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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, November 02, 2006

Teaching the Church’s Faith (V)

The Foundation of the Church’s Faith
John Leith’s statement that I am about to quote will, no doubt, sound somewhat strange to some who call themselves Christians today. For a wide variety of reasons, Scripture has been under attack, even in those churches that want you to believe that they have a “high” view of the Word of God. The rampant immorality and blatant lack of understanding concerning even the most elementary biblical truths are ample evidence that while there very well might have been a formal view of the Bible, there certainly was not a practical, applicable view of it.
So when Leith writes, “The foundation of the church’s faith is the scripture” and “The scriptures…also provide the language for the faith” no doubt some will balk.[1] We believe that faith today is somehow not the same as it was for our grandparents or even our parents. I hear modern Christians say this more times than is comfortable. When you ask them to explain what they mean, it usually ends up in a discussion about how the culture—there’s that egregious word again!—is different, which we acknowledge in general. Certainly, in the past decades great changes have occurred in the culture in which we live, but this most certainly cannot and must not qualify as a change in the faith handed down to us.
David Wells makes this helpful observation: “[T]here is only one Gospel applicable to all people in all places and believed in the same way in every age. It this were not so, Christian faith would mean something entirely different in American than in Asia, Europe, or Africa.”[2] Unfortunately, a rather large number of modern evangelicals revel in the thought that each culture has to find its own truth from the Bible and if they want to add in some elements from other religions, then that’s okay as well, because no only has a monopoly on the truth. This approach is why you’ll hear a number of Emergent Church gurus telling you that they don’t have a clue what Scripture teaches about homosexuality, the ordination of women, or the atonement, just to mention a few of the most salient issues facing evangelicals today.
Leith is convinced—from painful experience no doubt—that every “authentic Christian theological affirmation must be biblical in the sense of” fitting into God’s redemptive-historical framework.[3] Once again, this sounds somewhat like a fremdkörper in modern evangelicalism because experience should be as valid—if not more so—as doctrine. In fact, in far too many instances evangelicals have raised experience or “what God told them” to a place higher than the truth of Scripture. We have moved far away from what the Westminster Confession of Faith summarizes for us when it reminds us that “The infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture is the Scripture itself” (1.9). This approach, according to Leith, provides the Christian with a truly biblical life and worldview as well as a comprehensive understanding of God’s saving events in history.
Of what value is such an approach? What follows needs to be said for those who do not see the value in what Leith is describing. He writes, “This comprehensive knowledge of scripture also corrected and shaped the theology of church members who were untrained in theology but were nevertheless very good theologians, more to be trusted at times than seminary professors.”[4] Some of us remember these men, but they are a dying breed. Modern pastors are, what David Wells calls “disablers” rather than enablers. That is to say, rather than giving the modern church-attendee what he or she needs, the modern disablers are more likely to attempt to fulfill the perceived needs of his (or her) audience.
The upshot of this approach and lack of biblical knowledge is described by Leith in the following manner: “Lacking this interpretive framework, they are easily pushed about by every wind of doctrine.”[5] This is a more than apt description of the modern Christian. Given the—at best—fragmented, disjunctive manner in which he or she is entertained to death, it is little wonder that he gets tossed about by every wind of doctrine that comes down the pike. The scriptures, however, speak a very different language. According to what Paul writes in Ephesians 4:11ff. the purpose of church leaders is “to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine…”
It follows that whenever church leaders neglect or refuse to equip God’s people a very real spiritual immaturity is the result. Oddly enough, this spiritual immaturity was part and parcel of the life of the Middle Ages serf. At least, however, he had an excuse: the entire Mass was in Latin and he didn’t have a Bible at home. Modern Christians are substantially more culpable than their forebears because there is every type of Bible imaginable on the market today. What is the most ironic part about our current situation is that the biblical ignorance is almost parallel to the time prior to The Reformation with this caveat: that we have the scriptures in our homes.
There is clearly culpability on the part both of church leaders as well as the man or woman in the pew for not being more conversant with Scripture. Many seminaries are also culpable in this process. Not only have they long since left off the biblical languages requirement and substituted pop-psychology courses in their place, but they have also refused to teach their students the “language of the faith.” In fact, they have bent over backwards to avoid such language and to pass on to their students the need not to “turn off” any attendee by ecclesiastical language that might be either incomprehensible or offensive—or both. One can only wonder what seminaries and modern pastors find so offensive about the very language of Scripture. What is the origin of such a disdain for scriptural language? I’ve explained part of it above, but surely another aspect is the aim of secularists of ridding the culture of any semblance of “religious” symbols or language. Being born in 1945—yes, it’s true, but I don’t care because it’s just an age factor—I can still remember when our culture looked forward to celebrating Christmas and singing Christmas carols in the public school I attended. Like it or not, we got “Bible” once a week every year. Leith accedes to the proposition that during my early years, knowledge of the Bible was, in some sense, “endemic in our culture.”[6] He goes on to say, “Those who did not read the Bible learned it from the culture, from ordinary conversation, and from schools. Most church colleges required courses in the content of the Old and New Testaments. In addition, many read the Bible themselves in regular devotions and in programs sponsored by the church…”[7]
Okay, granted that was then and this is now, we still need to ask the question how we got to where we are today. Even though part of the blame can be laid at the doorstep of secularists and the PC crowd that hardly suffices as the complete picture. The lion’s share of the blame goes to our modern seminaries and the pastors they produce. Rather than giving us godly men where there is “a common language and a language coherent with the content of the faith itself” our modern disablers are more wont to serve up something easier, something less threatening. What they fail to understand in their good intentions is that “The really great theologies that have built and nurtured Christian communities have almost without exception been expressed in biblical language.”[8]
These are words from a man who was both a pastor as well as a seminary professor and who made a rather incredible theological pilgrimage by any standards. This is the voice of experience; the voice of reason. So much was Leith convinced of his position that he wrote, “There cannot be a Presbyterian church, there cannot be a Protestant church, without knowledge of the bible in depth so that the language of scripture is the ‘native’ tongue of the Christian.”[9] What a novel idea, especially at the front-end of the 21st century! Imagine that: the language of Scripture is the native language of the Christian!
He goes on to add this very important, indispensable piece of information: “The recovery of the reading of the Bible as scripture, not as a piece of Near Eastern literature and not as a text for scientific study, must have priority in seminary.”[10] This is much-needed approach and is not an across the board indictment of the careful, critical study of Scripture. But even some conservative seminaries have not heeded this warning. In 2005 Dr. Peter Enns from Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia had a book published under the title Inspiration and Incarnation.[11] Even though Dr. Enns tells us that this is to be a book that enables the man or woman in the pew better to understand the origin of Scripture, it is mostly a comparison of Scripture to other Near Eastern documents; so much so that you get the impression that the Scripture was more dependent on NE documents than the other way around.In our next issue we will, Deo volente, delve into teaching church practice according to Leith.

[1] John Leith, Crisis in the Church, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997), p. 47
[2] David Wells, Losing Our Virtue, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), p. 105. Italics mine.
[3] Leith, CC, 48.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Ibid., 49.
[6] Ibid., 48.
[7] Ibid.
[8] Ibid., 49. Italics mine.
[9] Ibid.
[10] Ibid.
[11] Peter Enns, Inspiration and Incarnation, Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament, (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005).


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