A Letter to my Colleagues and Students

19 July 2012

I was raised and trained in a cessationist tradition, but a number of years ago, I began to have serious doubts about the biblical integrity of cessationism (the belief that certain biblically attested spiritual gifts ceased shortly after the first century). Over a period of years, I have devoted considerable time, effort, and prayer to a careful study of the exegetical, theological, historical and practical issues involved.

Rocky Mountain Bible College and Seminary, where I have served as a curriculum designer and instructor since 2008, and an assistant professor since 2010, maintains a very specific teaching position on the gifts of the Holy Spirit. It reads,

The miraculous gifts (apostles, prophets, healings, miracles including a word of wisdom or word of knowledge, and tongues) were temporary in nature as signs to unbelieving Jews and as a validation of the New Testament message and its messengers at the initial stage of the church.

As a result, my possible shift on this issue had some fairly serious ramifications. I want to assure you that I hid none of this from Dr. Lewis. I consider him a mentor and a friend as well as being my boss at RMBC&S, and I’ve kept him apprised of my progress as I have wrestled through this issue. For his part, he made it clear that as long as I was willing to stick to the school’s teaching position while I was working through the issue, he was happy to have me continue on faculty. These things cannot happen overnight, and I’m very grateful for his openness and support while all this was in process. He is far from the only one; a number of mentors and friends have been generous with their time and insight. I am grateful to you all.

As the process continued, the conviction that began as a trickle of doubt about the viability of one exegetical argument in one passage became an overwhelming flood. I don’t say this lightly at all, but my conclusion is simple: cessationism is exegetically insupportable, theologically weak, historically false, unable to account for realities that I personally witnessed, and practically very far removed from the New Testament. The Bible simply doesn’t teach it. Of course this is a large claim, and my reasons for making it are a separate discussion that I will be happy to have; for the moment suffice it to say that I did my best to investigate every reasonable avenue. After discussion with Dr. Lewis, I wrote and submitted a letter in which I laid out my exception to the RMBC&S teaching position on spiritual gifts, and my reasoning for it.

At this point I felt myself in a bit of a dilemma. I do not believe that this sort of issue should divide Christian brothers. I continue to believe in the mission of RMBC&S and would like to continue aiding the school in our areas of common endeavor. As a result, I didn’t feel that I could simply resign in good conscience; it seemed to me that would convey a rejection of the school that I didn’t, and don’t, feel. On the other hand, I am well aware that within our tradition the lines on this theological issue are brightly drawn and well-policed, so my resignation might be necessary for the school’s sake. I had no desire to cause the school undue trouble, and of course I didn’t want to be one of those jerks who — just to make a point — refuses to resign and forces the administration to fire them. That’s no way to love your neighbor.

Unable to act unilaterally in good conscience, I sought Dr. Lewis’ counsel on a way to resolve the issue to our mutual satisfaction. I was prepared to tender my resignation immediately if the school wanted it; on the other hand if they would prefer to continue discussing how we might navigate our differences and continue to work together, I was open to that as well.

On July 17, Dr. Lewis chose to accept my resignation. At the same time, he also indicated that he would like for us to continue discussing these issues, and to continue discussion on the possibilities for looser collaboration as opportunities arise where we might serve together: ministry within the local community, student internships, and the like.

Working with RMBC&S and with Dr. Lewis has been a lot of fun, and I am grateful for my time there. My students and colleagues, each and all, have been a blessing to me. I continue to ask the Lord to bless the school, its students and faculty, and its mission to equip believers for service, and of course I remain happy to assist in that mission as the Lord may provide opportunity.

Please be assured that there are NO hard feelings; we all remain friends. We may not be working under the same organizational umbrella for the present moment, but we are all still working for the same boss, seeking His Kingdom and His righteousness — each in the manner that God has convicted him to do.

This kind of event, if not carefully and fully explained, presents opportunities for unfounded speculation and gossip. I would not have the enemy gain a toehold through this, so I have chosen to be as clear and specific as seemed advisable. If this isn’t clear and specific enough, please ask for more details; nobody’s got anything to hide here. Thank you for bearing with the length of the explanation, and again, if I have left you with some concern or doubt, please don’t hesitate to talk with me.

