Monthly Archives: October 2014

Evangelical Heresies: Continuing Revelation Part 1

This is part of a series of posts on Evangelical Heresies. Click here to see the entire series.

Several years ago I had a booth at a convention for Christian businesses and ministries. Over the course of the three-day convention I got to know a group of people from a local church who also were staffing a booth in support of their church. Like me with these essays, they were diligently attempting to correct the many errors of the Church in this country today. We had the opportunity to engage in a long and lively debate on numerous issues that they had prepared papers about. As the hours went by and the debate heated up, I began to realize that they had an unfair advantage over me. Unlike me, they had access to additional revelation beyond the Bible. It was inevitable that I would lose the debate.

As I would engage several of the leaders of this church on points in their papers with which I disagreed, they would ultimately resort to defending their positions with a statement something like this, “I prayed about it and God showed me that this is the way it is.” When they would tell me what God had told them the debate was over. There was no way for me to falsify what they asserted. If God had indeed spoken to them, there was no way for me to prove that what He had said was wrong. There was also no way for me to prove that God had not spoken to them. Nothing I could say would change their mind about the alleged fact that they had received additional revelation from God on the topic in question. Ultimately, when I expressed my frustration with their position, I was told that if I didn’t have the same experience there was no way I would ever be able to understand how God had spoken to them.

I quickly confessed to the fact that God had never spoken to me and they were aghast. How could I profess to be a leader in the church if God did not speak with me on a regular basis? How could I say that I prayed (without obviously lying about it), if I could also not tell others what God said back to me? In the final analysis I was told that I had a relationship with a book (the Bible) and not with the living God. That settled the matter. I was not even a believer in their eyes. They, on the other hand, were strong believers whom God had called to reform the Church and through whom new revelation was being given to aid them in their quest. I asked them if they had ever heard of the Gnostic heresy. Not surprisingly, they had not.

It is the standard position in Evangelicalism today that God continues to provide additional revelation to His people. This continuing revelation is available through one of two sources: ecstatic experience or mystical experience. Those who believe in additional revelation by means of ecstatic experience are generally called charismatics. Those who believe in additional revelation by means of mystical experience do not have a name by which they are generally called. Indeed, it seems as if practically every Evangelical alive today professes to “hear” the voice of God when they spend time in prayer and meditation. Phrases such as “God told me such and such” or “God led me to do this or that” are so common today that nobody bats an eye when we hear them. It seems as if we all simply assume that God continues to speak to His people with continuing revelation beyond what is revealed in the of the Word of God.

In this examination of the heresy of co-authoritative continuing revelation I am going to examine the two branches that exist today. As I mentioned above, I can’t think of any name for the popular delusion in which most believers are convinced that God is somehow speaking His secret will to them. For lack of a better term I will call them mystics and what they believe mysticism. The choice of those terms is not designed to be pejorative in any way. I simply need a term that I can use to develop the argument.

Both charismatics (also known as Pentecostals) and mystics share a common belief in continuing revelation that is co-authoritative with Scripture. Charismatics receive their new revelation through the exercise of one of the charismatic gifts. I believe it is fair to say that charismatics believe that God communicates new, authoritative revelation through prophecy, speaking in tongues, the interpretation of tongues, and through the word of knowledge. Mystics, on the other hand, receive their authoritative revelation from God by means of some sort of mystical experience that is non-falsifiable and non-explainable. The only way to validate the truth or falsehood of the mystical experience is to have one oneself. Mystics almost always deny that they actually hear a literal voice when they say that God spoke to them. Usually it just boils down to having some sort of unction in their souls after a time of prayer or mediation. There are many similarities between the two groups and in practice they often look very much alike. My goal is not to develop a complete theology of the two groups. Rather, my goal is to see how their beliefs relate to the orthodox doctrine of Sola Scriptura.

Montanism as the Historical Source of Charismatics:

Montanus lived in Asia Minor (present day Turkey) towards the end of the second century, AD. He developed the doctrinal position that specific individuals in the Church were continuing to receive new revelation from God by means of the Holy Spirit. Obviously, if Montanus was unique because of his assertion of this doctrine, it must have been the case that the standard or orthodox position was that God was not delivering new revelation to the Church. By this time the Canon was complete and the primary question in the minds of those who organized the Scriptures into the form we have today was not “is this a new revelation from God”. Rather, the primary question in the minds of the Church Fathers was, “is this existing document an authentic document written by an apostle or an apostolic delegate and, therefore, authoritative and worthy of inclusion in the Canon?”

The continuing revelations of Montanus and his fellow self proclaimed “prophets” (two women named Priscilla and Maximilla) primarily dealt with exhortations to persecuted believers to withstand suffering, the importance of regular fasting, the importance of avoiding remarriage (usually when one partner had been killed), and the need to avoid any sort of compromising position in light of persecution. The contemporary Church father known as Tertullian (himself a Montanist) said that the Holy Spirit did not proclaim any innovation in Christian doctrine (the same claim falsely made today by charismatics), but only gave directions about how to handle matters of discipline in the churches. In general, Montanists were orthodox in other matters of doctrine.

Montanists were known to have ecstatic experiences in which they would utter many sounds. There is some debate, even among the Montanists themselves, whether these languages were real human languages (xenolallia, hereafter abbreviated as xeno) or some sort of unknown angelic language (glossolallia, hereafter abbreviated as glosso). By the third century the Montanists were condemned by the Bishop of Rome (later known as the Pope) and were driven out of the orthodox churches. They continued to exist as a separate group in Asia Minor for another hundred years or so, with most of them eventually adopting other doctrinal views that were decidedly heretical.

Today, many, if not most, pentecostal and charismatic denominations will trace their roots back to the Montanists. They argue that zealots who were seeking to control the Church for their own glory drove the charismatic gifts of the Holy Spirit out of the Church. They see the Montanists as the last vestige of true, biblical Christianity until the time when they recaptured the doctrine of the continuation of the charismata.

