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I am a 1967 graduate of The Citadel (Distinguished Military Student, member of the Economic Honor Society, Dean's List), a 1975 graduate of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary (M.Div., magna cum laude, member of the Phi Alpha Chi academic honor society); I attended the Free University of Amsterdam and completed my History of Dogma there and then received a full scholarship from the Dutch government to transfer to the sister school in Kampen, Holland. In 1979 I graduated from the Theological Seminary of the Reformed Churches of Holland (Drs. with honors in Ethics). My New Testament minor was completed with Herman Ridderbos. I am also a 2001 Ph.D. graduate of Westminster Theological Seminary (Systematic Theology) in Philly with a dissertation on the "unio mystica" in the theology of Dr. Herman Bavinck (1854-1921). I am a former tank commander, and instructor in the US Army Armor School at Ft. Knox, KY. I have been happily married to my childhood sweetheart and best friend, Sally, for 43 years. We have 6 children, one of whom is with the Lord, and 14 wonderful grandchildren.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

The “Boundaries” of the Christian Faith (II)

Where Do You Draw the Line Between Christianity and non-Christian Faith?
In our last issue we examined a provocative article by Holly Pivac in Biola Connections. Holly’s article asked the question whether doctrine—“the D word”—was rapidly becoming a dirty word in evangelical circles. I concluded that it has been a dirty word in evangelical circles for a while now. I also mentioned that as we delved into this very important subject that we had two more areas to look at before we move on: what does the Bible say about doctrine and knowledge and then to listen to the late John Leith’s voice as he describes what happened in his denomination (UPUSA) as it went liberal.
First, the Emergent Church Movement has done the modern Church a huge disservice by downplaying the need for doctrine—Brian McLaren leading the pack in A Generous Orthodoxy. One new follower of McLaren—who claims to have read his book—said that McLaren is a truly humble and gracious man. He also went on to say the following: “He is also a penetrating writer who sees things that most of us do not see. He is, in a few words, a strongly prophetic voice.” I would expect the ECM tribe to fall for such nonsensical claptrap, but not someone who thinks.
The ECM tribe will go for it because they are the kids of the parents who attended a mega-church and got nothing but fluff and entertainment. Those parents had nothing to pass along to their kids as a spiritual legacy because they themselves were clueless and rudderless—but they did feel good about themselves. Their kids got steady diets of youth pastors who did not know their backsides from page four, but who were convinced that they were cutting edge. The net result was and is spiritual bankruptcy. Therefore, it isn’t surprising that ignorance abounds among modern Christians. If you don’t think it does, get a CD of the questions that The White Horse Inn asked of Christian book publishers about simple, rudimentary aspects of the Christian faith. You’ll be shocked—I hope!
Anyway, McLaren is what I’d call “an iron fist in a velvet glove.” Unfortunately, the person who made the statements that I quoted above doesn’t have enough theological discernment to see through McLaren’s thinly veiled veneer of being humble. Allow me a couple of examples.
First, McLaren repeatedly refuses to answer simple questions about what Scripture says concerning homosexuality, hell, and Christ’s penal substitutionary atonement on the cross, although he did write the preface to Chalke’s latest book about the cross being “cosmic child abuse.” Apparently, McLaren thinks the Trinity is dysfunctional. That’s very humble. People have repeatedly called McLaren on this, but he refuses—humbly of course—to give answers to legitimate questions. For the life of me, I do not see what is either gracious or humble about categorically refusing to answer questions that people raise about your theology—unless you have something to hide.
Second, the other comment that McLaren is a penetrating writer who sees things that most of us do not see and that he is a strongly prophetic voice has to qualify as one of the dumbest things I’ve read in a while. I didn’t know whether to laugh or weep when I read that. I’ve read a great deal of McLaren’s material. He revels in the fact that he is an English major and did not attend seminary. He clearly embraces a theology that promotes the kind of thinking that comes out of postmodernism. The solid, i.e., biblical critiques of postmodern thinking are legion. Apparently the man who made these comments hasn’t either read or digested them. But it’s a free country and the author is free to be foolish and theologically inept. I’m willing to wager that within five to ten years no one will remember who Brian McLaren is, except the folks at the Birkenstock shoe store where he gets his designer shoes and the cashier at the Tofu shop who sells him his Tofu smoothies. McLaren a strong prophetic voice? You really have to be kidding. That’s funny; really funny. Sadly, the author of the laudatory comments was serious.
Last week I mentioned the following: “As I began working the summer sermon series I’m preaching on the theme of ‘Equipping the Saints,’ I was exegeting Ephesians 4:15 that contains a word that contains the double meaning of both speaking and doing the truth (álētheúontes) and it became clear to me that Paul was referring to a specific, knowable standard of truth and not some vague, general, feel-good notion of truth.” Well, this is precisely the thing that irritates even the gracious and humble Brian McLaren. He, the author of the quotes above, and the ECM tribe want us to believe that we simply cannot be certain about what Scripture teaches about keys issues. McLaren believes that the best we can do is to return to the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds, thereby dismissing, without a shred of research or evidence, the history of Christianity.
In reality, and you should know this, the burr that really gets under McLaren’s saddle is biblical precision. He avoids it at all costs and those who inherited the legacy of spiritual illiteracy don’t know the difference. Isn’t that handy? It does rather sound like what happened in the Reformation, but I don’t want to answer that question because it might be some form of child abuse—cosmic or otherwise.
Doesn’t Jesus have some things to say about his people knowing the truth (cf. John 8:32; 17:8) and about actually being the truth personified (cf. John 14:6)? The emphasis is clear: God’s people are to know the truth and to know the truth. These are inseparable—unless you’re Brian McLaren or one of the ECM devotees who has imbibed of the Kool-Aid. Isn’t it the case that the apostle Paul makes an impassioned plea for the Church to be thoroughly conversant with scriptural doctrine (1 Tim. 1:10; 6:3; 2 Tim. 1:13; 4:3; Titus 1:9; 2:1)? Even a strong prophetic voice should know that!

