Disputes are not preferable.
Be that as it may, the prophets were involved in disputes. Jesus and His apostles were involved in disputes. And the church has been embroiled in dispute ever since. The early church fathers were involved in dispute. The medieval theologians were involved in dispute. The Reformers were involved in dispute. The post-Reformed were involved in dispute. Our forerunners, the particular Baptists, were involved in dispute. While not preferable, and while unfortunate, dispute is nevertheless biblical, and it is a perspicuous article found in play throughout church history. Like self-defense and giving to the poor, dispute is something the church must engage as a result of the fallen nature of man.
From this, however, we need to distinguish between holy dispute, or dispute for a noble cause performed in a noble manner, and unholy dispute, or dispute for an ignoble (not noble or honorable) cause. There is a biblical kind of dispute, a dispute which Jesus Himself and His apostles engaged in. This is incontrovertible (Matt 12:34; Lk. 13:32; Jn. 2:15; Acts 17). Yet, there is a wicked kind of dispute, characterized by Scripture as quarrelsomeness or controversy for the sake of controversy (1 Tim. 3:3; Prov. 20:1).
Because there is a holy kind of dispute, this being beyond controversy, we need now concern ourselves with the nature of it. We will begin negatively.
What Holy Disputation Is Not
In 1 Timothy 6:3-5, Paul writes:
If anyone teaches otherwise and does not consent to wholesome words, even the words of our Lord Jesus Christ, and to the doctrine which accords with godliness, he is proud, knowing nothing, but is obsessed with disputes and arguments over words, from which come envy, strife, reviling, evil suspicions, useless wranglings of men of corrupt minds and destitute of the truth, who suppose that godliness is a means of gain. From such withdraw yourself.
When Martin Luther penned the Ninety Five Theses, he was engaging in a methodology referred to in the Latin as disputatio or, in English, disputation. Unfortunately, men who now claim to follow in the Protestant tradition have almost entirely done away with the practice or art of disputation. Failing to recognize the distinction between holy and unholy disputation, many men, many pastors, have come to think of all disputation as wicked—and the church is worse for it.
We need to be careful, however, lest we ruin ourselves upon the jagged rock of what holy disputation is not. In 1 Timothy 6:3-5, Paul begins with the character of a person who “does not consent to wholesome words.” Here, we find that Paul is talking about those who do not submit to, nor do they embrace the gospel—the epitome of wholesome words. He goes on to add, “even the words of our Lord Jesus Christ, and to the doctrine which accords with godliness…” Paul is not talking about a person who is a professing believer, much less a person who’s life is marked by gospel obedience.
He goes on to remark on this person’s pride. This person is puffed up and conceited. They know nothing. They are obsessed with dispute. In other words, they live for the argument. A more wooden reading might say, “[he] is sick with disputes…” He vomits up disagreement. That’s all he can do. This person is a contrarian. More interestingly is the kind of disputation Paul identifies in v. 4. Paul is not outlawing all disputation. But he does indicate a repudiation of diputes about words, signified by the word arguments (λογομαχία). These are useless, semantic disputes. In this passage, Paul by no means makes all disputes unlawful.
Therefore, holy dispute cannot be characterized by dispute for dispute’s sake. Holy dispute is not engaged by unholy people. Moreover, holy dispute cannot be about trivial things, like semantics, word battles, competition of sheer rhetoric, etc. Those are all insufficient explanations for disputation.
What Holy Disputation Is
Paul expressly helps us with a definition when he writes:
For the weapons of our warfare are not carnal but mighty in God for pulling down strongholds, casting down arguments and every high thing that exalts itself against the knowledge of God, bringing every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ, and being ready to punish all disobedience when your obedience is fulfilled. ~ 2 Corinthians 10:4-6
And also an example of disputation among believers, “Now when Peter had come to Antioch, I withstood him to his face, because he was to be blamed (Gal. 2:11).”