Evangelical Heresies: Church Tradition Part 5

This is part of a series of posts on Evangelical Heresies. Click here to see the entire series.

The Problem with Confessional Churches:

All churches that have adopted a formal or informal confession of faith have the same problem as RMP. There are doctrines in the confession that are considered to be in a third category. Sometimes those doctrines apply to would be leaders. Other times those doctrines apply to would be members. David could no more become an elder in a Presbyterian church than I could become an elder in a Baptist church. Why can I not become an elder in a Baptist church? Because I do not believe in the doctrine of believer baptism. In most, but not all, Baptist churches, it is a requirement of all leaders that they believe in believer baptism. They recognize that I am a true believer (although some Baptist churches do take the position that believer baptism is necessary for salvation). Nevertheless, I may not become a leader, or even a member, until I submit myself to the doctrine of believer baptism. Hence, we have a clear case of saying that a person is a true believer who is not permitted to be part of a local congregation because of a doctrine that fits into the mythical third class. For many Baptists this third class would apply to all members, and not just to leaders, but the third class exists nonetheless. If I were to push a Baptist on the biblical propriety of this doctrine, we would eventually get to the point where he would simply tell me that the Baptist church has settled the matter and I should respect their position and go elsewhere. I understand the utility of that view. I do not understand the biblical propriety of that view. I do understand that that view is a result of elevating prior judicial decisions by historical churches to the position where they are co-authoritative with the Bible.

But, you might be saying, “I am not a member in a confessional church. I have no creed but Christ.” You
have never sworn allegiance to any confession. Therefore, you do not see how any of this applies to you.

What is your position on drinking alcohol? What is your position on smoking cigars? What is your position on smoking marijuana? What is your position on snorting cocaine? What is your position on shooting heroin? If you are like most Evangelicals, you are opposed to every one of the above behaviors. What is the basis of your opposition? Allow me to suggest (I am not defending this position here as it would take too much time. See my essay on Assimilation.) that opposition to the above behaviors is based exclusively upon tradition and not at all upon biblical truth. In that case, even though you are not confessional in any way, you are still living your life according to the traditions of men and have, in fact, elevated the traditions of men to a position where they are co-authoritative with Scripture.

The simple fact that many, if not most, of the rules that we live by in the church are unwritten does not make us a non-confessional group of people. Many churches will not allow their members to go to Disney World. A new member to that church is expected to honor that boycott or suffer the social consequences. What is the biblical basis for a boycott of Disney World? Is this not another case of the elevation of the traditions of men to a position co-equal to the Bible? Legalism (properly defined as the creation of extra-biblical rules) is rampant in the Church. The practice of legalism, equally rampant in the Church, is nothing more than the heresy of elevating men’s traditions to positions equal in authority to Scripture. Every church member is aware of the fact that it is impossible to become a leader in the church if you practice smoking and drinking. However, these behaviors (at least drinking) are not only not prohibited in the Word of God, they are sanctioned! Jesus instituted Communion with wine. We are commanded to engage in Communion as often as we get together for corporate worship. We are commanded to drink wine!

In fact, many evangelical churches have gone so far as to elevate traditions to a position that is higher than biblical truth. Antinomian Evangelicals throw out the entire law of God. A good illustration of this is the popular teaching on divorce as “no-fault”. Most Evangelical churches do not exercise discipline in cases of divorce, even where it is biblically required. On the other hand, informal discipline for drinking a shot of single barrel bourbon, in the form of shunning by the other members of the congregation, goes on all the time. Let’s face it. We have all raised our traditions to positions of authority greater than Scripture.

To deny that the Bible is our one and only perfect source of information about God and His will is heresy. To replace the Bible with any authority of our own, whether it be church council decrees or the traditions of men, is heresy. Although practically every evangelical church in this country professes a belief in the doctrine of Sola Scripture, there is scarcely a single church that practices what it preaches. The heresy of continuing revelation through the traditions of men and church decrees that are co-authoritative with the Bible continues to have today’s churches by the proverbial throat. The apostate practice of enforcing those decrees, either formally or informally, continues to cause many a professing believer to stumble.

Evangelical Heresies: Church Tradition Part 4

This is part of a series of posts on Evangelical Heresies. Click here to see the entire series.

Karl Barth and Church Decrees:

Karl Barth (pronounced “bart”) is considered by many to be the founder of Neo-Orthodoxy. Barth departed wildly from the orthodox doctrines of Christianity but deviously continued to use many of the historic terms associated with orthodox doctrine. As a result, careful reading of Barth’s writings is crucial in order to avoid being sucked into his heresies. One of the many heresies that Barth refined was the belief that Scripture is not sufficient for all matters of faith and practice. Barth adopted a mystical version of the Roman Catholic view of the co-authority of Scripture and church decrees.

In Barth’s Church Dogmatics (chapter on Holy Scripture) he makes the following statements, “Ecclesiastical authority consists in a Church confession” and always exists in the form of a “decision”. In fact, it consists in a “decision with respect to Holy Scripture. It is thus a spiritual authority.” For Barth, the integration of the church confession and Scripture created a “Word” or living voice of the church that exists exclusively in the church. “The Word…continually creates the church …there is also a creatio continua, a constant creation of the Church.” For Barth, therefore, the authority of the church is derived from the combination of the Scripture and the pronouncements of the church about the Scripture. The entire process is bathed in mysticism as the “Word” gradually evolves, over time, from the decisions that have been made by the councils of the church.

The Rocky Mountain Presbetery Heresy:

The following quotations are taken directly from the “Committee Report” written by elders Bledsoe and Fowler in response to EPC’s challenge to the doctrine of three classes of doctrine. Read them very carefully. Do they more closely correspond to orthodox Christianity or the doctrines of Barth and the Roman Catholic church?

