How to Do Theology: Lessons from the Recent Trinity Debate

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In case you are unaware, there has been a somewhat heated debate in the blogosphere over the last few weeks regarding the Trinity and gender relations. Plenty of posts have been written about this debate, but recent ones by Grudem, Trueman, and Jones are too instructive not to share.

Before citing the posts, it’s worth revisiting something I wrote last year, “It sounds strange, but knowing God isn’t considered terribly important in evangelical churches. Look up the top scholars on the doctrine of God and you won’t find any Protestants on the list [now that John Webster is no longer with us]. Of course, we talk about knowing God, but by that we typically mean an emotional connection with a being we have at least partially made after our own image.”

In some ways this Trinity debate is a great microcosm of the present state of the Trinity in Evangelical thought as it pits Wayne Grudem, one of the main teachers of the Evangelical Church through his hugely influential Systematic Theology, against various theologians who are more connected to historical Christianity (in my opinion). The accusation is that Grudem, and others such as Bruce Ware, are teaching an unorthodox view of the relationship between the Father and the Son and using that to support their views on gender relations.

Yesterday, Grudem posted this (we are several weeks into the debate at this point). Mark Jones responded with this analysis of Grudem’s citations . This morning Carl Trueman posted his final (apparently) reply.

Trueman’s post is a big picture response, while Jones’s gets more into the details. I’ve spent a half hour trying to summarize the lessons to glean from these posts. After reflection, I’ll simply encourage you to read their responses to learn how to think and talk about God well.

Instant Gratification and Staying Steady for Millennia

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With thoughts of a former pastor being removed from office and the questionable direction of the modern Christian conference circuit going through my mind this morning, I came across John Haldane’s article “A Tale of Two Cities – And of Two Churches.” Haldane, who is descended from Scottish Presbyterians, contrasts the compromise and decline of the Church of Scotland with the steadiness of the Catholic Church over millennia. He quotes Lord Macaulay’s 1840 review of von Ranke’s History of the Popes:

The history of that Church joins together the two great ages of human civilisation. No other institution is left standing which carries the mind back to the times when the smoke of sacrifice rose from the Pantheon, and when camelopards and tigers bounded in the Flavian amphitheatre. The proudest royal houses are but of yesterday, when compared with the line of the Supreme Pontiffs. That line we trace back in an unbroken series, from the Pope who crowned Napoleon in the nineteenth century to the Pope who crowned Pepin in the eighth; and far beyond the time of Pepin the august dynasty extends, till it is lost in the twilight of fable. The republic of Venice came next in antiquity. But the republic of Venice was modern when compared with the Papacy; and the republic of Venice is gone, and the Papacy remains. . . . She saw the commencement of all the governments and of all the ecclesiastical establishments that now exist in the world; and we feel no assurance that she is not destined to see the end of them all. She was great and respected before the Saxon had set foot on Britain, before the Frank had passed the Rhine, when Grecian eloquence still flourished at Antioch, when idols were still worshipped in the temple of Mecca. And she may still exist in undiminished vigour when some traveller from New Zealand shall, in the midst of a vast solitude, take his stand on a broken arch of London Bridge to sketch the ruins of St. Paul’s.

I’m not going to become Catholic, God-willing, but it is hard not to be impressed by the longevity of the Catholic Church. The seminary I graduated from still plays bagpipes at graduation so I’m descended from the faltering side in this case. The thing about conservative evangelicalism is that it’s not geared for the long run. It’s an assortment of individuals, churches and groups trying to grow a little bit or simply stay in existence. Of course, there are many noble men and women involved so I’m not trying to belittle anyone. I’m simply pointing out that our current approach isn’t sustainable long term.

In light of our current shortsightedness, here are some suggestions to help us become more stable for the long run:

