Saturday, March 24, 2007

Babies, Bathwater and Knowing the Difference

My friend Melvin Jones on his blog "Pulpit Pimps" (see post: "We Stand on the Shoulders of Giants - The Other Side of the Coin" has an open discussion about the necessity of seminary training for teachers of God's Word. Many are weighing in on both sides of the issue. A recurring theme for those who don't believe seminary training is beneficial seems to be the idea that the mind is at best unnecessary and at worst a hindrance to the faithful following of Jesus Christ. The idea seems to say, "just leave it up to the Holy Spirit".

Well, I have some definite problems with that mentality, but I won't flatter myself by giving you my limited insight to the truth in this matter. I put it the hands of someone I believe to be both experientially and intellectually grounded in this faith "once for all delivered to the saints": Dr. Robert Charles Sproul.

Doctrine and Life

Not doctrine, but life—that is what really matters. This is a sentiment often expressed in Christian circles. The idea is simple: God is less concerned about what we believe than He is about how we live. Creeds and dogma are unimportant. What matters is outward behavior. Orthopraxy, not orthodoxy is what counts. We may more completely please God with right behavior than with right thinking.

This is a false dilemma with perilous consequences. Right thinking and right living go together. We may distinguish them, but to separate them is deadly. We can have right theories without right practice. We can also have right practice without right theory, but only by accident as a happy inconsistency.

The disparaging of doctrine usually follows a common pattern. We begin by recognizing that there are people who have all the correct theological answers but who live scandalous lives. The Devil can make a high score on a theology test. It was the demons who first recognized Jesus as the Son of God before the disciples did, but the demons hated the truth they recognized so clearly. There are many people who know truth about God but who are living lives that could not possibly please God.

The Leaders' Treason

There is a deep suspicion in the Christian community about theology, especially academic theology, and for good reason. The church has experienced what one scholar called “the treason of the intellectual.” Much of the skepticism leveled against biblical Christianity has come from within the church. It was the church's theologians who declared the death of God. It is the theological seminaries that attack the trustworthiness of Scripture.

I remember my own rude awakening as a first–year seminary student. I was shocked to hear one of my professors not only deny the deity of Christ but attack it with a tone of hostility. I might have been less shocked had the professor expressed a deep personal crisis of faith in which he no longer could embrace the biblical faith. Had he made this confession with tears and a broken heart, I could have understood it. But his denial was couched in a kind of militancy against the biblical view of Jesus.

When I raised questions about this to him, my professor glared at me and said, “Young man, you have come to seminary with too many preconceived ideas.” The preconceived idea for which I was rebuked was the belief in the deity of Christ.

I was bewildered. I naively assumed that everybody who went to a Christian seminary to prepare for the Christian ministry was already convinced of the deity of Christ. I couldn't imagine any other reason to be there. When I called attention to the fact that the creeds of our church clearly affirm the deity of Christ, the man replied (in private), “The orthodox creeds are full of ——.” (He did not delete the expletive.)

Countless college students have had similar experiences with professors at church–related colleges. A natural reaction to the pain and shock of this kind of skepticism is to retreat into a nonintellectual haven of faith. The seductive temptation is to think, If this is what academic theology produces, then who needs it? I'm going to keep my faith simple and avoid any involvement with theology.

We must not assume that because someone is a theological scholar that he is a Christian. We may not assume that because someone is an ordained minister he is necessarily a Christian. Sadly, there are many people who enter the ministry for the wrong reasons. Some make theological skepticism a profession. There are those who are motivated to study Christian theology out of a burning desire to disprove, neutralize, or change Christianity. Natural man has enough enmity toward God to make a lifelong crusade against Him. There is an enemy within the church.

We have heard enough testimonies from clergy who declare they have been converted after their ordination to know that many are in fact ordained in unbelief. American colonial pastor Gilbert Tennent once wrote an essay entitled “The Dangers of an Unconverted Clergy.” Tennent was not merely crying wolf. There are wolves out there in sheep's clothing. They masquerade as men and women of God while inwardly being at war with God. That is nothing new. We remember that the most hostile group toward Jesus in His earthly life was the clergy of his day, the scribes and the Pharisees.

