy is a difficult process that will often require a final decision to be made by those entrusted with the authority to do so. Second, we need to realize that the “essence” of Christianity is more than a set of beliefs. (It’s not less than that, but it is more.) So, I wonder if it would be worth exploring whether “heresy” is a concept that could be applied to lifestyles as well as theologies. If a group’s lifestyle runs contrary to the essence of Christianity, wouldn’t it be worth calling it heresy even if that group maintained the outward form of right belief? In other words, can we have a heretical counterpart to orthopraxy as well as orthodoxy? And, finally, I think the idea of Christianity’s “essence” is far too vague. I’d rather say that heresy is something that undermines the Gospel itself. I realize that gets us into a discussion of what the Gospel is. But, I’d rather have a productive discussion about the nature of the Gospel than spin our wheels chasing some abstract “essence.”

So, What Is Heresy?

This is far from final, but here is what I would propose at this point as a definition of heresy:

Heresy is any form of Christianity (in practice or belief) that undermines the Gospel (explicitly or implicitly) and is determined to be such by the recognized authority in a given ecclesial body.

What do you think?

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Sex, Drugs, and Seminary: Faithful obedience and ministry formation

Timothy Dalrymple just posted a very interesting piece on his experience at Princeton Seminary: The Young Christian’s Guide to Sex at Seminary. It’s a fascinating reflection on the challenges of being an evangelical at a mainline school, and the “outsider” status he felt like he had there. As he describes it,

My Outsider status became clear to me — if not for the first time, at least in a new way — when I sat with friends on the seminary field, stretching before a game of ultimate frisbee.  It was still my first semester, and I was getting to know the people and the place.  We were talking about the sins that were emphasized in the churches that brought us up.  I said that pre- or extra-marital sex was the grave sin against we, in my youth group and Sunday School classes, were most gravely and constantly warned.  And, I said, I appreciated that, as it had helped me maintain my commitment to abstain from sex until marriage.

I might as well have said that I believe in eating toddlers with chipotle sauce and a side order of puppies.  My friends’ and fellow seminarians’ expressions had gone, suddenly, from benign conversational interest to something that looked like rats and skunks had deposited themselves deep in their nostrils, where they were scratching and relieving themselves and spreading their odors.  This, I saw, was the last thing my friends wanted to talk about.  And such a “backwards” and “judgmental” attitude (as it would later be described to me) really had no place at an enlightened seminary.

And, he goes on to describe a seminary experience that apparently involved a fair amount of drugs, alcohol, and sex, and that seemed more focused on “the aesthetics, the atmospherics, the experience, the rites and rhythms of church life,” than living obedient lives in “grateful imitation” of the grace we’ve received in Jesus.

I’ll let you read the article for yourself. It’s a fascinating window into one person’s experience.

But, what I really wanted to key in on was an interesting warning that he offers to any seminary student. Dalrymple comments on the fact that seminary was a real low point in his spiritual life, and that he’d heard similar stories from others he went to school with.  And, he thinks that the main reason for this was a simple lack of obedience. They’d gotten so caught up in the isolated, academic life of the school, separated from the pressures of having to live out their faith in the midst of other people, that they’d lost sight of the need to live faithfully.

So, he concludes with this thought:

I believe, and believe very strongly, that one way seminaries can improve themselves is to remember the foundational importance of obedience, to remember that we are saved by grace but called to live lives of grateful imitation.  When we walk in the footsteps of Christ, we come to know him and commune with him — and to know and commune with the Father.  If we want seminarians to see their seminary years as times of extraordinary spiritual deepening and growth, then we need to encourage those seminarians to live lives of integrity and holiness and selfless obedience.  They fill fall short.  But to the extent they try, they will grow.

I found this fascinating, because I’ve never looked at the struggles of the seminarian from this perspective. I’ve often heard people say that seminary was a “dry time” for them, though my experience was quite different. And, I routinely talk to my students about the importance of staying spiritually healthy while dealing with the rigors of an academic program. And, most importantly, I emphasize the absolute necessity of being involved in ministry while in seminary. But, I really haven’t thought as much about what the lack of simple, faithful obedience as an expression of Gospel-driven thankfulness can do to a seminarian. As he points out, lack of obedience in seminary not only impacts your seminary years, but it has dreadful implications for future ministry: “And how are just-minted graduates going to begin their church ministries when they have just spent 3 years disobeying and straying from God?”