Leith’s Lament
All of the above and more caused the late John Leith to ask this question at the end of the 1990s: “Are there any boundaries to the Christian faith? This question is now critical for the church if it is to maintain its identity and integrity.”[1] As Leith looked around him in the UPUSA, he saw that the biblical boundaries were becoming more elastic and vague. It was rapidly becoming an “anything goes” mentality. If Leith’s question was pertinent in 1997, it is substantially more pertinent and urgent almost a decade later. The modern Church has virtually lost her identity and where, by and large, she is seeking to find it, she is looking in all the wrong places. Moreover, her integrity flew out of the window when she decided that Scripture was no longer sufficient. This decision might have been distinctly deliberate or merely the result of getting caught up in the ways of the world.
There is a lot of talk today about “spirituality.” You hear people say, “I’m not religious, but I am spiritual,” which tends to mean that I still do whatever I want all the while maintaining some semblance of the sensus divinitatis. Did you ever dissect what that statement about being spiritual actually means? The bottom line is that it really doesn’t mean a thing. It doesn’t in any way change the way a person lives, thinks, acts, or speaks. They are the new “metro-spirituals.” This type of approach led Leith to write, “Persons who are moved by the Spirit can claim they are Christian even if they have no connection with the historic faith of the church.”[2] Remember: Leith at one time was critical of the historic faith of the church but came to see its indispensable nature. He went on to write, “If I feel it, experience it, it is true. This is the impact of our secular culture.”[3] That’s right and those very warnings are rampant in the modern evangelical church today.Leith takes his inquiry to another level and asks about the types of theological boundaries seminaries have that prepare men to be ministers in Christian churches. In terms of his own denomination he wants to know, “Are there boundaries for those who seek to educate ministers for Presbyterian churches?”[4] Or, “Is there really such a thing as ‘the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints’ (Jude 3)?”[5] This is a crucial question since so much hangs in the balance. I want you to hold on to this because in our next installment Leith’s question will guide us as we move on to examine the matter of the boundaries of the Christian faith.