  1. Don’t become enamored with parachurch ministries, and especially not with gifted individuals. Focus on your local church and the Church at large, not with the few uber-impressive guys who sell all the books and conference tickets. I’ve seen this in both Charismatic and broadly evangelical circles. There are those few stars that run the show, so to speak, until it’s found out they are practicing homosexuals or cheating on their wife or stealing money from the church or fill in the blank. I’m not speaking of all individuals with large ministries, of course, many are wonderful human beings no doubt. However, people are not meant to be idols. The apostles were special, but they were also the dregs of the earth. We’ve inverted that pattern. A global platform without suffering is a dangerous thing.
  2. Become as solid as you can, both in your understanding and your character, for the sake of the church. If you want to become a pastor, know that, in general, this will not help you get a position. It’s as likely that theological knowledge and piety will be regarded by churches as a hindrance to ministry as an asset. Go for depth and maturity anyway, and try to take others with you.
  3. Emphasize Church unity – a great way to avoid self-focus is to focus on people outside yourself and your group. Receive from others. You will learn more, love more, and the world will know that we are Christians by our love for one another.
  4. Avoid power as long as possible. We all want influence, but it’s easy to confuse the fallen desire for dominance with the godly desire to improve things. I wonder how many of us can tell the difference in our own hearts.

The Arrogance and Ignorance of the “Well-Educated”

Scott Masson shared The Arrogant Ignorance of the “Well-Educated” on Facebook today, and it is so good I wanted to share it with you.

Here’s a sample:

The problem is that her education is not as good as she thinks it is. If she was educated in our secular system, she would have learned nothing whatsoever about theology, presuming that, if there is a God, he, or probably she, agrees with us. If he or she does not agree with us, he or she can go to hell. And, of course, we can tell God to go to hell because he or she is made in our image (we are not made in his/hers) and we can do what we like with him or her. In short, we can treat God with the same arrogance and superciliousness with which we treat our neighbor: “What God calls sin, we call being well-educated.”

Leaders: Give Your People Opportunities to Mess Up

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Imagine a multi-generational church with many mature leaders. The church will run smoothest if the skilled men and women do the work. They have the experience and can pass on their wisdom to the next generations. Sermons will be better if the preacher has hundreds of sermons under his belt. Classes will go be better if the teacher has taught for decades. But this approach only works for a time. People get older and eventually others have to take their place. The church won’t be prepared for the next generation if her leaders took the easy route of doing everything themselves. And now the chance to mentor that generation is gone.

Good leaders raise up other leaders. This means giving the people under them opportunities to try things. Since excellence takes experience, these early efforts will almost certainly be poor, much worse than if the leader had done it himself. This is very much like parenting if you think about it. At first, it was much easier for my wife Aja to clean the bathrooms than to have my son Owen clean. She had to spend time showing him, and then come after him and fix his mistakes. However, eventually Owen learned how to clean the bathroom and Aja is freed to do other things. Also, Owen now has a skill that will serve him well as an adult. I imagine this is part of the reason pastors must manage their households well (1 Tim 3:4-5).

Of course, leaders can’t just throw people out there. Pastors need to set them up for success, giving them the training they need and encouraging them at every opportunity. That is good leadership.

The Place of Tradition in Biblical Interpretation

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*** This topic is critical, more so than it may appear

Since I was a good Protestant growing up, unlike those confused Catholics, I believed I would understand the truth if I faithfully read Scripture. I didn’t need tradition to help me, no creeds or teachers from ancient times. I was wrong. Why? Because I was putting myself in the place of authority.

There are (at least) two kinds of authority in Christian thought – revelatory and interpretive. The item with revelatory authority has authority because it contains revelation from God. The person or group with interpretive authority has authority because they interpret revelation to determine how we think and live.

Below are the approaches of three major groups to these authorities. These are put in historical order starting around the time of the Reformation:

Catholic Church
Revelatory Authority – Scripture and tradition
Interpretive Authority – the Church according to the rule of faith

The Reformers
Revelatory Authority – Scripture alone
Interpretive Authority – the Church according to the rule of faith

Some Modern Evangelicals
Revelatory Authority – Scripture alone
Interpretive Authority – the individual

I want to make two points in this article. One is that Luther and the other reformers of that day agreed with the Catholic Church on interpretative authority, but disagreed that the Catholic church had moved that authority to the level of ultimate authority alongside Scripture. Luther went against the Catholic church of his day, not because he thought everything they said was wrong – he agreed with much of it – but because he believed some of the things they said were wrong. He got into trouble because the Catholics gradually came to a position over the centuries that the pronouncements they made were revelation from God, and therefore could not be opposed. Luther rightly pointed out that their councils and the Church fathers disagreed with each other and therefore couldn’t all be true. For saying this, Luther was branded a heretic. For orthodox Protestants, the church and the rule of faith have authority, but their authority is subject to the ultimate authority of Scripture.