There are about three characteristics of dispute gleaned from these two passages. First, holy disputation casts down unholy arguments raised against God. Second, holy disputes are useful for bringing minds into compliance to Christ. Third, holy disputation can, and often does, take place among brethren. Therefore, I offer a concise and positive definition of holy dispute as follows:
Holy dispute is that Christian practice of bringing thoughts into captivity to Christ through honest disagreement and argumentation conducive to resolving such disagreement.
Holy disputation, on the Christian’s part, can be either intermural or intramural. Intermural dispute would entail a Christian disputing with a non-Christian interlocutor. Intramural dispute would be when two or more Christians dispute with one another over doctrine and/or practice.
When to Dispute & When Not to Dispute
Now that we’ve at least started a discussion concerning the nature of disputation, it would now be prudent to identify some criteria which might help us decide when and when not to dispute.
There are three questions we all must ask prior to entering into dispute:
1) Is the dispute concerning what is true? The goal of all holy disputation must be an arrival at the truth. Any other intention or purpose of dispute is insufficient and self-refuting. For disputation presupposes the categories of truth and falsehood, and disagreements arise precisely because one party believes the truth is being misrepresented by the other, and visa versa.
2) Is the dispute about God’s revealed doctrine? This could be doctrine revealed through nature or doctrine revealed through Scripture. Either way, God’s teaching is always worth discussion, and when a correct understanding thereof is at stake, it is always worth disputation. This is the very reason Paul confronted Peter to his face, in public I might add.
3) Is your intention to love your neighbor through dispute? If you are not disputing in an effort to love your neighbor to the glory of God, you might as well call it quits. Our intention, as Christians, must be in the right place prior to entering into disputation. Therefore, if your intention is any place other than obeying the second greatest commandment (Matt. 22:39), you ought to reassess yourself and, perhaps, change course.
These criteria are not exhaustive, but they might be helpful in deciding when to enter into dispute, whether that be dispute over social media or in-person. Disputes can be powerful things. They can rip apart churches, but they can also mature and secure churches, strengthening them for future challenges. Disputation, even holy disputation, ought to be the last resort. But if a disagreement arises, it is holy dispute alone that will serve as the acceptable means of conflict resolution.
I know, this is an odd situation to patent a novel term for a really old style of homiletics or method of preaching. When asked, I’ve been telling people I use an “adapted form of Peter van Mastricht’s preaching outline,” for nearly a year now.
For those of you who do not know, Van Mastricht was a Dutch, post-Reformed scholastic Puritan. I do not utilize a variation of his method simply because it comes from him. In fact, it is implicitly found in many, if not most, of the Puritans. Van Mastricht just happened to be most express about it, actually systematizing it as a methodology (Cf. vol. 1 of his Theoretical-Practical Theology). This is part of the reason Richard Muller, the church historian, refers to Van Mastricht as the height of Reformed orthodoxy in vol. 1 of his Post-Reformed Reformed Orthodoxy.
I am not a creature of innovation and tend to think the old ways are better (sometimes to a fault). But if updating nomenclature helps people understand where I’m at without changing the substance of the thing its designed to represent, I’m all for it. Instead of saying, “I use Van Mastricht’s preaching method,” I will just refer to my method as “4-D homiletics,” or “4-D theology.”
What Is 4-D Homiletics?
First, homiletics refers to the art and science of preaching. Second, 4-D refers to the four dimensions or aspects of theology which should be present in a sermon, but should also determine the form of doctrinal treatises and systematic expositions of the various loci in Christian theology. These four “dimensions” are the exegetical, doctrinal, elenctic, and practical.
In the exegetical part, the text is exposed or made plain as to its meaning or sense. In the doctrinal part, doctrine is concluded from the text of Scripture. In the elenctic part, objections to the doctrine are answered, usually through way of affirmations, distinctions, and denials. And in the practical part, application from all the above is made.
In my case, I usually have about three topics or points in each sermon, and then those points (which are derived from the text) have their own exegetical, doctrinal, elenctic, and practical parts.
However, the Puritans would often proceed through a sermon without three topics or points, and the entirety of the sermon or doctrinal treatise would simply be a survey of the text through each of those four principle parts of theology.