If you’ve been to a Bible college or a seminary, I’d be curious to know what you think about Dalrymple’s post. And, was your experience at all like his? Was it a spiritual low point for you? If so, why do you think that was?

Salvation pertains to everyone, but theology to only a few – Erasmus

[This is a guest post from Michael Fletcher, a Th.M. student at Western Seminary.]

Erasmus (formally Desiderius Erasmus Roterodamus), was born October 28th, 1466. Today marks 545 years since his birth! Erasmus was a Catholic priest and theologian during the reformation period. With the rise of clerical abuses in the church, he was very committed to reforming the Church from within. Today, I am sharing an excerpt from his book Enchridion militis Christiani, namely, The Manual of a Chrisian Knight. I believe it’s an interesting thought for today, even though it was written in 1503. What do you think?

How can it be that these great volumes instruct us to live well and after a Christian manner, which a man in all his life cannot have leisure once to look over? In like manner as if a physician should prescribe unto him that lieth sick in peril of death to read Jacobus de partibus, or such other huge volumes, saying that there he should find remedy for his disease: but in the meantime the patient dieth, wanting present remedy wherewith he might be holpen. In such a fugitive life it is necessary to have a ready medicine at hand.

How many volumes have they made of restitution, of confession, of slander, and other things innumerable? And though they boult and search out by piecemeal everything by itself, and so define every thing as if they mistrusted all other men’s wits, yea as though they mistrusted the goodness and mercy of God, whiles they do prescribe how he ought to punish and reward every fact either good or bad: yet they agree not amongst themselves, nor yet sometimes do open the thing plainly, if a man would look near upon it, so much diversity both of wits and circumstances is there. Moreover although it were so that they had determined all things well and truly, yet besides this that they handle and treat of these things after a barbarous and unpleasant fashion, there is not one amongst a thousand that can have any leisure to read over these volumes: The great volumes. Or who is able to bear about with him Secunam secunde, the work of St Thomas? And yet there is no man but he ought to use a good life, to the which Christ would that the way should be plain and open for every man, and that not by inexplicable crooks of disputations, not able to be resolved, but by a true and sincere faith and charity not feigned, whom hope doth follow which is never ashamed. The theology appertaineth to few men, but the salvation appertaineth to all.

And finally let the great doctors, which must needs be but few in comparison to all other men, study and busy themselves in those great volumes. And yet nevertheless the unlearned and rude multitude which Christ died for ought to be provided for: and he hath taught a great portion of Christian virtue which hath inflamed men unto love thereof. The wise king, when he did teach his son true wisdom, took much more pain in exhorting him thereunto than in teaching him Those be noted that of purpose make the faculty which they profess obscure and hard, as who should say that to love wisdom were in a manner to have attained it. It is a great shame and rebuke both for lawyers and physicians that they have of a set purpose, and for the nonce, made their art and science full of difficulty, and hard to be attained or come by, to the intent that both their gains and advantage might be the more plentiful, and their glory and praise among the unlearned people the greater: but it is a much more shameful thing to do the same in the philosophy of Christ: but rather contrariwise we ought to endeavour ourselves with all our strengths to make it so easy as can be, and plain to every man. Nor let this be our study to appear learned ourselves, but to allure very many to a Christian man’s life.

A Prayer for Sunday (Erasmus)

[The great Christian humanist, scholar, and Catholic reformer, Desiderius Erasmus, has a birthday coming up (October 26 or 28). So, today’s prayer comes from him.]

O Lord Jesus Christ,
you have said that you are the way, the truth, and the life.
Suffer us not to stray from you
…….who are the way,
nor to distrust you
…….who are the truth,
nor to rest in anything other than you,
…….who are the life.

A Prayer for Sunday (Jonathan Edwards).