On page 6, paragraphs e and f, the RMP makes the following assertion about the activities of the SJC in declaring that there are three classes of doctrine:

“Our position is that the Westminster Confession does represent just such a system…The (apostolic) deposit is unchanging. The various situations and struggles through the ages of the Church have made increasingly explicit what was always implicit in it. Our calling is not in some mechanical way to reproduce the dogmatic understanding of the early church. Our calling is to make explicit as much of the deposit as we can in our situation…. The church militant gradually by the providence of God makes explicit more and more…. There is no perfect consistency possible in this world, but there is a reasonably complete consistency that the church adheres to. Thus, there is of necessity a living voice of the church, which is the court system of Presbyterianism. (emphasis mine) It is called upon to make living judgments and to create precedents about what doctrine is fundamental in what sense; and what doctrine is not fundamental, even if it is logically and dogmatically involved (Acts 15).”

This is an absolutely amazing statement to be made by a presbytery that professes to be orthodox and reformed! They begin by denying the grammatical-historical method for the interpretation of Scripture. The responsibility of the orthodox exegete is to determine the original understanding of the first recipients of the written Word. Only after the original understanding or the original recipients has been ascertained is it possible to move to modern applications of that particular truth. To deny that responsibility and assert “our calling is to make explicit as much of the deposit as we can in our situation” is less than orthodox.

Pure heresy is contained in the statement that the court system of Presbyterianism constitutes the “living voice” of the Church that is called upon to “establish precedents” and make “living judgments”. It is very distressing that RMP cites Acts 15 as the biblical support for their position. As you are aware, Acts 15 records the activities of the Jerusalem council when they were sorting out some problems in the early days of the Church. The Council was made up of authoritative apostles and men inspired directly by the Holy Spirit. Their pronouncements were apostolic and authoritative. When RMP cites Acts 15 as their biblical support for their doctrine of the co-authority of church decrees, they are citing the exact same passage used by the Roman Catholics in support of their heretical position. No orthodox Protestant theologian believes that today’s councils have the same authority as the Jerusalem council. Nevertheless, RMP makes this assertion for themselves. This is heresy.


It is inevitable, once the position is established that church decrees have the same authority as the Bible that contradictions will arise between what is asserted in the Bible and what any particular council says. In fact, RMP was astute enough to recognize that their position on the three classes of doctrine was in contradiction to the simple teaching of the Bible that there are only two classes of doctrine, those that must be believed to be saved and all others that are subject to interpretation and debate. Nevertheless, the “living voice” of the church, the SJC, had pronounced that there are three classes of doctrine. How is this contradiction to be eliminated?

R.C. Sproul, in his book Knowing Scripture, (where, among other things, he makes the case for the orthodox methodology in interpreting biblical texts mentioned in the above section) makes the following statement, “A particular statement may have numerous possible personal applications, but it can only have one correct meaning. Alternate interpretations which are contradictory and mutually exclusive cannot both be true unless God speaks with a forked tongue.” I believe it is fair to say that all of the men at RMP held R.C. Sproul in high regard. I believe it is fair to say that all of the men at RMP would have agreed with the quotation listed above. Nevertheless, all of the men at RMP (except Nickoley and Brode) voted to adopt the following statement as their official position with respect to the hermeneutical methods of the SJC and their decree that there are three classes of biblical doctrine (pg 9, section d):

“The EPC theology simply is not crystalline enough, or pure enough, or coherent enough to require a third level of doctrine that is implied but not necessary. For these categories are inevitable levels in any harmoniously developed system of knowledge (be it theological, philosophical, or scientific) where in the stratosphere of that system, various parallel but contradictory propositions are generated. To use either proposition (even though they are mutually exclusive) (emphasis mine) does not disturb the internal coherence of the rest of the system.”

So here we have it. RMP admits that the position that there are three classifications of biblical doctrine is an extra-biblical position. However, the living voice of the church court has created that doctrine so it must be adopted and believed. Furthermore, it does not matter that the doctrine contradicts the teaching of Scripture because when contradictory and mutually exclusive propositions are created by the church decrees, they do not disturb the coherence of the entire system! The final insult, according to the Committee Report, is that if only EPC had developed a more “crystalline, pure, or coherent” theological system, they too would have seen the truth of the SJC ruling and adopted the doctrines of the authority of the living voice of the church and the propriety of mutually exclusive theological assertions coming from the blasphemous mouth of that council.

The Rocky Mountain Presbytery of the Presbyterian Church in America has officially adopted the doctrine of the co-authority of church decrees with Scripture. Evergreen Presbyterian Church responded to that heretical position by issuing a paper to every member church in the presbytery accusing RMP of apostasy and calling them to repentance. Not surprisingly, every member of RMP ignored it.

Evangelical Heresies: Church Tradition Part 3

This is part of a series of posts on Evangelical Heresies. Click here to see the entire series.

The Case of Rocky Mountain Presbytery:

The Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) is a denomination that professes to be theologically consistent with historic Reformed theology. As a denomination that professes to be Reformed, it is necessarily the case that it must also be classified as Evangelical. The Evangelical doctrines of the inerrancy of Scripture, the sufficiency of Scripture, and Sola Scriptura are all foundational in Reformed theology.

As is the case with all Presbyterian denominations, the individual churches are organized into presbyteries. Each presbytery represents a particular geographic part of the country. Rocky Mountain Presbytery (RMP) is primarily made up of congregations from Colorado. Evergreen Presbyterian Church (EPC) was a congregation in the PCA and the RMP located in Evergreen, Colorado. Evergreen is a small town in the foothills west of Denver. Bruce Nickoley was/is Pastor of the church and I was a ruling elder at the time the following events took place.