Tim Challies & Government
Throughout the coronavirus “crisis” many have sought to establish a near-absolute obedience of the Christian to the government based on texts like Romans 13:1 and 1 Peter 2:13. In a recent article, Tim Challies says:
If we wish to submit to God, we must submit to the authorities he has established. Said otherwise, obedience to God manifests itself in obedience to government.
Christians may dispute the exact parameters of governmental authority, but surely we can at least agree that matters of public health fall under the jurisdiction of the state.
He also says in a later part of the article:
Of course there are times when obedience to a higher authority means we must disobey a lower authority. “Peter and the apostles answered, ‘We must obey God rather than men’” (Acts 5:29). But we may do this only when that lesser authority is overstepping its bounds or when obeying government would be disobeying God. For every other occasion, God gives us a sober warning: “whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.” When government acts within its mandate, we must obey. When we fail to obey, we risk judgment—God’s own judgment as it is carried out by the state. But, conversely, when we obey, we gain joy—the joy that always comes with obedience.
Challies makes a few points here. First, we must obey government because God says so (I affirm). Second, matters of public health fall within the purview of government authority (I distinguish). Third, Christians can disobey government but only when the government commands Christians to do that which is sinful (I affirm).
In his first point, he’s not saying anything Christians actually disagree with. Every Christian believes we ought to obey government because God has commanded us to do so. The question has nothing to do with whether or not we should obey government, the question, at least for Americans, is what is our government? How is it defined?
In his second point, he suggests public health falls within the realm of governmental authority. This is a sweeping claim in need of further definition. If by public health Challies means the protection of the people’s life, liberty, and their right to pursue happiness (the language of our founding document), then sure. The government, according to Romans 13, wields a sword precisely to this end, the the image of God would be free or at liberty to live lives, especially lives unto God. But if by public health he means protection from every viral threat under the sun, then absolutely not. The American arrangement is not designed for such a nanny-like state authority. Otherwise, the government could legislate literally anything in the name of public health and safety.
In his third point, he states another obvious truth, that Christians are not to disobey government unless government enacts laws contrary to the law of God. Again, no Christian, that I’m aware of, disagrees with this in theory. The question is, How is it put into practice? And, more specifically, How is it put into practice in the U. S.?
Why 4-D Homilies & Theology Matter
You might be wondering, “What’s the relationship between preaching and what Challies has written?”
I thought you’d never ask!
Challies, at a fundamental level, is failing to not only divide the Word of God rightly, but he’s also failing to apply the Word of God, through the practical use of the Scripture he tries to interact with, to the lives of Western Christians. He has failed to exegete the text, he has failed to draw proper doctrinal conclusions from the text, he has failed to answer any kind of objections in any meaningful sense, and he’s most certainly and utterly failed to apply Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2 to our present situation, instead assuming without argument a particular, anachronistic application which may have applied to 17th century England, but does not apply to us in the here and now.
4-D preaching and 4-D theologizing presses the theologian to argue from the Scriptures, defend their claims, and then apply it all to life that the Christian may live more abundantly unto God in Christ. Unfortunately, Challies, I believe, does just the opposite.
He quotes some Scripture, assumes his exegesis instead of showing his work, and then makes a faulty application.
If he were careful, he would have noted that current elected officials (in the U. S. & Canada) are commanding Christians to disobey what God has commanded, that is, we are no longer “allowed” to assemble together. This is a clear contradiction to Hebrews 10:24, 25; 4:9, and Exodus 20; Deut. 5 with regard to the Sabbath commandments. But he doesn’t even address this. He goes on apparently assuming the government hasn’t commanded Christians to do anything sinful in this particular instance.
Moreover, if, in the case of the U. S., the Constitution is the principle of power for all elected officials, then obedience of U. S. citizens is ultimately determined by that document. In that document, we have the 1st amendment and also the 10th amendment, both of which guarantee the free exercise of religion and the terminus of the powers not given to the Congress in the states or the people. This means obedience to Romans 13, within the American context, could actually look like public dissent as a result of infringements upon the Constitution.