God’s richest blessings attend you as He leads you in His will for your lives. My love and my prayers go with you.

In His service,

Tim Nichols

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Retraining the Hair on the Back of the Deacon’s Neck, Part 2

16 August 2009

As I concluded my previous post, I could fairly hear the deacons in the audience shouting, “Just because the hair on the back of your neck stands up, how do you know it’s right?”

That’s a good question.  There has to be some norm, some standard by which to measure.

There is.  It’s called the Bible, and one of the things it teaches us is this: who the hearer is will determine what he hears.  If this sounds subjective to you, that’s because in a sense, it is.  But it’s entirely biblical: “He who has ears to hear, let him hear!” as Jesus often said.  This saying teaches us that there is such a thing as having ears to hear, and such a thing as not having ears to hear.  The person with ears and the person without ears are both standing in front of Jesus, and both hear the same parable…but only the one with ears to hear really hears it, after all. The same propositional content for both, but one understands and the other does not.

Nor is understanding, or failing to, the full range of outcomes.  The same content can convey two opposite messages to two different people, as Paul tells us:

Now thanks be to God who always leads us in triumph in Christ, and through us diffuses the fragrance of His knowledge in every place.  For we are to God the fragrance of Christ among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing.  To the one we are the aroma of death leading to death, and to the other the aroma of life leading to life. And who is sufficient for these things?

We carry the gospel on our lips and in our lives, and this bespeaks death to those who are perishing, but life to those who are being saved.  It’s the same content, but different messages are received because the hearers are different.  This is obvious with a little reflection: “Yet I have set My King on My holy hill of Zion” is gospel to God’s people, but chains and a rod of iron to those who will not kiss the Son.

This is to say that there is no substitute for walking with God and being conformed to the image of His Son.  As we do this, we will find that He makes us able to see and hear what would otherwise be invisible and inaudible to us.  All of which returns us to the question: how will we know when this is happening?

Two blind men are standing on a hill, looking out at a sunset.  Suddenly, one of the blind men is healed entirely, and the sunset bursts in on him.  “I can see!  I can see!” he shouts.

“How do you know?” asks his still blind companion.


You Can’t Leave Out the Dirt

2 August 2009

In the preceding post, I concluded by claiming that an abstract proposition is not the story “boiled down to essentials” because God made the world ex nihilo, entered it Himself in a body, and will resurrect it all one day.

Why would I say that?

God made the world.  Created it all from nothing, spoke it into existence.  In that world, things happen.  God enters into the world He made and acts within it.  God put us in that world — this world — and we act within it.  This is what really happens.  The stories are accounts of what really happened.  The abstractions are short summaries or interpretations of what really happened — but it’s the happening itself that is the reality.

When we say that “by grace you are saved through faith” is the gospel, stripped down to bare essentials with all the extraneous information left out, we are saying that it’s the idea — make that Idea — that matters, and not the incarnational reality.  We are moving, in other words, from Yahweh’s world to Plato’s.

This is a problem, because Plato’s world doesn’t exist.

Yahweh made dirt.  The Word of Yahweh became flesh and dwelt among us, and got dirt under His fingernails.  In the resurrection, redeemed men will get redeemed dirt under their redeemed fingernails, and glory to God for all of it.

Abstractions, important a tool as they are, are not the thing itself.  They always leave out the dirt.


Skeletal Evangelism

5 July 2009

Having recently become acquainted with Duane Garner through his Church Music Through History series, I have been listening to some of the other things he’s done, most recently a couple of lectures from a series titled “The Christian Imagination: Creativity, Fiction & Poetry.” The following quote comes from the second lecture, starting at 41:55:

So, trying to do theology and to read the Bible, and to live without engaging the imagination — it leaves us without an image of the future, it leaves us with very little in the Bible that we can actually benefit from.  Take out the stories, take out the poetry, and what are you left with?  It’s difficult for me to relate to the sort of mindset that’s only content with the barest and weakest and most anemic expressions of faith : “If we could just boil this down to the essentials, then we’ve got it.”  Wouldn’t we much rather become a people who are enraptured with the stories and the songs that the Bible gives us, even if we don’t understand them all, even if there’s some mystery there, and then bust out with a creativity of spirit that says, “How can we celebrate this; how can we sing that; how can we recognize this; how can we mark that?”
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It’s the very nature of our five senses to pull us into whatever is there: scent, rhythm, texture, vision.  This is the way God’s word pulls us in.  It draws us in with its beauty to participate in it.  And so the mature Christian imagination is concerned with story, and poetry, and creativity.  We hear the stories, we know the stories, we see their beauty, and we see our own part in the story, and the continuation of the story.  The Christian imagination understands life as meaningful history, the structure of which is revealed in Jesus.

Indeed.  And nowhere is this observation more applicable than in evangelism.

We try to make evangelism easier, less intimidating, and we generally do this by boiling it down to seven key statements, or four laws, or three points, or a saving proposition, or whatever.  We want to be able to tell people that they can be confident they’ve “given someone the gospel” when they have said X — whatever X is.

We do this to equip our fellow believers, to build them up so that they can evangelize confidently, and that’s a commendable goal.  But the way we’re going about it has a heavy cost: we lose sight of what actually happens in evangelism.

In evangelism we introduce people to Someone we love.  Relaying a couple of key facts is, at best, only a decent start.

When I try to describe my wife to someone who’s never met her, I may search my memory for that one story or factoid that perfectly captures Kimberly’s quirky sense of humor, or her wit, or her boldness.  But once I’ve relayed that one thing, I don’t sit back and think to myself, “That’s it.  That’s all anyone needs to know.”  No single fact or story could possibly capture the richness or depth of the delightful woman that I married, and when I want someone to know Kimberly, to see her as I do, the stories and facts pour forth without effort.  I’m not concerned to tell them the least they need to know; I want them to know far more than that.

How much deeper and richer is Jesus?

Jesus promises us the life we were always meant to live: harmony with God forever as His image in the creation.  He is able to make that promise because He died for our sins and rose the third day, the firstfruits of the resurrection in which we will all one day partake.  And He does all this for us while we are His enemies. You wouldn’t want to try to convey what Jesus is like without that part of the story.

But there’s so much more.  He’s the kind of guy who tells homespun fables that make us see respectable, self-satisfied leaders as disobedient children, or murderous tenants, or inhospitable soil.  Aesop’s got nothing on Him.  When they ask Him what kind of holy teacher hangs out with hookers and drunks, He asks them what kind of doctor spends all his time with sick people.  When He walks into the temple and sees a house of worship turned into a continuing criminal enterprise, He calls it like He sees it — and starts flipping over tables to clean the place out. When the wedding party runs out of wine, He supplies more than a hundred gallons of the very best.  In His presence, the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have the gospel preached to them — and God blesses those who do not shy away from all that Jesus is.

Jesus did not live a minimalist life; the Bible does not give us bare-bones accounts of it.    Why are we so desperate to know how much we can hold out on our unbelieving friends?


Easter and Eschatology: Is Premillennialism Different from Amillennialism?

12 April 2009

In the last post, I quoted Jim Jordan to the effect that amillennialism is racist, and pre- and postmillennialism have more in common with each other than they do with amillennialism.  I then noted that the ecclesiastical, organizational and confessional lines tend to be drawn the other way, lumping amillennialism and postmillennialism together on one side of the fence, with premillenniallism on the other.

Some people — I know a number — have fled to the premillennial side of the fence precisely because they were unable to make their peace with amillennialism.  Usually the point of serious discontent is the way amillennialism spiritualizes away the promise of kingdom victory over the evils of this world.

However, it has to be said that a great number have fled the other way, from premillennialism to postmillennialism, for very similar reasons.

Premillennial thought understands that Messiah’s kingdom only comes about when Messiah Himself is personally present to set it up.  Until then, human sinfulness presents an upper boundary to the world’s maturation.  That thought, taken by itself, lends itself to a story in which the world descends into the abyss until Messiah appears to save the day and set up His kingdom, and thence to a lifestyle not unlike the amillennial mentality Jordan skewered in last week’s post.  Hence the great number of dispensational premil folks who are “just hanging on until the Rapture.”  They don’t get involved in cultural endeavor because that’s “polishing the brass on a sinking ship.”