People seek ordination for all sorts of reasons. One reason is to legitimatize their unbelief. Another reason, as we have seen, is to work against Christ from within. And there are many who are genuine humanitarians who see the church as a marvelous institution of social concern. Where else can a person find such a well–established platform for community influence?

When a businessman moves into a new community he must work hard at establishing new relationships. If he is to rise to a position of community prominence and influence, he must face the reality that it takes time and effort to do it. When a new minister comes to town he instantly steps into a position of community leadership. The influence of the local church may be waning, but it is still a reality. The minister has an instant platform from which to exert influence. He has a pulpit. He has a congregation. He has a church program. The wages may not be the best, but the opportunities for exerting influence and community leadership are great. A pulpit beats a soapbox for those motivated to persuade people to their own viewpoints.

There are other factors that play a role, and some are painful to relate. One ignoble motivation was felt sharply in the sixties. Seminary enrollment brought with it a deferment from the military draft. Some students were quite candid about it. A three–year tour of seminary seemed a better option than a tour of duty in Vietnam or exile to Canada.

But we dare not paint the whole house with the same brush. The vast majority of clergy are in the ministry out of a sincere desire to serve God. There are lots of sheep in sheep's clothing. Indeed, they are more than sheep; they are shepherds. These pastors love God and they love their people. With all their failings, they still try to please God and to lead other people to do so.

The Need For Doctrine

The church needs dedicated pastors. It also needs dedicated teachers of theology. The church has always benefited greatly from the work of sound theologians. I return again and again to the insights of Augustine, the cogency of Thomas Aquinas, the brilliance of Calvin, the passion of Luther. These men feed my mind and my soul.

We all need good teachers. I know that I cannot do without them. But how do we find them? What are the marks of a good teacher of theology?

Finding good teachers is like finding a good doctor. We want a doctor who knows what he is doing and who is a person we can trust with our bodies. If the doctor is warm and kind but doesn't know medicine, we are in deep trouble. It is small consolation to me if he holds my hand while he injects the wrong medicine into my bloodstream.

On the other hand, there are highly skilled professional physicians who have little personal regard for their patients. They know how to treat diseases but don't know how to treat people.

If possible, I want a doctor who is a master of medical knowledge and who will also value me as a person. Medically, that is the best of all possible worlds.

In theology we need teachers who display a high degree of skill and knowledge coupled with a deep love for God. Loving God is not a prejudicial barrier to a correct understanding of the things of God. On the contrary. A heart that is disposed toward God will only enhance the theologian's knowledge of God.

Professor G. C. Berkouwer of the Free University of Amsterdam once remarked in class, “Gentlemen, all great theologians begin and end their work with doxology!” Doxology—the writings of the great masters breathe a spirit of doxology. Their work goes beyond analysis and exposition to praise. Read the works of the apostle Paul, the premier theologian of the church. In the midst of his heaviest treatment of election he interrupts the flow of his thought to exclaim, “O the depths and the riches of His mercy!” (Romans 11:33).

We find that same spirit of doxology in the giants of church history. We can't miss it in Augustine, Athanasius, Anselm, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, and Edwards, to mention the finest. None of these is infallible. We can find points of disagreement among them. Yet there is a remarkable and profound unity among them regarding the essential doctrines of the faith. Hear what C. S. Lewis once observed:

In the days when I still hated Christianity, I learned to recognize, like some all too familiar smell, that almost unvarying something which met me, now in Puritan Bunyan, now in Anglican Hooker, now in Thomist Dante. It was there (honeyed and floral) in Francois de Sales; it was there (grave and homely) in Spenser and Walton; it was there (grim and manful) in Pascal and Johnson; there again, with a mild frightening, Paradisial flavor, in Vaughan and Boehme and Traherne. In the urban sobriety of the eighteenth century one was not safe—Law and Butler were two lions in the path. The supposed “Paganism” of the Elizabethans could not keep it out; it lay in wait where a man might have supposed himself safest, in the very centre of The Faerie Queene and the Arcadia. It was, of course, varied; and yet—after all—so unmistakably the same; recognizable, not to be evaded, the odour which, is death to us until we allow it to become life. *

Now read the works of twentieth–century critical theologian Rudolf Bultmann. Bultmann displays an uncanny technical erudition. His critical skills are noteworthy. Yet it would require the lamp of Diogenes to find a single note of doxology in all his writings. That should tell us something. We do well to wonder if a man who cannot praise God is going to please God with his vast learning.