The other point I want to make is that interpretive authority lies with the entire church, not us as individuals. What matters more to how we think and live our lives: the words of Scripture or how we understand those words? Unfortunately, it’s how we understand those words. I say unfortunately, but really there is no way around this. When we read the Bible we don’t get audible commentary from God saying “this is what that verse means.” No, we have to interpret the verse. What’s the safest way? Well, the interesting thing about us humans is that our reason isn’t rational when left to itself. Instead, our reason serves to promote our preconceived notions (see Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind for this concept). Typically, we only become rational in the context of sympathetic dialogue. How is this relevant to interpretive authority? It means that often when we read the Bible by ourselves we are simply confirming what we already believe. We’re never going to get anywhere with that approach. It is by Christians wrestling with one another for centuries that the truth is discovered. Jesus said that the Holy Spirit would lead us into all truth (John 16:13). This doesn’t mean Christians individually; believers can be way off and still be genuine. No, it is the whole church together that the Holy Spirit is leading into all truth. Don’t go alone. Connecting yourself to the Church brings big rewards.

For more on this topic, see Keith A. Mathison’s excellent Solo Scriptura: The Difference a Vowel Makes. Some suggestions to get you started learning from the Church: read the early creeds – the Nicene Creed, the Apostles’ Creed, the Chalcedonian Creed, and the Athanasian Creed. These are quite short and so don’t take much time. Then read the Heidelberg Catechism. From these you’ll get a solid doctrinal foundation.

Christianity, Homosexuality, and Leviticus

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“You believe what the Old Testament says about homosexuality, so then, do you believe all the crazy rules and regulations in the Old Testament too?” This question comes up frequently in public discourse on homosexuality. Michael Bird here provides what to me is the definitive Christian response in a brief, clear, and winsome manner.

Bird writes so much that’s good I want to quote him extensively, but since his response is brief I’ll only include his concluding remarks:

Mr. President, at the end of the day Christian ethics are based on love not law: love for God and love for our neighbors. Christians, within the precincts of their own consciences, cannot affirm behavior that they believe Scripture prohibits. The wisdom of our tradition is that sexuality is a gift from God, leading us to affirm celibacy in singleness and faithfulness in marriage. Yet because of the command to love their neighbours, you can expect Christians to always treat people, irrespective of gender, race, religion, and sexual orientation, with compassion and dignity, as we ourselves would want to be treated. If you wish to wag a finger at Christians for their hypocrisy, and I hope you do, citing texts from Leviticus is probably not the best way to do that. Much better is to accuse Christians of not keeping Jesus’ commands to love their gay neighbor, point out that they have not followed Jesus’  example to welcome those who polite society has rejected, and they have not embraced the lost for whom Jesus said he came to save! That is a word of rebuke Christians need to hear time and again.

Some Lenten Posts Worth Reading

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Since Lent starts today, which you may or may not care about, I thought I would share some posts about Lent that I find helpful, written from various perspectives.

Ash Wednesday: Picking and Choosing our Piety by Carl Trueman

An American Lent by James K A Smith

Lent, Individualism, and Christian Piety–An Email Conversation by Jake Meador and Alastair Roberts

In a nutshell, Trueman says if you are celebrating Lent you’ve got something wrong. Smith, who wants us to celebrate Lent, says we are doing it wrong. And Meador and Roberts discuss Lent in the context of a secular, individualistic society. Plenty of brilliant one-liners in this one.

Houses of Prayer, Not Houses of Prayer

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Takeaway for those who don’t know about IHOP – use caution when following Christian movements
Takeaway for those who do – urge caution as well as redefining IHOP’s mission

If you are not familiar with the International House of Prayer (IHOP), it is a 24 hour a day, 7 day a week prayer and worship ministry in Kansas City, Missouri that started in 1999. To get a feel for the size of the ministry, their annual youth conference has around 25,000 attendees and their main prayer room is on television somewhere in the world round the clock. Mike Bickle, the leader, is a wonderful man who has an exceptional gift for calling people to devote their lives to Jesus. From ’99 through about 2010 I was heavily invested in their ministry – going to most of their conferences, reading their materials, listening to hundreds of sermons, as were many of my Charismatic friends. One of his main messages during that time was that God was going to raise up thousands of houses of prayer all over the Earth.