This breeds a defeatism, a sense that the gospel cannot have meaningful impact on a whole culture.  The depressive Christianity that comes of this drives people from the premillennial camp to postmillennialism, because they can’t believe that the gospel could be so ineffective.

They’re right to be repulsed; defeatist Christianity is biblically false, historically unsustainable, intellectually stultifying, morally bankrupt, and just plain nauseating.  You’d have to be a gnostic to find any encouragement in it at all…and hey! Guess what?  Most conservative American Protestants are closet gnostics, so there you go.

If the only choices were culturally vibrant postmillennial Christianity and defeatist premillennial gnosticism, I’d be a postmillennialist too.

But these are not the only choices.

Consider the mentality that gives rise to premillennial defeatism: “We’re not going to bring about the kingdom in any case, and Jesus will do it when He comes no matter what, so why invest in culture now?”  Suppose a Christian were to approach his personal sanctification the same way: “I’m not going to become perfect in this life anyway, and Jesus will make me perfect in the next in any case, so why struggle against sin now?”  The biblical answer, of course, is that we are supposed to anticipate and image the life to come in our lives now — and that answer applies at a cultural level as well as an individual level.

But is that compatible with premillennialism?

Sure — just as a sanctified life is.  Premillennial eschatology sees that Jesus’ presence on earth as king is necessary to setting up His earthly kingdom, and nothing less will suffice.  But it’s a far cry from that to saying that obedience to the dominion mandate now is worthless.  Jesus is Lord, and He knows far better than I what value my cultural contributions may have, so simple obedience is sufficient as a motive.  But beyond that, consider: what has been the impact of Christianity on Western culture?  Is Western culture measurably better than those cultures that have never had the benefit of 1500 years of Christian cultural hegemony?

It is.

Cultural endeavor is not polishing brass on a sinking ship after all; it’s continuing repair and improvement of a ship that will always need bilge pumps until the Lord returns.  Sometimes she floats pretty well; other times, she’s listing to starboard and the water line is two feet above the deck.

Presently, the ship of Western Christendom is a shattered ruin, and even what remains is slowly falling apart.  But Christendom gave us the neonatal respiratory ventilator, modern science, and an outpouring of philanthropy unparalleled in the history of the world.  God is pleased when those made in His image snatch the helpless from the jaws of death.  God is pleased when we cultivate the earth as He commanded.  God is pleased when we care for the poor, the weak, and the downtrodden.

But what if it all disappears?  What if the whole culture sinks beneath the chaotic sea as if it had never been? I mean, isn’t that what premillennial eschatology tells us?  I’m not certain that it is, necessarily, but let’s consider it as a worst-case scenario: Christendom 1.0 disappears as if it had never been, and “round the decay of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare, the lone and level sands stretch far away.”  Then what?  What was the point?

Then we will know that the words Solomon wrote in Ecclesiastes are true, that all our labor under the sun really is shepherding wind.

By the same token, we will know that to fear God and keep His commandments is man’s all, and we will be glad to have done it.

So let us labor as Solomon labored to build the temple, now long destroyed.  If it was worth doing then, it’s worth doing now.  We are the church of Jesus Christ; we believe in resurrection from the dead.  We live in light of eternity, and can afford to wait and see how God will resurrect all that has died to a brighter and yet more glorious future.

He is Risen!


Is Amillennialism Racist?

5 April 2009

In the preceding post, I addressed the accusations of racism that often attach to premillennialism.  In this post, I’d like to discuss another accusation of racism, this one leveled by Jim Jordan against amillennialism at this year’s Auburn Avenue Pastor’s Conference.

…which brings me to amillennialism, more evil than you can imagine.  The Great Commission is a postmillennial and a theocratic command.  Let’s go over it, in case there’s somebody here who doesn’t know that.  Jesus said “All power has been given to Me.”  How much power?  I can’t hear you.  All power?  All of it?  Where?  In heaven and on earth.  Any other place besides that, that counts?  Go therefore and disciple all nations.  Which nations?  All nations.  Do what to them?  Make converts in all nations?  No, disciple all nations.  Now what do the Jews understand by “disciple all the nations?”…They’re living in [a discipled nation].