We still face the dilemma of a vast public fear of theology. At times I have been critical of Christian bookstores. So much of what sells as teaching is theologically weak. It is often not only simple (which is a virtue) but simplistic (which is a harmful vice). There is much doxology, but little theology. Some literature found in Christian bookstores manifests a serious ignorance of orthodox theology. It is simply bad teaching. It is well–intentioned bad teaching. But it is still bad teaching.

For me to criticize Christian bookstores and Christian publishers is to bite the hand that feeds me. But if that hand is feeding harmful food to Christ's sheep then somebody needs to bite it.

I have pleaded with booksellers and publishers to promote the writings of the great masters. The usual response is that the great masters don't sell well to the general public. I still plead. I'm convinced that if the industry promoted the classics, the classics would sell.

I once ordered John Murray's Principles of Conduct for a seminary course. The publisher notified me that it was out of print. I pitched a fit. I begged the publisher to reprint it, even offering to raise the finances necessary to do it. The book was too important to allow it to slip into publishing purgatory. To my great joy the publisher relented and issued a new edition.

I would be delighted to see bookstores bury all my books in the basement or put them to the torch if they would replace them with the works of Luther, Augustine, Edwards, and the rest. What do I know that I haven't learned from them? The only difference between them and me is that their work is better thought out and much better written. I am sure that James Boice, J. I. Packer, Charles Colson, and a host of contemporary writers would say the same thing. We are at best dwarfs. standing on the shoulders of the giants.

We need sound doctrine. The Spirit of holiness is also the Spirit of truth. Truth and righteousness go together. True living flows out of true thinking. Our lives can change externally without changing internally. All that achieves is to qualify us to be Pharisees. The Spirit goes to the root of the matter.

It is good trees that produce good fruit. It is the transformed mind that yields a transformed life. How we think about God is the most vital influence to how we respond to God. Repentance itself is a change of mind before it ever yields a change of behavior.

We must reject a false dichotomy between doctrine and life. We can have sound doctrine without a sanctified life. But it is extremely difficult to progress in sanctification without sound doctrine. Sound doctrine is not a sufficient condition to produce a sound life. It does not yield sanctification automatically. Sound doctrine is a necessary condition for sanctification. It is a vital prerequisite. It is like oxygen and fire. The mere presence of oxygen does not guarantee a fire, but you can't have a fire without it.

Consciousness, Conviction, Conscience

Why? Why is sound doctrine necessary for sanctification? For real sanctification to occur in the Christian life at least three absolute changes are necessary. There must be a change in our consciousness. There must be a change in our convictions. There must be a change in our conscience. Consciousness, conviction, and conscience—these three are all vital to our sanctification.

Consciousness involves knowledge. Before we can willfully do what God commands and what pleases Him, we must first understand what it is that God requires. From the Law comes a knowledge of sin. Also from the Law comes a knowledge of righteousness.

A person could “accidentally” obey the law without doing so consciously. But such an action would have no moral virtue to it. Suppose a man enjoys driving his car at fifty miles an hour. It pleases him to ride at that rate of speed. He drives his car at fifty miles an hour in fifty–five–mile–per–hour zones and in fifteen–mile–per–hour zones. When he drives in the fifty–five–mile–per–hour zone, he is within the speed limit. He is obeying the law. But when he goes fifty in a fifteen–mile–per–hour–zone, he is a menace to those around him.

Suppose our mythical driver systematically refuses to look at speed limit signs. He averts his gaze from any sign that even appears to mark a speed limit. He keeps himself purposefully unconscious of speed limits. At times he “happens” to obey the law, but purely by coincidence. If the man wants to achieve moral virtue as a driver and always drive within the speed limit, he must first become aware, he must become conscious of the law.

But consciousness is not enough. We all have seen people who are quite conscious of the speed limits while they are violating them. We don't have to look beyond ourselves to discover the culprits. For our behavior to change we must move beyond consciousness to conviction.