Challies considers none of these factors in his article. Why? Because the four-fold way or the four dimensions of theology are not carefully thought out. He’s not exegeting the text—he’s just quoting the text and assuming a meaning without argument. He’s also not drawing out a clear doctrine of government from the text (because he never exegeted the text in the first place). He’s not interacting with objections, but merely assuming the truth of his article. And he’s not applying the exegeted text to the reader where the reader is at (which is what the art of application is all about).
We need to bring back this comprehensive way of both doing theology and preaching theology, otherwise, several stones will be left un-turned, doctrinal knowledge will degrade even further than it has, the church will suffer, and people will actually end up disobeying God rather than obeying God, which is the whole business of the Christian in the first place.
Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. — James 5:14
For he who eats and drinks in an unworthy manner eats and drinks judgment to himself, not discerning the Lord’s body. For this reason many are weak and sick among you, and many sleep. — 1 Corinthians 11:30-31
For bodily exercise profits a little, but godliness is profitable for all things, having promise of the life that now is and of that which is to come. — 1 Timothy 4:8
But if so much concern be discovered for the safety of the body, we may conclude, how much care and attention should be devoted to the safety of the soul, which in the sight of God is of infinitely superior value? — John Calvin
This is the article that I didn’t want to write. Some questions I’ve asked in carefully considering what I should say and how to say it are: Do I use names? What sort of rhetoric should I use? How can I obey and glorify God in this response? I do not take this response lightly, and I’ve carefully considered what follows. The purpose of this article is not to call people out, it’s not to be argumentative, but it’s to edify the brethren through fruitful discourse. My motivator here is love—both love of God and love of neighbor.
The men to whom I’m responding are close to me, not personally, but doctrinally. Therefore, they and I are united upon the truth of the gospel in Jesus Christ. Because of this, I was surprised to see implied charges of murder and wicked intent coming from some of these men, the charges being made against churches who have chosen to assemble during these perilous times.
Because of the approach I’ve elected to take, I’m going to paraphrase some of these statements without mentioning names or quoting them directly with the exception of one article, the author of which voluntarily made himself known and thus, I will go ahead in citing his material directly. I am not trying to be evasive. I’m only trying to protect the names of individuals I care about. I am also uncertain as to whether or not they would approve of their names being mentioned. Thus, I’ve opted to maintain privacy at this point.
Three Texts & Flimsy Rhetoric
Men throughout the ages have utilized Scripture within their rhetoric. Rhetoric is a good thing if used properly (cf. the apostle Paul in Acts 17). But rhetoric in which the Scriptures become nothing more than a rhetorical tool of persuasion is flimsy rhetoric. Flimsy rhetoric happens when a person takes a verse (say, John 3:16), and hastily misapplies it in their argumentation without regard to the actual meaning of the text itself. An example might be as follows: “In John 3:16, it says ‘whosoever will.’ Therefore, free will initiates our salvation!” Such flimsy rhetoric takes for granted an application that has yet to be argued for. This is to beg the question. More exactly stated, it’s a commission of the petitio principii fallacy, or circular reasoning.
There are three texts some have used in order to argue for the cancelation of worship services in obedience to governing authorities at both local and state levels.
Of how much more value then is a man than a sheep? Therefore it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.
Some have drawn application from this text obliging Christians to cancel worship in order to look out for the welfare of their fellow brethren during the spread of COVID-19. But the context of this passage is within the context of Jesus healing a man on the Sabbath, at which point the Pharisees attempted to chide Him for performing work on a day of rest (Ex. 20:10).
It is impossible to get from “be willing to alter your worship pattern for the sake of your brethren” to “cease having a worship pattern altogether” without more information from the text itself. This text does not explicitly nor necessarily intimate such a wild conclusion. Jesus’ healing work of mercy happened within the context of worship, not instead or apart from it. Jesus’ works on the Sabbath always served to show forth the beauty of that Day rather than detract from it in any way.