In the early 1990s a man by the name of David Gilliland joined EPC. David quickly showed himself to be a thoughtful, serious and dedicated believer. In addition, he proved himself to be skilled at teaching the Bible and in adjudicating disputes in light of the Word of God. Over the span of a couple of years David displayed all of the characteristics required in the Bible that would qualify him for the office of elder. Seeing no reason why David was not qualified to be an elder in EPC, elders Nickoley and Brode began preparations to nominate and ordain him to the office of elder.

There was, however, one problem. David did not believe in the doctrine of infant baptism. He was committed to the doctrine of believer baptism. The Westminster Confession of Faith specifically states that the doctrine of infant baptism is the proper biblical doctrine with respect to baptism. Since David would be required to profess his allegiance to the WCF as his rule of faith at the time of his ordination vow (which he would not be able to do because of it’s teaching on baptism), a serious theological problem had developed. The theological problem, however, should not have been insurmountable. Most elders in RMP had points of disagreement with the WCF. For example, very few of the elders at RMP were practicing sabbitarians. The precedent for individual exceptions was well established at RMP. I had written a paper for the presbytery in which I had listed six or seven reservations that I had with the WCF prior to my ordination. There was no reason why David should not have been able to do the same thing.

Over the span of the next year or so the elders of EPC investigated several theological issues including: 1) The biblical requirements for elder (concluding that they did not require a belief in infant baptism), 2) The role of the WCF in examining elder candidates, and, 3) A distinction created in General Assembly Judicial Commission Ruling # 90-8 which specifically asserted that there are three classes of doctrine taught in the Scriptures. The PCA Standing Judicial Commission (SJC) had ruled that the Bible teaches that there are three classes of doctrine. The first class of doctrine contains those doctrines that must be believed in order to be a true believer. All of the doctrinal assertions made in the Apostle’s Creed would be included in the first category. The second class of doctrine consists of those doctrines that true believers may disagree over but that do not create factionalism in the church. Examples of this class of doctrine would be things like the supralapsarian/infralapsarian debate, the differences between postmillennialism and amillenialism, and practices related to the observation (or non-observation) of the Sabbath.

The third class of doctrine described by the SJC is made up of those doctrines that are not required for salvation but that must, nevertheless, be believed by anybody who desires to hold an office in the local church. Individual members of the local church who did not seek positions of authority within that church did not have to believe any of the doctrines in this third category. However, any man who wanted to hold a position of authority in the church had to subscribe to all of the doctrines in this third category. If a man believed that he was biblically qualified to be an elder but held to a doctrinal position that was opposed to one of those found in the third category, he was informed that, for the sake of the peace, purity, and unity of the church, it would be best if he found another denomination to join. In other words, although it was agreed upon by all that this candidate for office was a true believer (in fact, it was strongly asserted that he was biblically qualified to be an elder in a Baptist denomination, just not in a Presbyterian one!), he could not serve in the PCA congregation because he did not adhere to all of the doctrines in this alleged third category.

Not surprisingly in light of the historical impetus, infant baptism was one of the doctrines that were placed into the third category. David, the elder candidate at EPC was up the dogmatic creek without a theological paddle. SJC ruling # 90-8 specifically stated that a candidate for elder must believe in the doctrine of infant baptism in order to be qualified to serve as elder in any congregation in the PCA. Although EPC recognized the utility of the SJC ruling (after all, it did make sure that Baptists and Presbyterians would never have to be ministering in positions of authority with each other…. what a horrible thought…. Baptists and Presbyterians ministering side by side), EPC was unable to see the biblical basis and support for it. Moreover, the PCA argument that the forced separation of the elders of the church was the best thing for the unity of the church seemed contradictory. (Refer to the essay on Unity for more information on this topic.)

On October 25, 1994, Evergreen Presbyterian Church presented an overture to the Rocky Mountain Presbytery to amend the PCA Book of Church Order to eliminate the false and contradictory distinction between fundamental and non-fundamental doctrines for elder candidates as created in SJC ruling # 90-8. EPC saw no biblical basis whatsoever for the belief that elders are subject to a third class of doctrine that must be believed in order to serve as elders. EPC did see the practical basis for believing in three classes of doctrine for elder candidates; as long as an elder candidate had to believe in infant baptism the longstanding ecclesiastical separation of Baptists and Presbyterians could be eternally secured. However, EPC believed that the divide that existed between Baptists and Presbyterians was an example of the sin of factionalism, not a case of maintaining the purity of the church by driving out unbelievers.

On January 24, 1995 the RMP unanimously (except for Nickoley and Brode) rejected the overture brought by EPC. The two primary arguments given against the overture were that it would force members of RMP to become Baptists and it could result in a situation where Baptists would outnumber Presbyterians in the presbytery. Frustrated that RMP had not given them a biblical answer, EPC, in December of 1995, offered another overture to the RMP to “overture the General Assembly to commission the publication of a red letter edition of the WCF that would highlight in red all of the doctrines/beliefs that are to be considered fundamental for elder candidates.” This overture was very reasonable, although the members of RMP generally ridiculed it. The RMP had asserted that the WCF contained doctrines that were essential for salvation (first category), doctrines that could be disagreed upon by all people (second category), and doctrines that could be disagreed upon by members but must be agreed upon by elders (third category). However, neither RMP, nor the SJC had ever described which category all of the doctrines presented in the WCF fell into. Since elders were being required to swear oaths in which they promised to align their beliefs with those in the WCF that fell into the third category, it seemed reasonable to EPC to know what those doctrines were. This was especially true in light of the fact that the WCF itself (in the section on Lawful Oaths and Vows) specifically stated that no person ever ought to swear a vow to something that he does not know or understand.