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They understand that this is a theocratic command to disciple all nations.  Is Jesus going to fail?  I can see it now…”Jesus… can come back tomorrow, He can come back any day.”  And what’s Satan going to say?  “All power, huh?  All authority in heaven and on earth, and you just couldn’t pull it off, could you, boy?”  Do you think that’s gonna happen?

I don’t.

And I think it borders on blasphemy to suggest that that’s gonna happen….Gentlemen, I don’t think we should be be very tolerant.  Premils understand that Jesus’ kingdom is going to conquer all the nations and it’s going to fulfill the purposes of this creation.  I can get along with premils.  Amils say, “God is going to toss this world; Jesus is going to fail; the nations are not going to be discipled.”  I don’t think that we can afford to be very respectful to that.

The amillennial outlook is racist. It says that because white, European civilization is falling apart, Jesus is coming soon.  Jesus isn’t really going to bring much Christianity to the black and brown and yellow people in the world.

It’s arrogant to assume that God’s center of history is on the white, European race, and because the whites are falling apart, God has got to end history.  That is arrogant.  It’s racist.  And it ends history, and this is where the problem comes in the church.  The amillennial attitude says there’s nothing new, there’s nothing more to be learned, there’s no need to have a continuing conversation….Guys who look forward to the day, a thousand years from now, when theologians in Sri Lanka bring new insights out of the book of Nehemiah — that’s not going to happen.  We don’t need new insights.  We’ve got it all written down in our confessions and catechisms and in a few of our commentaries.  Don’t tell us there’s anything new that’s going to come.  Don’t tell us that vast new insights are going to come from Africans and Asians and Polynesians, when those people, with their gifts, convert to the Lord.  No, there’s no need for any new insights.

The Eastern church stopped everything with the seventh ecumenical council.  Our amillennial brethren have stopped everything three hundred years ago.  And that’s deadly.  And it’s intolerable….It cripples the Reformed faith.  In all our Presbyterian and Reformed denominations and seminaries, we have to pretend that this is a perfectly okay way to think, and what winds up being the case is, that view dominates.  Sorry, I just don’t think we can have that.

…There’s no longer any time left to be tolerant of people who have that idea of what it means for Jesus to have all authority that He, by His Spirit and through His church, is going to disciple all nations.

Jordan says a lot of highly charged things here, as of course he is well aware.  I’m not sure he expects anyone to agree with them all.  But he does point out an important dividing line in eschatology.  Pre-, post- or amil view is less important than believing that there will be a real victory, and that God will win it, taking seriously the promise that the God will win the nations to Himself.  A premil view that takes the dominion mandate and the great commission seriously — a combination I am presently calling dominon premillennialism, for lack of a better term — is every bit as committed to this as a postmil view; we just quibble a little about the timeline.

And yet, as Jordan points out, the organizational and denominational lines are repeatedly drawn in a way that lumps postmil and amil folks together on one side of the fence, with premil folks on the other.  Why is that?

And given those choices, can anyone blame people for fleeing to the premil side of the fence, where there’s generally no need to tolerate amillennialism?


Liturgical Theology

22 March 2009

Liturgy is one of those unavoidable issues.  If you gather in church, you’re going to do something.  The word for that something is liturgy.

To my considerable detriment, and the great shame of my tradition, I managed to get through 4 years of Bible college and 4 more years of seminary, graduate from both, and be ordained as a minister of the gospel, all without receiving any training in liturgical theology.  Not one course; not one recommended book; not so much as a casual conversation over coffee.

If you paid close attention to my first paragraph, you’re probably wondering, “What? First you say it’s unavoidable to have liturgy, and then you say you got no training in liturgy?  How’s that possible?”

It’s not.  Everyone gets training in liturgy every time they go to church.  I was no exception.  I even got a little formal training in liturgy.  Not much, but enough to get me through my first church service, first communion service, first wedding, etc., without disaster.  What I didn’t get was training in liturgical theology — being conscious of what the liturgy communicates, understanding the underlying theology of it.  I had lots of training in the theology of what I say in church, but none at all in the theology of what we do in church.