Works of mercy serve to adorn what is already there, not abrogate it.
Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God.
With Matthew 12:12 in hand, Romans 13:1ff is then invoked as part of a cumulative case against holding worship during the COVID-19 outbreak. As we have just seen, nothing about Matthew 12:12 makes cancelling of worship necessary, let alone lawful (cf. Ex. 20; Deut. 5; Jn. 20; Acts 2:42; 20:7; 1 Cor. 16:1-4; Heb. 4:9).
Therefore, it is a wide stretch to suggest canceling worship is an act of obedience per Romans 13. Romans 13 does not give the government the authority to alter or do away with what God has commanded. The church should make alterations according to the light of nature—insofar as God’s Law allows—if she perceives an imminent threat. But this is not the same as canceling services altogether.
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. These you ought to have done, without leaving the others undone.
I have seen this verse used to imply those who continue divine worship at this time are murderers at worst and Pharisees at best. The claim here is that this text provides precedent for suspending positive laws in order to uphold moral laws. But this isn’t Jesus’ point. Not even remotely.
The distinction here is not so much between positive laws and moral laws as it is between the letter of the law and the spirit of the law. The Pharisees were keen to fulfill external obedience, yet their hearts were far from God. They lacked sincerity in their worship because they had not been born again, a point Jesus elsewhere emphasizes during a discussion with—you guessed it—a Pharisee (Jn. 3:3). The Pharisees were hypocrites because they continued on with the external affairs of worship while neglecting the spirit of the laws they sought to uphold—justice, mercy, and faith. Thus, they should have obeyed the ceremonial laws under which they lived while not neglecting their substance.
Charges of Pharisaism
An article by David de Bruyn titled ‘Wrong Responses to a Loss of Corporate Worship’, seeks to draw comparison from events following the destruction of the Temple in 70 A.D. to our current situation.
De Bruyn begins by saying, “When Israel lost its Temple in A. D. 70, you might imagine it would have prompted much soul-searching and repentance among the rabbis that had rejected Jesus as Messiah.” The destruction of the Temple, mind you, is supposed to be seen as analogous to the current restriction on worship imposed by the state during the COVID-19 outbreak. Much “soul-searching” was to be expected then as it is to be expected now. Yet, in and after 70 A.D., there was a lack of soul-searching just as there is now. These are the lines being drawn at the very outset of the article.
The general thrust of the text seems to be: Stop trying to continue your worship. Instead, understand that worship has been suspended for a season. Use this as a time to examine your own heart.
He continues by saying:
Instead of soul-searching as to why the central place of Jewish corporate worship had been removed, the Pharisees capitalized on the moment, knowing the Sadducees had lost their power. The synagogue would now become the center of Jewish religion, and the study of Torah a de facto form of atonement.
Was it bad for the Jews to want to continue worship as a result of the destruction of the Temple? Yes. But why? Because they had rejected the Messiah and, thus, were left without a lawful means of worship. This is not the case for many churches who have opted to continue worshiping during these trying times. New Covenant people are free to worship according to New Covenant ordinances unless God Himself changes or abolishes those ordinances through special revelation.
Pharisees were in sin while proceeding with Judaistic worship, not because they wanted to worship per se, but because they wanted to worship in the wrong way, that is, according to the Old Covenant instead of the New. They had rejected Christ, and with Him they rejected all lawful worship.
He goes on:
My argument was simple: we should mourn the loss of corporate worship, encourage home and family worship, pastor and disciple through technological means, but not attempt to create the impression that we are really still conducting corporate worship, in the truest sense.
He has just finished arguing against live-stream video “worship.” I would agree with his assessment on that point. Christians cannot worship through the internet. But what’s his alternative? Shut it down completely? If it’s a violation of the Regulative Principle of Worship to live-stream a worship service under the pretence of that live-stream being an optional mode of divine worship, then surely it’s a violation of the Regulative Principle of Worship to cancel worship altogether.