[Jonathan Edwards birthday was last week (Oct 5), so today’s A Prayer for Sunday comes from him. But, instead of posting one of Edwards’ prayers. Here is an excerpt from his sermon “The Most High a Prayer Hearing God,” a reflection on Psalm 65:2.]

Why is God so ready to hear the prayers of men? — To this I answer,

First, because he is a God of infinite grace and mercy. It is indeed a very wonderful thing, that so great a God should be so ready to hear our prayers, though we are so despicable and unworthy. That he should give free access at all times to everyone, should allow us to be importunate without esteeming it an indecent boldness, [and] should be so rich in mercy to them that call upon him: that worms of the dust should have such power with God by prayer, that he should do such great things in answer to their prayers, and should show himself, as it were, overcome by them. This is very wonderful, when we consider the distance between God and us, and how we have provoked him by our sins, and how unworthy we are of the least gracious notice. It cannot be from any need that God stands in of us, for our goodness extends not to him. Neither can it be from anything in us to incline the heart of God to us. It cannot be from any worthiness in our prayers, which are in themselves polluted things. But it is because God delights in mercy and condescension. He is herein infinitely distinguished from all other Gods. He is the great fountain of all good, from whom goodness flows as light from the sun.

Second, we have a glorious Mediator, who has prepared the way, that our prayers may he heard consistently with the honor of God’s justice and majesty. Not only has God in himself mercy sufficient for this, but the Mediator has provided that this mercy may be exercised consistently with the divine honor. Through him we may come to God for mercy. He is the way, the truth, and the life. No man can come to the Father but by him. This Mediator hath done three things to make way for the hearing of our prayers.

1. He hath by his blood made atonement for sin, so that our guilt need not stand in the way, as a separating wall between God and us, and that our sins might not be a cloud through which our prayers cannot pass….

2. Christ, by his obedience, has purchased this privilege, viz. that the prayers of those who believe in him should be heard. He has not only removed the obstacles to our prayers, but has merited a hearing of them….

3. Christ enforces the prayers of his people, by his intercession at the right hand of God in heaven. He hath entered for us into the holy of holies, with the incense which he hath provided, and there he makes continual intercession for all that come to God in his name, so that their prayers come to God the Father through his hands….

A prayer for Sunday (Francis of Assisi).

[Tomorrow marks the anniversary of Francis of Assisi’s death (1226). The founder of the Franciscans and influential spiritual leader, Francis left a number of written prayers. So, to commemorate his passing, here is one of them.]

Lord God:
you alone are holy,
you who work wonders!
You are strong, you are great,
you are the Most High,
you are the almighty King,
you, holy Father, King of heaven and earth.

Lord God: you are Three and you are One,
you are goodness, all goodness,
you are the higest Good,
Lord God, living and true.

You are love and charity, you are wisdom,
you are humility, you are patience,
you are beauty, you are sweetness,
you are sefety, you are rest, you are joy,
you are our hope
and our delight,
you are justice, you are moderation
you are all our wealth
and riches overflowing.

You are beauty, you are gentleness,
you are our shelter, our guard
and our defender,
you are strength, you are refreshment,
you are our hope.
you are our faith.
you are our love,
you are our complete consolation,
you are our life everlasting,
great and wonderful Lord,
all powerful God, merciful Savior!

Amen.


What Is “Heresy” and Who Is a “Heretic”?

Rob Bell is a heretic. Rob Bell is not a heretic. You are a heretic. I am proud to be a heretic. Everyone is a heretic.

I hear statements like these all the time. The fourth one prompted yesterday’s question: “Why is it popular to be a heretic?” And, we’ve had a good discussion around the extent to which cultural tendencies might contribute to the popularity of describing oneself as a “heretic.” But, such statements raise two other important questions: (1) What is heresy? and (2) What does it mean to be a heretic? Interestingly, people often answer only the first question without recognizing that the second is a different and equally important question.

Today I’d like to start pressing more deeply into what terms like “heresy” and “heretic” even mean. And, we’ll begin with the issue of heresy itself, since it’s impossible to talk about what it means to be a heretic without some understanding of heresy.

What is heresy?