God be praised, He maneuvered me into a pastoral situation where a couple of very divergent liturgical traditions were coming together, and this forced me to confront these issues.  If I’d taken a pastorate in a normal church in my tradition, I could have gone to my grave having never thought these things through.

But it was not to be.  The only way we could have church at all without fighting about what to do was to agree that nobody, including the pastor, was allowed to import traditions into our church without a discussion of the issues and a biblical grounding in why we were doing that particular thing.  The resulting ground-up examination of every last facet of the service has been excruciating for me, very slow going for everyone, and generally a difficult process, but very, very rewarding.

Why excruciating?  Not through any fault of my congregation, I can assure you.  They’ve been unfailingly loving, patient, and helpful throughout the process.  I couldn’t ask for a better group of fellow believers to hash through these things with, and I couldn’t possibly have gotten where I am without them.  I thank God for them constantly.  In spite of that, this process has been very painful for me because I had thought of myself as pretty well prepared for the ministry.  Oh, I knew I had a lot of experiential learning to do, just like every young pastorling does, but I though I was pretty solid in terms of what I knew.  Liturgical reform forced me to confront my abysmal ignorance in a very basic area of church practice.  Worse yet, about half of the little I thought I knew has turned out to be, not just wrong, but utterly indefensible.  So far.  I’m not making any bets about the reliability of the rest of my tiny fund of knowledge, either.

Unfortunately, I am far from alone in my benighted ignorance.  I recently heard a former Presbyterian minister bewailing the fact that there’s not a Reformed seminary on this continent where a student can get a course in liturgical theology.

Why is that?

I suspect because it would force us to confront areas of weakness and sin that make us very, very uncomfortable.  The implicit theology of a church service from my tradition is heartily gnostic.  The focus of the service is on delivery of information from pastor to people.  The hymns are screened for doctrinal content (and little else), the Lord’s Table is an occasion for a sermonette on the cross and resurrection, and the baptismal services are used as occasions to preach the gospel to unsaved loved ones who are invited to the service.  Everything is a sermon — spoken, set to music, or presented as an object lesson.  In some subsets of my tradition, even the word “service” has been replaced with the term “Bible class” — because that’s all it is.

It’s all about the ideas, disconnected from historical, experiential reality.

Now someone will justly complain that of course, the preaching — musical, spoken, and object lessons — hammers unceasingly on the need for the ideas to be applied into daily life.  Sad to say, there are occasional exceptions to this, but for the most part, this is true.

But that’s just the point, isn’t it?  While what we say certainly passes all the tests of orthodoxy, what we do in the church service pictures a different theology entirely.  The entire service is delivery of intellectual content from pastor (or choir) to people.  It pictures a theology in which pleasing God is all about knowing things, and the more content you know, the more pleased God will be with you.

That’s gnosticism.

And it leads to believers who have heavy notebooks bursting with information, and unholy lives empty of meaning.  And as much as we might decry the results from the pulpit in the next week’s ‘Bible class’, those very problems we so despise are results of our bankrupt worship.

As opposed to what?

Thought you’d never ask.

As opposed to the Church gathering consciously as the Cabinet of the New Jerusalem (temporarily in exile), in order that we, as royal priests ordained through baptism into Christ’s one body, might enter boldly into the Holy of Holies to confess our sins, receive grace to help us in need, offer up the new covenant sacrifices of praise, hear His Word to us, and be fed by Him at His Table.  Gathering as royal priests to bring the world before God in prayer, that God will bring HImself to the world through us, and gathering as royal priests that we might wage war in the heavenly places against the ruling powers of that same world, secure in the knowledge that its many kingdoms will become the single Kingdom of our Lord, and of His Christ.

In other words, an actual, Christian worship service,  a time in which we serve God through worship rather than just downloading some content from the pastor’s head.

Now what does the liturgy look like when that is the implicit theology behind it?

I don’t know.  (I have no training in this, remember?)

But by God’s providence, through study and prayer and lots of trial and error, we’re going to find out together.