Where in the Scriptures are pastors given the authority to cancel worship? Historically, only God Himself has done this, not through natural means, but through special revelation in concert with providence (i.e. a pronounced or prophesied judgment). De Bruyn continues:
Instead of asking how God might be chastening us, we find a way to notice the crisis without pondering its meaning, to respond to its exigencies without responding to its existence. That’s exactly how you end up like the rabbis of the first century: use necessity to justify pragmatism.
Unlike the providential hindrances throughout biblical antiquity, today’s crisis has no specially revealed divine commentary. Thus, De Bruyn’s interpretation of current events may be different than, but just as valid as, mine. Why? Because God hasn’t told us what they mean. God may have sent COVID-19 to test His church, to see whether or not she would continue to worship Him despite adversity and affliction. Or He could’ve sent COVID-19 to cancel the worship of His people. Which speculative assertion is correct? We have no way of knowing unless God Himself were to tell us. But, God’s canon is closed, leaving us with one option: Obey what He has told us through His holy Word.
He concludes his article by asking multiple questions, the answers to which would be purely speculative. Though De Bruyn never indicts pastors for continuing worship, implied in at least two of his articles (this one included) is that the pandemic equals prevention of corporate worship. But this is not so. There are many good churches who continue to meet while taking necessary precautions to ensure the safety of their people. There is nothing providentially preventing God’s people from corporate worship, and many churches who continue to gather across the nation prove just that.
There is much more that could be said here. Unfortunately, I have run out of both space and time.
There are ways for churches to continue gathering according to the biblical ordinance of corporate worship.
I fear Christians are seeing only two options: (1) tempt God and, in a grand act of idiocy, continue services as if the virus isn’t a thing (this does happen); or (2) capitulate to the government and cease worship for the foreseeable future (this happens even more).
There is, however, a third option: (3) adapt and overcome through obedience to Christ. God has not taken away our worship. Only the Word of God could take away our worship. He has, however, set a trial before us through which He is working the good of those who love and fear Him (Rom. 8:28). We must obey God rather than men, and we must obey according to the wisdom of the Scriptures.
“Look!” he answered, “I see four men loose, walking in the midst of the fire; and they are not hurt, and the form of the fourth is like the Son of God.” — Daniel 3:25
In less than two weeks, pandemic numbers continue to rise at an unprecedented rate, and Americans in various places have been confined to quarters by fiat government orders. The liberties we once thought we had have become a thing of the past in a most obvious fashion. Understandably, many are scared, wondering what the future months hold. The light, if any, seems dim at the end of the tunnel, especially since Trump has announced that these preventative quarantine measures could last into the Summer.
Christians, however, ought to understand this situation according to a whole different set of considerations. While the world will do its best to elicit maximal amounts of fear, the church ought to maintain a cool and collective head.
Shadrach, Meshach, Abed-Nego, & Some Context
Just prior to the events recorded in the passage you read above, King Nebuchadnezzar gave orders to the people that they should worship the golden image he had erected at the sound of the horn, flute, harp, lyre, and psaltry in symphony (Dan. 3:1-6). But there were certain, faithful Jews—a remnant, if you will—the three of which were Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-Nego. They refused to worship the statue (v. 12). As a result, the king grew in fury and brought the three rebellious Jews to stand trial before him. He issued a threat, saying, “…if you do not worship, you shall be cast immediately into the midst of a burning fiery furnace. And who is the god who will deliver you from my hands?“ Having been warned by the king, the three men responded as follows:
O Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to answer you in this matter. If that is the case, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and He will deliver us from your hand, O king. But if not, let it be known to you, O king, that we do not serve your gods, nor will we worship the gold image which you have set up.
I would be interested to know just how many of today’s professing Christians would have told Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-Nego that they “need to submit to the authorities” because “Romans 13 commands them to do so.” Would they cloak such demands in “love” and “charity”? Who knows. But there are certainly some parallels between what these three men underwent thousands of years ago and what the Western church now faces. How far will we allow the government to define our worship? How long will we allow them to possess the keys which rightly belong to the church?