According to Alister McGrath, the term heresy (hairesis in Greek) originally referred to any “act of choosing,” and over time came to include broader ideas like “choice” or “school of thought” (Heresy, 37). So, the term itself wasn’t necessarily negative. It wasn’t until the second century that Christians began using the term in a more pejorative sense to refer to a “school of thought” that needed to be rejected for some reason.

But, that still doesn’t answer the question of what qualifies something as a heresy? And, that is where the challenge lies. That question actually implies a number of other related and equally difficult questions:

  • What distinguishes a heresy from something that is merely incorrect or questionable?
  • What distinguishes heresy from “orthodoxy”?
  • Who determines when something qualifies as a heresy?

It should come as no surprise that people have offered a variety of answers to these questions. So, instead of trying to define “heresy” in one quick post, I’m going to do a short series on different ways that people have tried to define heresy. When I’m done, I hope that we’ll have come to a better understanding of what heresy is.

5 Common Approaches to Understanding Heresy

Specifically, we’re going to look at five different ways that people have defined heresy. I’m sure there are more, but these are among the more common approaches. Over the next few posts, we’ll take a look at each of these and see if they can help in the process of understanding heresy.

  1. Heresy as deviation from an ecumenical council.
  2. Heresy as a suppressed orthodoxy.
  3. Heresy as a social construction.
  4. Heresy as deviation from the “center.”
  5. Heresy as a threat to authority.
  6. Heresy as a failed orthodoxy.

I’ll link the posts to each of these as we go. So, stay tuned for more.

You might also be interested in:

Racial reconciliation and the Gospel

One New Man: The Cross and Racial Reconciliation by Jarvis J. Williams (B&H, 2010).

 

Evangelicals have worked hard over the last several decades to pursue a theological understanding of the human person, dealing with issues like fee will, gender, and mind/body, among others. But, on issues of race and ethnicity, we’ve been relatively quiet. I’m sure that’s partly because evangelicalism has a spotty track record on racial issues in general, making this a challenging topic for us to address. But, I think it may also stem from the fact that most of the books offering a theological perspective on race/ethnicity tend to be highly technical (i.e. nearly unintelligible to the uninitiated) and often do not spend much time on biblical/exegetical issues, which tend to be the primary interest of evangelical thinkers.

With One New Man, Jarvis Williams takes an important step forward in evangelical thinking about race/ethnicity. He offers a short, accessible work that deals extensively with the relevant biblical material. Its core argument is that humanity’s fall into sin involves both horizontal (God) and vertical (human) alienation, and, correspondingly, the Gospel promises both horizontal and vertical reconciliation. So, to understand racial reconciliation, we really need to understand the Gospel.

SUMMARY

With this emphasis on the Gospel as it relates to racial reconciliation, it should come as no surprise that the structure of the book follows the story of redemption. After a quick introduction, Williams explains that the reason for racial reconciliation lies in the tragedy of the Fall and its impact on humanity (chapter 2). So, the only possible solution to the problem lies in the reconciliation offered to all people through the atonement (chapter 3). This doesn’t just reconcile us to God, but creates the possibility, even the necessity, of racial reconciliation as we all become “one new man” in Christ (chapter 4). Finally, Williams offers a short chapter on the practical application of these insights in churches today (chapter 5).

STRENGTHS

The most obvious strength of the book lies in its commitment to exegesis. Almost unique among books dealing with race, Williams spends the bulk of his time doing biblical theology and exegesis. That’s a refreshing change of pace for the genre.

But, Williams’ most valuable contribution is in his clear connection between racial discord, racial reconciliation, and the Gospel. For Williams, racial reconciliation is not an optional feature of the Christian life that we can get around to whenever we have some time between evangelistic events and discipleship classes. Racial reconciliation is fundamental to the “good news” that God made available in Jesus Christ and something that all Christians should be working toward.

Another key contribution is the distinction between “racial diversity” and “racial reconciliation.” “Diversity” is the mere presence different races in a single group. “Reconciliation” involves healing the wounds of sin and alienation so that the various groups come together in the true unity made possible through the atonement. And, Williams argues throughout that mere diversity is inadequate given the grand scope of the Gospel.

