Eating the Garden Wall

11 January 2019

Heresy is bad for your soul. Christianity, rightly practiced, is a vital relationship with God, and like any vital relationship, it relies heavily on grasping the truth about the person you’re in relationship with. Of course you don’t have to perfectly know all the truth right away — you learn over the course of the relationship, and there’s always more to know — but there are certain core lies that can badly impede the relationship.

It’s not really that strange a concept. The plot of nearly every romantic comedy hinges on the resolution of relationship-threatening lies. If you believe God is not faithful, that’s going to create problems, same as if you wrongly believe your fiancee is not faithful (the plot of Much Ado About Nothing, among many others). Ditto if you believe He’s not really God, not really competent, and so on.

So we work hard to keep heresy out of the church, because those lies wreck our relationship with God.

However — to return to the romantic comedies for a moment — consider where the chief benefits of the relationship lie. Once the lies are dispelled and the happy couple realize the truth about each other, the music swells, they come into each other’s arms, and wedding bells begin to ring. No one with any sense supposes this is the high point of their life together; the point is that this is the beginning. The real benefits of the relationship are not in that one happy moment, but in the many years to come. And so it is with God.

Clearing out the lies opens a channel for the benefits of the relationship to flow. It enables us “to glorify God and enjoy Him forever,” as the Westminster divines put it. But the chief end of man is not to be able to enjoy God, but to actually enjoy God.

This is to say that our creeds and confessions and various arguments against heresy are important, but they are the garden wall, not the garden. If you spend all your time reinforcing the garden wall, foolishly thinking that the garden will somehow take care of itself…well, it’s gonna be a long winter. The garden wall is vital for keeping out pests, but you can’t eat it.

And therein lies one of the critical errors of “discernment ministries.” Heresy-hunting is no kind of occupation for a Jesus-follower; “accuser of the brethren” is a title that’s supposed to belong to the other guys, not us. Too many of these guys are in love with the wall, and neglecting the crops. We have a duty to the truth, and part of that duty is to maintain a sense of proportion and keep our focus where it belongs. So while we necessarily reinforce the wall at the points where it is being attacked, the point of reinforcing the garden wall is to be able to reap the benefits of the garden.

As I develop this series on fundamentals for today, I’ll take note of the errors and heresies that we’re necessarily at war with. But the point of walling them out is not to focus on what we’re at war with outside the wall. The point is what those well-placed walls will enable us to grow inside the wall. Because that’s where the real sustenance is, and that’s why we build the walls to start with.

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We Always Need “New” Fundamentals

4 January 2019

Back in the early 20th century, in response to a ruinous drift away from the historic Christian faith, there was a widespread movement in American Christianity to return to a serious and careful exposition of what they termed the “Five Fundamentals” of the Christian faith:

  1. The inspiration and infallibility of the Bible
  2. The virgin birth of Jesus Christ
  3. Substitutionary atonement through Christ’s death on the cross
  4. The bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ
  5. The historicity of Jesus’ miracles

Of course these are not the Five Most Important Truths of Christianity for all time, as though we had a prioritized list that fell from heaven or something. These five truths were foundational elements of Christianity that were under attack at that historical moment. At other times, such a list might have included the deity of Christ (in A.D. 325), or the full deity and humanity of Christ (451), or justification by faith (1517), or the necessity for individual new birth (1741), or the reality of the Holy Spirit’s ongoing ministry (1906).

The point is, the fundamental elements of the Faith remain perennially the same, but the battleground shifts. The same old temptations come back, all tarted up in the latest fashions. The new attacks, having been developed downstream from past battles for orthodoxy, are necessarily framed in a way that–at least at first glance–passes all the older litmus tests.

Take, for example, the battle about biblical inerrancy. As major institutions (and their collections of big donors) took up positions on the right side of the fight over biblical inspiration, they found no shortage of folks willing to agree. However, a bunch of these professor types–having signed a doctrinal statement that clearly stated the Bible was inspired by the Holy Spirit– went on to say (where the donors couldn’t hear them, but the students could) that of course inspiration didn’t mean the Bible had no errors in it. In practice, that meant you could ignore the bits you didn’t like, which was the same temptation all over again. So when we started insisting on inerrancy as well as inspiration, we were providing a clarification rendered necessary by the ingenuity of heretics. The basic error (“Yeah, hath God said…?”) was a few minutes older than the Fall; it was just dressed up in new words. The word-jugglers, of course, affected a wounded stance and asked us why we would needlessly divide the Body of Christ by adding some new doctrinal shibboleth that was unprecedented in the history of the Church. The proper response to their pearl-clutching, or course, is a hearty horselaugh and a boot to the backside.

The enemy is crafty. When he has exhausted one attack on the vital core of the Christian faith, he tries another. And another. And another. There are always seemingly well-taught people who reject all the old heresies and compromises but swallow the new ones whole. These are the same folks Jesus derided for laying wreaths on the tombs of the dead prophets while persecuting the living ones. They have failed to learn the lessons of the past because they understand the old heresies as bad ideas, and not as temptations.

The liquor ad always has a picture of the girl dancing at a party on Friday night, never a picture of the same girl passed out in a gutter on Saturday morning. Temptations always look good at the time, and bad in hindsight. The old heresies were tempting at the time–and we need to learn to see how the temptation worked at the time–but usually don’t look all that appealing today. The new attacks look very tempting now, because they are temptations geared to this historical moment.

And so one of the pastor’s tasks is to continually articulate the unchanging fundamentals of the Christian faith in a way that cuts against the current set of temptations. There is an ever-present danger of being ready to win the battles of the past, but woefully unprepared for the temptations of the present. So while I happily affirm and defend the Creed of Nicea, the Definition of Chalcedon, the five solas of the Reformation, the five fundamentals of the early 20th century, and so on–if I stop there, I am not doing my job.

The need of the hour is to articulate the unchanging Christian faith in a way that cuts against today’s temptations. In this series, I will lay out a modest proposal: five fundamentals to do just that.


Going Full Cornpone

17 December 2018

Most of the American church is in bondage to a worldview that doesn’t wholeheartedly believe in the supernatural. It grudgingly allows for a handful of supernatural things that we feel forced to accept, but the truth is that the more intellectually respectable you aspire to be, the fewer supernatural things you can believe in. That’s how the hierarchy works.

If you’re okay with just being part of the rank and file, then you can be a little mushy on creation, and believe in the miracles of the Exodus. That’s fine for normal people. If you want to be an educated Christian, then you’ll clearly see myth in the early chapters of Genesis and have a tentative scientific explanation for the Exodus stories. Maybe the Sea of Reeds was only waist deep, after all. You’ll only start going supernatural around the later prophets or the ministry of Jesus.

The real intellectuals explain away the miracles of Jesus’ life, and just barely tolerate the resurrection. Of course only the total cornpones believe in 6-day creation or a worldwide flood, and even those guys mostly don’t expect God to do anything supernatural today.

Jesus wasn’t a big fan of that kind of thinking. He seemed to think and act as if God could show up anytime, anywhere, and do absolutely anything. Always had, always would. And He taught His disciples to act the same way.

Why’d we stop?