This week I listened to Bickle’s message entitled “Toronto: The Convergence of the Missions and Prayer Movements.” In this message, from 20:10 – 26:30, he radically redefines the latter part of this message.  He says, “A house of prayer is not what I’m doing in Kansas City with IHOP – the International House of Prayer…That is not the house of prayer in Kansas City.” What?! Instead, “the house of prayer in Kansas City is the whole body of Christ, the thousand congregations that call on the name of Jesus in truth.”  As to the number of ministries like IHOP, he said “I don’t believe it will be thousands. I believe it will be tens.” At 23:50 – 24:30 of the message he relates why IHOP can be bad for the prayer movement. “If they come and want to be IHOP we’ve probably set them back ten years.” Indeed.

To clarify – houses of prayer are the local churches in a city who truly trust in Jesus and prayer. Houses of prayer, like IHOP, are not houses of prayer, but instead are boot camps to train people to live lives of prayer and then send them out to their cities to live the message in the local church.

Everyone I know who heard Bickle preach in the early days assumed that he meant that there would be thousands of IHOPs all over the world. This message pained me because I know many people who devoted their lives and fortunes to implementing Mike Bickle’s message, and suffered badly. The problem is not what he says in this message – I like the idea of having regional prayer boot camps where people can learn how to cultivate lives of prayer and then get sent out – the problem is that he said this in 2010, not 1999. The problem is that he didn’t say sorry. In the message, he repeatedly says things like “I say this all the time.” Maybe he said those things in private conversations, but not in public. At least, that’s not the way anyone I know understood him. At the very least, he should acknowledge that using the phrase “house of prayer” to mean two different things without ever clarifying which one you are talking about is poor communication.

Be careful about giving your heart to a movement that isn’t pastorally oriented, meaning the organization is more important than the people in the organization. Some ministries churn through people, particularly ones that are good at drawing people as those who leave can always be replaced. Also, don’t give your life to a message that isn’t absolutely clear in the Bible. In this case, in my city of 100,000 we had two or three ministries at one time trying to set up a 24/7 prayer room based on their understanding of Bickle’s message.  They all ended in frustration, as Mike says they would (after the fact).

For leaders, be quick to say you’re sorry. We are all human, and apologizing for failures, even unintentional failures, is a sign of strength not weakness.

Why I Am Still Going to Learn From IHOP
Having read the above you might assume that I don’t like IHOP or Mike Bickle. Actually, I love both the ministry and the man. Modeling sustainable, continual prayer and worship is incredibly helpful and important. There is value there, and if we cut off every ministry that does something poorly we will be staying home on Sunday morning. Recognize that every ministry has pluses and minuses as the ministers are broken people just like us. Receive the good things and reject the bad things.

Praising God with Your Dancing Skills

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This morning, Andrew Wilson posted a response to Jonathan Leeman, who had written that dancing in church was not acceptable. Leeman put forward a “freedom from” principle in worship, which includes freedom from being in the same room as people dancing. Wilson’s reply is well worth reading, and do take the three minutes to watch the video at the bottom.

This led me to do a study on dancing, both from the Bible as well as from a dissertation on dancing done at Reformed Theological Seminary. Like Leeman, the author of the dissertation said dancing shouldn’t be allowed during corporate worship. As a Charismatic my gut reaction was “this is ridiculous,” but after doing a study on dancing I can see where they are coming from. There’s nothing about it in the New Testament. There is also very little in the Old Testament, say ten verses. There are only two verses that explicitly command praising God with dancing Psalm 149:3 “Let them praise his name with dancing, making melody to him with tambourine and lyre!” and Psalm 150:4 “Praise him with tambourine and dance!”

But as I was thinking how little mention of dancing there is, it occurred to me that my whole search was misguided. Should I next look for commands to smile at church? Do sports fans need a command to jump up and down when their team scores? Smiling and jumping up and down are natural responses to good things in life. No commandment needed. It’s the same with dancing. Dancing is to the limbs as shouting is to the vocal cords. I wonder if people who say you shouldn’t dance in church ever shout in church (no one is going to deny passages on shouting in praise still apply)?

Praising God can take many forms: singing, shouting for joy, banging on the drums, and, yes, dancing. The people of God may want to dance because God has freed them from bondage in Egypt (Ex. 15) or because they were bringing the ark of the covenant to Jerusalem (2 Sam. 6/1 Chron 15) or because God has given them a job or protected their children.

God, give your church greater joy in you so that dancing will seem like the natural response.

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