Conviction is a matter of depth and intensity. It is one thing to be aware that a certain action is right. It is another to have a conviction about it. It is a lot easier for us to compromise our knowledge than to act against convictions. A conviction is knowledge that is settled. It has a firm hold on us. It goes beyond our brains and penetrates the conscience.

Our conscience acts as a kind of governor upon our behavior. It is the inner voice that either accuses us or excuses us. It monitors our behavior by way of approval or disapproval. The problem is that our conscience doesn't always tell us the truth. We are adept at training it in the direction of self–approval.

It is hard to live with a guilty conscience. Guilt feelings paralyze us. They can produce literal nausea. They can provoke psychosomatic illnesses. When we are assaulted by a guilty conscience we can change our behavior or change our consciences. We can sear the conscience. We can dull its accusing tone by rationalization.

By repeating sins over and over again we can mute the inner voice of conscience. We fall into the decadence described by Paul in Romans 1 whereby we not only continue in sin but encourage others to join us in it.

Who, knowing the righteous judgment of God, that those who practice such things are worthy of death, not only do the same but also approve of those who practice them. Romans 1:32

Recently, I watched a segment of the Phil Donahue show that featured an interview of actors and actresses who starred in pornographic movies. The film players insisted that (a) they felt no guilt and (b) they had high standards because they refused to participate in radical sexual violence or in the sexual exploitation of children. They had a conscience about violence and child exploitation which “excused” their lack of conscience in other areas.

The porn actors justified their behavior by appealing to the fact that they avoided more heinous sexual behavior than their own. Their remarks were a consummate display of self–deceit, whereby they casually called evil good. They played on a distinction between bad and worse. They considered their own evil good because it was not worse. Here wickedness was relativized so that their own conscience could excuse them.

This game is played on more stages than those that are X–rated. As long as I can point to some worse evil than my own, I can flatter myself with a distorted view of virtue and vice.

For the conscience to function in a godly way it must be influenced by godly convictions. To gain godly consciences, our consciousness of what is right and what is wrong must be sharpened. This involves the mind. It is a matter of doctrine.

Doctrine comes from the Word of God. The Word addresses our consciousness. It is given for our understanding. The Word engages the mind, not the elbow. The Word is the Spirit's book. The Holy Spirit inspires the Scriptures. He is the Revealer of truth.

But the Spirit's work does not stop in the inspiring of Scripture. The Spirit illumines the Word and applies the Word to us:

But God has revealed them to us through His Spirit. For the Spirit searches all things, yes, the deep things of God. For what man knows the things of a man except the spirit of the man which is in him? Even so no one know the things of God except the Spirit of God. 1 Corinthians 2:10–11

I once heard Dr. David Hubbard, president of Fuller Theological Seminary speak on this text. Dr. Hubbard explained the meaning of the Spirit's searching the things of God. Human beings search after things they do not have or do not know. The Holy Spirit is not an ignorant member of the Godhead who is desperately seeking to discover the truth of God. The Holy Spirit is God. All that the father knows the Spirit already knows does not need to search after it.

Rather, the text refers to the Spirit's work of illumination for us. It is as though the Spirit puts a searchlight on the Word of God to help us see what is already there. He is assisting us in our search for understanding.

The Spirit is sent to instruct us and to convict us. He applies the intensity of knowledge that is conviction. Jesus promised the Holy Spirit for this purpose:

Nevertheless I tell You the truth. It is to your advantage that I go away; for if I do not go a away, the Helper will not come to You; but if I depart, I will send Him to you. And when He has come, He will convict the world of sin, and of righteousness, and of Judgment. John 16:7–8

The progress from a changed consciousness to a changed conviction to a changed conscience is directed by the Holy Spirit. The Spirit works with the Word. He does not work against the Word or without the Word.

The Word and Spirit go together. Doctrine and life go together. The will and the mind go together. To separate them is to frustrate the work of sanctification within us and to grieve the Holy Spirit. To separate them is to avoid the integrated, committed life that pleases God.

"Wisdom calls aloud in the street; She raises her voice in the open squares. She cries out from the top of the walls, at the openings of the gates in the city . . ."
Proverbs 1:20-21

(Be Like the Bereans, Baby!!!)

The above exerpt is from "Pleasing God"; chapter 14 "Doctrine and Life", by
R.C. Sproul, 1988

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