Finally, Williams offers some very helpful comments at the end of the book for how this can (and should) play out with respect to specific ministry realities. Unsurprisingly, he criticizes efforts that focus on mere diversity (e.g. occasional “joint” worship services or just striving for “multiethnic” churches). And, although he doesn’t mention it by name, he has no use for the “homogenous unit principle” – i.e. the idea that churches are most effective when they target a single demographic. Even at its best, he sees this as yet another reflection of racial discord that belies the life-transforming power of the Gospel.

WEAKNESSES

Given the strengths of the book, I’d like to give it an unqualified endorsements. But, I can’t. Despite these strengths, the book does have some important drawbacks.

First, and most frustratingly, the book’s emphasis on the Gospel leads to a serious imbalance in the material. The two longest chapters of the book deal with sin and the atonement respectively. And, in those chapters, relatively little is said about race in particular. These chapters are just setting the stage by discussing the problem and the solution. But, that means Williams devotes over two-thirds of the book to setting up the discussion. By the time he finally reaches the material specific to racial reconciliation, the book is almost done. As important as I think the Gospel is in this discussion, I would have liked to see Williams spend less time on sin/atonement, work that has been done many times by others, so that he could devote more attention to making the connection with racial issues.

Second, the imbalance contributed to some important oversights. More interaction with other authors writing on race and theology would have alerted the reader to some of the complexities involved in the discussion. At the very least, it would have been good to see definitions of such key terms as “race,” “ethnicity,” and “racism.” Williams seems to view these as terms with relatively self-evident definitions. But that is far from the case, as a quick summary of the relevant literature would demonstrate. And, lacking clear definitions, it becomes difficult to assess Williams’ argument in places – especially in the final chapter where he writes on the practical application of his ideas. (For example, what exactly is a “racist” church? Is mere racial homogeneity sufficient to establish that a church is “racist”?)

Finally, a real problem arises when Williams tries to move from Pauline theology to racial reconciliation today. His discussion of “race” in the NT is really a discussion of Jew/Gentile relations. And, that makes sense given that Paul focuses primarily on these categories. But, he recognizes that “Jew” and “Gentile” in the NT are primarily religious rather than racial/ethnic terms: “The greatest difference was that the Jews’ and Gentiles’ hatred toward one another was not based on skin color, but on religion” (p. 122). But, if Jew/Gentile is fundamentally a religious rather than a racial distinction, how does one connect Paul’s theology of Jew/Gentile reconciliation to the problem of racial reconciliation today, which is a significantly different problem. I’m sure it’s possible to make important connections between the two, but unfortunately, Williams either doesn’t see the difficulty, or simply chooses not to engage it.

CONCLUSION

One New Man is a great book for seeing that racial reconciliation is a part of the Gospel story. It is neither optional nor secondary. Used in that sense, One New Man will be a helpful resources, particularly for those looking for more of an introductory survey of the relevant biblical material.

[Many thanks to Broadman & Holman for sending me a review copy of One New Man: The Cross and Racial Reconciliation.]

A prayer for Sunday (Augustine)

[Augustine of Hippo died on this date in A.D. 430 as the Vandals were just about to sack his hometown. Augustine was one of the most influential theological voices of his day, and, through his amazingly large number of books, sermons, and letters, he has continued to influence every branch of the Christian church since. Today’s prayer comes from him.]

Great are You, O God, and greatly to be praised; great is Your power, and Your wisdom infinite. We who are but a particle of Your creation, praise You. You awaken us to delight in Your praise; for You made us for Yourself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in You.

What are You then, my God? Most high, most good, most omnipotent; most merciful, yet most just; most hidden, yet most present; most beautiful, yet most strong; stable, yet incomprehensible; unchangeable, yet all-changing; ever old, ever new; supporting, filling, and overspread ing; creating, flourishing, and maturing; seeking, yet having all things.

You, O God, are my life, my joy, my health.

[By the way, I haven’t been able to locate the original reference for this prayer, though I’ve seen it attributed to Augustine in a number of place. If anyone knows where this is from, please let me know.]