[1] John Leith, Crisis in the Church, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997), p. 25. Emphases mine.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Ibid., 26.


Blogger SolaMeanie said...


The Scripture "holding to a form of godliness but denying the power" comes to mind.

Spot on, as usual.

9:18 PM  
Blogger Randy said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

11:18 AM  
Blogger SolaMeanie said...

Randy and Co,

I am not going to get into it since it doesn't really seem to produce fruitful nor thoughtful conversation by either side.

However, are our characterizations of McLaren so off base when his writings and words from interviews are quoted? It seems to me that he is characterizing himself. I am not necessarily talking about Ron's piece here, but rather the debate that has gone on for months. Again, if he is so badly misunderstood, he needs to quit writing and giving interviews until he learns to communicate more effectively.

Also, are your grandparents and their parents part of the Emergent tribe? If not (and I assume your grandparents' parents are no longer with us), then how could saying some in the EC lack depth of faith possibly insult them? If my timeline is right, there wouldn't have been an Emergent Church movement when they were around.

My parents, grandparents, and other ancestors' position in the kingdom of God is not determined by my depth of faith or lack thereof. They will stand on their own in regards to their position.

Once again, the arrow fired from your crossbow missed the mark and hit you in the keister.

10:40 AM  
Blogger Rattlesnake6 said...

I agree with Joel. Your writings are, at best, meanderings and babblings. For the life of me I cannot understand what your grandparents and parents have to do with this conversation unless they are really hip and were emergent before emergent. Sounds like John Kerry: I voted for emergent before I voted against it.
If you have been following what I've written, I have used McLaren's words; for example, his words in the Preface to Chalke's book where Chalke calls the sacrifice of Christ on the cross "cosmic child abuse." Get it yet?
Rattlesnake 6

3:57 PM  
Blogger Stan Ermshar said...

Hi pastor Ron,

My wife and I have been visiting your church for several months, and are considering joining. I was the one who is a former Adventist, and discovered the Reformed faith through the White Horse Inn radio show. My question is about the essential doctrine of hell. In Adventism, annihilation was taught, but it wasn't the same kind of way that other liberals teach it--where there is no punishment. I was taught that there was gradations of punishment in hell, with Satan suffering the longest, then eventually the lake of fire would go out with nothing left to burn when justice was satisfied.

I thought this was a unique view until I recently read a seemingly orthodox Reformed author named Dr. Philip Edgcumbe Hughes and his book "True Image of Man". In every other doctrine he appears totally orthodox, but I did read with interest his view of eventual annihilation of the wicked. His arguments seemed quite credible. It seems that there are verses in scripture that could be used to support this. Even a scholar who wrote an article defending the doctrine of eternal hell--Mark Talbot-- said that Hughes' arguments were quite good, and that his (Talbot's) views defending eternal hell were only slightly more convincing than Hughes' arguments.

I would be interested if Hughes view of hell would be something that would put him outside the pale of orthodoxy. The view of eternal torment is the most difficult one for me considering my background. I would appreciate your thoughts on this.


Stan Ermshar

3:53 PM  
Blogger Rattlesnake6 said...

We are blessed to have you at Grace. Not only Hughes, whom I respect, but also John Stott also embraced the aberrant view of annihilationism. I have some material on heaven and hell with a class I taught at GPC 4-5 years ago. Send me an email at and I'll attach it for you.
Pastor Ron

3:35 PM  
Blogger taylor said...

Is there something sinful about wearing Birkenstocks or eating tofu?

12:15 AM  
Blogger Rattlesnake6 said...

No Taylor, it was meant to be satire.

8:27 PM  
Blogger lbrasz said...

I do enjoy reading your blogs from time to time,It is interesting to here your take on the changing times in the church, not being raised in the church but wanting to belong , chosing the Reform church raising up my children in it then having them leave as so many families have children discouraged with the church,wanting what the world offers,to me it is still a very spiritual matter to have a strong faith that the scriptires are true & God is still very much in charge& that he wants us to still constantly search & test the ways,thats why I really like your blogs they really make me think,,good stuff.

7:43 AM  

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