Sunday, 19 July 2009

Orthodoxy on a Knife Edge

Staying true is difficult. Holding on to the truth of the gospel is a battle. It was never meant to be easy, but you know, no one ever warned me it would be thus. Carl Trueman, in Martin Downes excellent Risking The Truth, agrees:
Belief in the truth is always difficult - doctrinally and morally. We believe not because we find it easy or straightforward but because we are commanded so to do. Yet evangelical culture often fails to acknowledge the level of struggle involved in being orthodox and thuse creating unrealistic expectations for the Christian life. (p34)
Yup, I concur; bitter experience has convinced me that holding on to the truth of the gospel will always be a battle for those of us with sinful hearts so (un)naturally opposed to God's truth. Paul alludes to this struggle when he writes to the Colossians:
Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of your evil behavior. But now he has reconciled you by Christ's physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation— if you continue in your faith, established and firm, and do not move from the hope held out in the gospel. (1:21-23 TNIV)
Moving from "the hope held out in the gospel" is a real danger according to Paul. Gospel faith needs establishing and firming up. We need outside resources to keep us 'resting on Christ and his righteousness' through faith.

Kim Riddlebarger noted on a recent WHI podcast that if Paul calls the gospel 'foolishness' then we should not be surprised when sensible people within the church attempt to 'correct' the gospel to make it less foolish. The way I see it, heretical 'correcting' impulses can be boiled down to the following sins: reductionism, biblicism, antinomianism, legalism/moralism.

How do we establish and firm up our faith? Let me take each of the above heretical impulses in turn:
  • reductionism - sometimes 'tight' exegesis of a passage leads one down a dark path. Sometimes the obvious meaning of a passage isn't obvious. Many have gone down the path of being faithful to what the 'text says' and ended up denying the Trinity (e.g. Mark 10:18). A similar thing is happening today with reference to the imputation of Christ's righteousness. When faced with an, at first glance, outstanding yet novel piece of exegesis ask yourself, "Has this been done before? Has this been refuted before?" Don't just read modern commentaries. Read the old stuff. Ask yourself, how has the church catholic interpreted such a verse? Which leads me to the next heretical impulse:
  • biblicism - so much of our problems in evangelicalism come down to a 'me and my Bible' mentality. A deep suspicion of anything that smells of tradition is esteemed a virtue in most evangelical churches. Reformed Christians have never been opposed to tradition; only the unbiblical sort. According to Carl Trueman in the aforementioned book, the Westminster standards were drafted by men who'd taken the best of the Patristic and Medieval period and refracted it through a Protestant lens. Confessionalism recognises there is a heretic in us all waiting to get out and that we need our individualist-biblicist monster tamed by ecclesiastically binding documents. Get to know these great confessions of the church.
  • antinomianism/legalism - the gospel of sola gratia and sola fide is counter intuitive. Staying true to it is like walking on a knife edge. It's easy to fall off into the emergent 'shag anything as long as you're monogamous' attitude or the covenant moralist 'start by grace finish by obedience' error. Heck, even the apostle Peter struggled with this one! (Gal. 2:11) I've found my understanding of justification sharpened by becoming acquainted with the arguments over it (indeed, many of the NT letters/doctrines were written and framed in polemical contexts). Read good books on justification (particularly this and this).
A theme running through all of these morally bankrupt impulses is that articulated by the Apostle: bad company corrupts good character (1 Cor. 15:33). Sometimes reading is bad for you. Sometimes keeping abreast of theological error (particularly on the internet) can wear one down. Paul warned the Galatians:
Brothers and sisters, if someone is caught in a sin, you who live by the Spirit should restore that person gently. But watch yourselves, or you also may be tempted. (6:1 TNIV)
So if you're continuously checking on what Baalzeblog (i.e. Tony Jones) is saying, don't be surprised if you start to doubt even the basics. Your heart is opposed to truth and loves lies. Sometimes it is better to ignore the heretics and just feed ourselves on Christ through word, sacrament and the great old writers.

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