The RMP was outraged at EPC. RMP then began a systematic program of persecution against the elders and members of EPC. As a result of many immoral and illegal (according to the Book of Church Order of the PCA) activities, the RMP was eventually successful in throwing the congregation out of the presbytery. (All of these activities are carefully chronicled in the “Summary of the Conflict Between Evergreen Presbyterian Church and Rocky Mountain Presbytery”. As will be seen below, the entire affair ended in February 1997 with the publication, by EPC, of “The Case for the Apostasy of the Rocky Mountain Presbytery of the Presbyterian Church in America”.)

In September 1995, during the course of this dispute of the various classes of doctrine, RMP issued a paper clarifying their position on the issue. This “Committee Report”, dated 9-21-95 and authored by presbyters Rich Bledsoe and Paul Fowler, was unanimously adopted by the RMP (except Nickoley and Brode) as the official position of the RMP on the questions raised by EPC. An examination of this report will reveal how the RMP of the PCA has now officially adopted the Roman Catholic position on the co-authority of Scripture and church judicial decrees. Indeed, the case was examined by the SJC of the PCA and they did nothing to overturn or correct the heretical position adopted by RMP. Although EPC only declared the RMP to be apostate, the stain of their heresy bleeds throughout the PCA.

Evangelical Heresies: Church Tradition Part 2

This is part of a series of posts on Evangelical Heresies. Click here to see the entire series.

A Natural Tendency Toward Bureaucracy:

Non-profit organizations, of which the Church is the oldest and largest, always have a natural tendency to gravitate towards bureaucracy. Indeed, it is not possible to manage a non-profit organization like the Church under the normal capitalistic principles of production, prices and profits because the Church has nothing to sell. The Church does not “produce” anything. Rather, one of the tasks of the Church is to be a faithful conduit for the truth of God to His people and the rest of the world. In accomplishing this task it is necessarily the case that bureaucratic management principles must be adopted.

In addition to being a conduit of truth, the Church must also interpret truth. Once the subjective element of human interpretation is introduced, the problems begin. Once individual members of the organization are given permission to interpret the rules of the organization for themselves, there are going to be thousands of disagreements on what to do and how to do it. The Church of Rome solved this problem by introducing the twin doctrines that only priests are qualified to interpret the Bible and the belief that when the Pope issues a interpretative statement about the Bible, it is co-equal in authority to the Bible itself. This was a handy way to solve the problem and it works right down to this very day. Unfortunately, it is heresy.

The natural tendency of the bureaucratic system is to attempt to avoid the anticipated conflicts of opinion by creating an ever-increasing body of doctrines that will address all of the anticipated problems. It is thought, at least initially, that it is just a matter of prudent leadership and it will be possible to anticipate and address all of the doctrinal disputes. But, for every new line of text that is written to address a possible doctrinal disagreement, two more possible disagreements are created. It is the nature of the beast that it will expand in perpetuity.

The theological confessions that were written after the reformation are a good example of this bureaucratic tendency. The original doctrinal statement of the Church, the Apostle’s Creed, makes twelve propositional assertions about what is necessary to be a Christian in a document that will easily fit on one piece of paper. By the seventeenth century the Westminster Confession of Faith has thirty-three sections of theological assertions with each section having five to ten paragraphs of more detailed propositional assertions. The Larger Catechism of the WCF has 196 questions with many of the answers to those questions having multiple propositional statements contained within them.

The claims that were made by the WCF authors were such that they did not assert that everything that was contained in the Confession must be believed in order to be saved. In fact, they showed great wisdom by including a section (Chapter 31, Of Synods and Councils) in which they say, “All synods or councils since the apostle’s times whether general or particular, may err, and many have erred; therefore they are not to be made the rule of faith or practice, but to be used as an help in both.” The reader can see that this is a direct attack upon the Roman church doctrine that synods and councils issue authoritative decrees that must be obeyed. In the Presbyterian system it was clearly spelled out that the declarations of these councils might be erroneous and that members of the churches could disagree with a statement without being subject to the discipline of a heretic.

Of course, at this point the astute reader can see the next problem. Since the WCF makes statements that are necessary to be believed in order to be saved (that God is One, that Jesus is God, that the Holy Spirit is God, etc), and other statements that are not necessary to be believed in order to be saved (that Sabbath observance is a moral and perpetual commandment, that the biblical case laws are no longer morally binding, etc), how is the individual to ascertain which is which? Presbyterians, and all other churches that appeal to a confession of faith of some sort, have the distinct problem of determining which statements contained in their confession of faith are necessary to be believed and which are optional. The next step, taken by many denominations, is to either declare the rule of “full subscription” (wherein it is asserted that all statements are necessary to be believed) or to declare the rule of “individual exceptions” (wherein each individual exception is dealt with by itself, with a conclusion coming from the particular council about whether the doctrine is necessary to be believed or not).

Astute readers can see the next problem. The “full subscription” position rapidly leads to tyranny, as men are required to believe things that are no longer necessary for salvation. The “individual exception” rule will eventually lead to a book in which every one of the original doctrinal statements has been adjudicated. The sum total of all of those judicial decisions would then determine which doctrines must be believed and which are optional. (I suggest calling this the “red letter edition” of the confession.) Of course, as soon as that book is written, it will be challenged and a new book must be started. This is the natural tendency towards bureaucracy/legalism/Phariseeism that must be understood and eliminated if the heresy of elevating church council decrees to the authority of Scripture is to be avoided.

How is the problem avoided? The problem is avoided only by believing and practicing the doctrine of Sola Scriptura. If the Bible really is the only source of authoritative information about God and His will, then it should be the case that no additional text is necessary to adjudicate any dispute or resolve any conflict.

(I need to take a moment to point out that a denomination that I used to be a part of, the Presbyterian Church in America, has failed miserably in this effort. The Book of Church Order of the PCA asks the following question of men about to be ordained as elders, “Do you sincerely receive and adopt the Confession of Faith as containing the system of doctrine taught in the Holy Scriptures?” However, as I have already quoted, the Confession of Faith itself asserts that it is never to be used as a “rule of faith”. How, therefore, is it possible to swear an oath acknowledging the Confession of Faith as a rule of faith when the Confession itself denies that it is ever to be used as a rule of faith? I asked that question of my superiors at the time of my ordination exam and was not given any rational or constructive answer.)

The Sufficiency of Scripture:

A subset of the belief in the doctrine of Sola Scriptura is the belief that Scripture is sufficient for all matters of faith and practice. This doctrinal position is derived from the passage in II Timothy 3:16 which has already been quoted. Paul tells Timothy “the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work.” The orthodox doctrine of the sufficiency of Scripture, which was recaptured at the Reformation, simply asserts that there is no question that can be asked about the will of God for man that cannot be answered either directly from the Bible or from logically necessary deductions from other biblical teachings. In other words, if a man has a Bible he can never say that he does not know what the will of God is for him at any time or under any circumstance. Still another way of putting it is that God has given us everything we need to know in the Bible and if it is not there, we do not need to know it. In all cases, the Bible is sufficient for us to resolve all the questions and conflicts of life.

Applying the doctrine of the sufficiency of Scripture solves the bureaucratic problem mentioned above. Since the Bible is the only source of information about the will of God for our lives and since the Bible contains all of the information about God’s will that we need to know, there will never be a case where additional information is required. Since there will never be a case where additional information is required, there is no need for additional rules and regulations that need to be followed. With no need for additional rules and regulations to be followed, and with no need for the authorities to enforce those extra-biblical rules, tyranny is eliminated.

All of this, of course, is not to say that we will not continue to have disagreements about how to interpret the Bible. Disagreements about biblical interpretation are inevitable and healthy in a vibrant church. What is being said is that all of the disputants in a conflict will resort to the Bible, and the Bible alone, when authoritative answers are being sought to resolve the dispute. Others sources, such as confessions and decrees, may be used as “helps” in making clear the theological or historical issues involved, but will never come into consideration when it comes time to render a theological decision. Sadly, the Roman Catholic church and practically all-confessional Protestant churches have abandoned this doctrine of the sufficiency of Scripture and have adopted the heretical view of the co-authority of Church decrees.

Evangelical Heresies: Church Tradition Part 1

This is part of a series of posts on Evangelical Heresies. Click here to see the entire series.

Most Evangelicals have spent little or no time in study of the Protestant Reformation. This spiritual and religious movement that took place around 500 years ago was instrumental in forming most of our modern denominations and doctrinal beliefs and yet, it is not considered to be significant enough for serious study by the average evangelical believer. This voluntary ignorance of the history of the Church is directly responsible for the fact that Evangelicals have fallen right back into the pit that the reformers worked so hard to get us out of. Nowhere can this be more clearly seen than in the modern heresy with respect to the doctrine of revelation in which the pronouncements of the Church, whether in confessions or judicial decisions, have risen in authority to be co-equal to the Bible. In short, Evangelicals have abrogated the reformation principle of Sola Scriptura and embraced the heretical Roman Catholic position of the co-authority of Scripture with Church tradition.

What the Reformation was About:

Martin Luther recaptured the simple biblical doctrine of justification by faith through grace. By the fifteenth century the Roman church had so corrupted the doctrine of salvation that even a brilliant monk and Bible teacher like Luther had to spend years studying the Bible in order to penetrate the cultural fog that had enveloped pure biblical truth. The Church of Rome had developed an elaborate system in which a parishioner could be saved only by joining the system and doing precisely what he was told to do.

Others have done a fine job in explaining what was wrong with the Catholic doctrine of salvation. I will not be reinventing the wheel here. What is important to know is that, with respect to our knowledge about the will of God for us in our salvation, the Church of Rome asserted that revelation is derived from both the Bible and the pronouncements of the Church. Both sources of revelation were to be considered to be inerrant and completely authoritative. All church members were expected to be in total submission to this doctrine of revelation.

In contrast to the Catholic doctrine of revelation, Luther, and later Calvin, returned to the roots of orthodoxy by asserting the doctrine of Sola Scriptura. This doctrine states that the only authoritative source of information about God and His will for mankind is to be found in the Scriptures of the Holy Bible. All other sources of information about God, although they might be of value, are not to be considered as authoritative or inerrant. All church members are expected to be in submission to the doctrines of the Bible but they are not enslaved to the capricious orders and commandments of tyrannical men.

Chapter I, Paragraph VI of the Westminster Confession of Faith says this, “The whole counsel of God, concerning all things necessary for his own glory, man’s salvation, faith, and life, is either expressly set down in scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from scripture: unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit, or traditions of men.” I will be addressing the heresy of “new revelations of the Spirit” later. For now, the elevation of the “traditions of men” to a place of co-authority with the Bible is the heresy we must examine.

An Ancient Heresy:

In a passage mentioned earlier, Jesus rebukes the Pharisees for committing this heresy. Matthew 15 contains the passage where Jesus is found rebuking the Pharisees for following an extra biblical tradition with respect to hand washing while, at the same time, ignoring the clear biblical injunction to “honor your father and mother”. The traditions of the rabbis had been ongoing for hundreds of years. Thousands of pages of theological exposition had been written over the centuries in an attempt to explain the meaning of the Old Testament. Theological debate and theological writing is a good thing. Unfortunately for the Pharisees, things had developed well beyond the point of attempting to clarify the doctrines of the Old Testament. By this time a good Jew was expected to assiduously practice all of the extra biblical teachings of the rabbis as well. This heresy almost always starts in the minds of men with good intentions. Sadly, it ends up with those men, or their heirs, playing the role of tyrants.

Jesus describes the nature of imposing extra biblical requirements on the faithful by the Pharisees in His pronouncement of woes upon them in Matthew 23. He describes them as “seated in the chair of Moses” and exhorts the covenant people to “do all that they tell you” whenever they are declaring the revealed will of God through the writings of Moses. However, they were not content with the biblical writings alone. When they go beyond the biblical writings they are guilty of tying “up heavy loads and laying them on men’s shoulders”, of “shut (ting) off the kingdom of heaven from men”, of “neglecting the weightier provisions of the law”, of being “outwardly righteous but inwardly you are full of hypocrisy,” and of “bearing witness against (themselves) that they are sons of those who murdered the prophets.” These accusations against the Pharisees were later taken up by Calvin in his imprecations against the Church of Rome.

Later, Paul writes to the Colossians (Chapter 2) to warn them of the error of raising extra biblical revelation to a position of authority. In verse 8 he says, “See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deception, according to the tradition of men, according to the elementary principles of the world, rather than according to Christ.” He describes these extra biblical principles (vs. 23) when he says, “These are matters which have, to be sure, the appearance of wisdom in self-made religion and self abasement and severe treatment of the body, but are of no value against fleshly indulgence.” Paul recognizes that legalism (the practice of creating extra biblical rules and making them authoritative over others) is usually motivated by the good desire of moral obedience but inevitably ends up in the bad result of worthlessness and tyranny. He exhorts the Colossians to “let no one act as your judge in regard to food or drink….” in order to overcome the scourge of human tyranny.

Evangelical Heresies: Marcionism Part 4

This is part of a series of posts on Evangelical Heresies. Click here to see the entire series.

Change vs. Progress:

The book of Hebrews does a great job showing how the testaments are coherent and continuous. It also does a great job in showing how there is a progression with respect to the revelation we have from God. The truth of God does not change because God does not change. The nature of God does not change because God is immutable. However, humanity did not learn everything about God at one point in time. The revelation we have received from God, as contained in the Bible, has come to us over hundreds of years. Furthermore, God chose to develop His revelation of Himself to us in a progressive fashion in which some of the earlier things He revealed became obsolete. The distinction between progressive revelation and the mutability of God is very important. God does not change in His nature or character. However, He has made some changes in the way He deals with us as His revelation has progressed.

(In Book 2, Chapters 10 and 11 of the Institutes of the Christian Religion, John Calvin beautifully expounds upon the differences and similarities between the testaments. It is not my intention to reinvent the wheel so I refer the reader to that section of the Institutes. Those two chapters are excellently done and I heartily encourage any reader of this essay to put this down now and take the time to read what Calvin has said there.)

A good way to illustrate the issue of change vs. progress is to ask the question, “How are people saved in the OT and how are people saved in the NT?” When I have asked this question of Evangelicals, I am usually told that people in the OT were saved by obedience to the law and people in the NT are saved by faith in Jesus. They go on to say that Jesus came to deliver us from the requirement of obedience to the law. This belief system is often summarized in the popular evangelical phrase, “We are under grace, not law.”

According to orthodox Christian doctrine, all people who have ever been saved from their sins, whether they are found in the old covenant or the new, have been saved by grace through faith in the finished work of Jesus the Messiah. In the same fashion, nobody has ever been saved by obedience to the law because perfect obedience is required and all human beings are beset with sin, making perfect obedience impossible. In addition, the law was given to be a tutor to lead the old covenant people to look forward to Christ and to give the new covenant (who look back to what Jesus has done) people a moral standard to measure progress in sanctification (among other things).

Obviously there have been changes in the way God deals with His people with respect to salvation. In the OT men were to look forward to Jesus while in the current period we look back to Him. In the OT the animal sacrifices were required to make expiation for sin (which Hebrews tells us never worked) but in the NT we find Jesus making the perfect, final propitiation for sin and, thereby, abrogating the practice of animal sacrifice. Nevertheless, in both the OT and the NT we find that any person who is saved from his sins is necessarily in Christ and Christ alone. However, what was known about the Messiah varied drastically depending upon what time a person happened to be born. As Peter wrote in his first letter (Chapter 1:10ff), “As to this salvation, the prophets who prophesied of the grace that would come to you made careful search and inquiry, seeking to know what person or time the Spirit of Christ within them was indicating as He predicted the sufferings of Christ and the glories to follow.”

Orthodox Christianity has always concluded that the revelation of God is progressive. At the same time, orthodox Christianity has also always concluded that God is immutable. These are not mutually exclusive propositions. It is vitally important that we understand the difference between progressive revelation and the alleged (by evangelical Marcionites) mutability of God.

What the New Testament Authors Thought:

Did the writers of the New Testament share the evangelical doctrine that God (and His revealed truth) is mutable? Quite the contrary! I challenge any Evangelical to come up with one verse in the NT in which an OT verse is quoted and interpreted as having changed between the testaments (again, I am not writing about progressive revelation, I am asking for a verse that shows a change of nature in God). It is scarcely possible to read a page of the NT and not come across some quotation from the OT that is used in support of the NT doctrine being advanced. The book of Romans, arguably the most doctrinal of all the NT books, is based upon argument after argument that Paul makes from OT passages. In no case does Paul ever say that what was asserted in the OT has changed. In fact, he asserts just the opposite. He consistently argues that what was said about the nature and character of God in the OT is exactly the same in the NT. If we, as modern believers, are to practice the doctrine of “That’s Old Testament”, does it not make sense that Paul would have at least made that argument somewhere in Romans? Instead, Paul constructs and defends his doctrine of justification by faith through grace firmly on the footers of OT quotations. Indeed, the doctrines of original sin, election/reprobation, and the believer’s relationship to the law are also firmly grounded in OT citations. (Perhaps that is why Evangelicals also tend to despise those doctrines?)

Romans 12: 19-20 is a good example of the way Paul viewed the Old Testament. In this part of Romans, he has concluded his primary doctrinal dissertations and has embarked upon a series of exhortations to proper Christian behavior. The chapter begins with his exhortation to “present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, which is your spiritual service of worship.” He echoes Jesus in verse 14 where he says, “Bless those who persecute you; bless and curse not.” He further develops the theme of behavior towards enemies in verse 17 where he says, “Never pay back evil for evil to anyone.”

Verses 19-20 culminate his teaching on the impropriety of personal vengeance when he says, “Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is Mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’ ‘But if your enemy is hungry, feed him, and if he is thirsty, give him a drink; for in so doing you will heap burning coals upon his head.'” The author of the majority of the New Testament speaks specifically about the wrath of God. He quotes from Deuteronomy 32:35 when he declares that vengeance belongs to God. He does not apologize for this doctrine. Neither does he say that the God of the New Testament is no longer interested in expressing His personal wrath.

Paul then goes on to quote from Proverbs 25:21ff when he talks about behaving in a kindly manner towards our enemies. This quotation from the Old Testament clearly shows that the teaching of the Pharisees to hate one’s enemies was erroneous. Furthermore, it clearly teaches that the God of the Old Testament was concerned about behaving towards enemies with love. That sounds a lot like the New Testament God, does it not?

What is most amazing about this passage is the reason given for behaving lovingly towards our enemies. All Evangelicals are familiar with the exhortation to give food and drink to those who despise us. What is universally ignored is the reason why we are told to do so. The Old Testament tells us that the reason we are to love our enemies is to increase the wrath of God upon them (to heap burning coals upon their heads). The New Testament tells us exactly the same thing. There is no apology for this doctrine. Why are Evangelicals so ashamed and embarrassed by it? (I will have much more to say about this passage in the essay on Love and Forgiveness.) For Paul, there was no inconsistency between the Old and New Testaments. For Paul the truth of God was consistent throughout all of the Scriptures.

What would Jesus say? Unfortunately for evangelical Marcionites, He said a lot of things that were direct quotations from the OT. Two of my favorite quotations are found in the Gospel of Matthew.

Matthew 15: 1-20 contains an altercation between Jesus and the Pharisees. The Pharisees had come down from Jerusalem to rebuke Jesus for transgressing the “traditions of the elders” in that the disciples did not observe some of the ceremonial hand washings when it came time to eat. It is important to realize that these “traditions of men” are the extra-biblical rules and regulations established by the rabbis. Jesus responded to their accusation by quoting Exodus 20 when He said, “For God said, ‘Honor your father and mother,’ and ‘He who speaks evil of father or mother, let him be put to death.'” He then pointed out that the Pharisees were strictly observing their own extra-biblical rules but were failing to observe the biblical commandments to honor parents and execute dishonorable children (that is why I like this passage…. it makes Evangelicals so uncomfortable to realize that Jesus upheld the theonomic principle of a capital sanction for breaking the commandment to honor one’s parents). Jesus concludes, “Thus you invalidate the Word of God for the sake of your tradition.” He then goes on to quote from Isaiah when He says, “This people honors Me with their lips, but their heart is far away from Me.”

In His pronouncement of the woes upon the Pharisees in Matthew 23, Jesus makes an interesting statement about tithing (He supports it…. another thing that makes Evangelicals very uncomfortable). He rebukes the Pharisees “neglecting the weightier provisions of the law” (justice, mercy) while they were strictly observing the practice of tithing. He concludes His rebuke by telling them, “…these are the things you should have done without neglecting the others.” Wow, Jesus assumes that it is the moral duty of each believer to tithe, and, at the same time, not neglect the “weightier provisions of the law”. If He ever had a chance to show how things had changed between the testaments, this was it. Nevertheless, Jesus firmly defended the OT laws, in these two situations, and all others that we have a record of.

At one point in time II Timothy 3:16 was the most important verse to all Evangelicals. It says, “All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work.” When Paul wrote this statement to Timothy he was writing about the Old Testament. A large part of the New Testament had not even been written at the time Paul told Timothy to recognize the inspiration of the Scriptures. Now, if all Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, how is it that Evangelicals see fit to dismiss the entire (or most of it) Old Testament simply because some of the things taught there don’t suit their fancy?

It is safe to conclude that all of the New Testament authors believed that the Old Testament was valid, authoritative, inspired, inerrant, and useful for equipping a man to be a saint. There is no sense whatsoever that simply because something is found in the OT, a person is free to ignore what is said. Certainly there is no straightforward teaching along the lines of the popular “That’s Old Testament” doctrine that dominates Evangelicalism today. Indeed, the modern practice of essentially eliminating the Old Testament is simply another version of selective biblicism in practice.

The Heresy of Evangelical Marcionism:

The immutability of God is not a debatable doctrine. Denial of the doctrine of the immutability of God necessarily involves changing the nature and character of God. Belief in a god that is changeable is belief in an idol. Unless one believes in a God that is immutable, it is not possible to believe in the God of the Bible. If one does not place his belief in the God of the Bible, it is not possible to be saved from sin.

There is only one conclusion that we can come to. The modern doctrine that the God of the Old Testament has changed His character and nature when He appears in the New Testament is necessarily heresy. Although not strictly the heresy of historical Marcionism, it is related closely enough to carry the moniker of modern Marcionism. Anytime the statement “That’s the Old Testament” is put forward you can be certain that you are dealing with a person who denies the doctrine of the immutability of God and is, therefore, a modern Marcionite. Furthermore, if you confront a Marcionite with the truth and he stubbornly persists in his doctrinal view that God is mutable, you can be sure that you are dealing with an unbeliever. It is not possible to believe the heresy that God has changed His nature and be a true Christian.