Similar questions must’ve been circling through the minds of many Jews during Daniel’s day while under the rule of Nebuchadnezzar. And rightfully so. They are important questions with which we must wrestle, even in the land of so-called liberty.
The point here, however, is that the nations rage and the peoples plot in vain. The situation within which the three men in Daniel 3 found themselves is the status quo. We shouldn’t expect it to be any other way. God Himself has declared this to be the way in which worldly governments and peoples behave (Ps. 2:1). All politics aside, this is the context in which Christ’s bride finds herself. So, the question is not so much, “What do we let them get away with?” It’s more, “How do we love Christ through all of this?” And, “How do we love our neighbors?” I believe the answer to either question precludes reflexive fear, doubt, etc. And the reason reflexivity would be an inappropriate response in this case is because of the God we profess to worship.
We do not worship statues. We worship the God who goes before us. The God who stands with us in the flames of uncertainty and eminent shipwreck.
God In the Fire
The author of Hebrews 13:5 says, “Let your conduct be without covetousness; be content with such things as you have. For He Himself has said, ‘I will never leave you nor forsake you.’” The bride of Christ, like Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-Nego, is in the flames. She’s in the furnace of the world, and the world would love nothing more than to burn her up and watch her ashes blow away with the wind. But just as God has already declared the norm for the post-lapse (fallen) world, so too has He declared the norm for the church militant, “I will never leave you nor forsake you,” with, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, For theirs is the kingdom of heaven (Matt. 5:10),” and with, “If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you (Jn. 15:20).”
Persecution is the norm for the church militant, and with it, suffering, and even bodily death. However, held along with this reality are two other parallel truths. First, the kingdom of God belongs to us. Second, God is with us and will never forsake us.
When the king had finally thrown the three men into the furnace, by utilizing his government assets (Dan. 3:20), the flames were hotter than they ever had been (v. 22). Yet, upon a second glance, the king and his men realized that there weren’t three men standing in the furnace. There were four. And not only this, but neither of the four were being consumed by the white-hot flames. Looking closer, the king noticed that the appearance of the fourth man was like “the Son of God.”
Immanuel, God with us (Matt. 1:23), is that fourth man. Just as He was with Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-Nego in the fire of Nebuchadnezzar’s furnace, so too He is with us to this day. He will never allow us to be consumed. He will never allow us to be crushed. He will bring us through COVID-19 and state oppression just as He brought the Jews through long seasons of exile. Just as He delivered Daniel’s friends through the furnace, so too He will escort His bride to rivers of peace.
This promise is as sure as God’s presence in the Person and work of Christ nearly two-thousand years ago. There, in a dusty little sand-box just off the shore of the western Mediterranean Sea, the God-Man saved His bride. The flames no longer burn, and death ceases to sting. He’s come to stand with us.
For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us. For the earnest expectation of the creation eagerly waits for the revealing of the sons of God. — Romans 8:18-19
Dr. James White is a dear brother in the Lord and, while we may not agree on everything, I continue to believe he is one of the most skilled Christian debaters and defenders of the faith currently living and operating within the Reformed community.
Lately, the classical v. presuppositional debate has once again kicked off, all for good reasons. There are various groups involved in the broader discussion. Skylining, however, might be the For the New Christian Intellectual (FTNCI) with Jacob Brunton & Cody Libolt versus men like White & Sye Ten Bruggencate.
I have dear friends on both sides of this debate, but make no mistake, I am an outspoken proponent of the scholastic, classical method which, in substance, puts me on the same side of the line as Brunton and Libolt, at least in terms of natural theology and the way in which Christians should argue for God’s existence. However, I am not part of FTNCI and would appreciate distinction moving forward.
That said, I think White is wrong here. If he thinks FTNCI is off the mark as it concerns apologetics he needs to deliver the death-blow demonstration. If they are dead wrong, demonstrating it to be the case ought to be a cake-walk. So, my design for this post is to elicit White’s carefully thought-out response to classicalism. I and others would appreciate such a response. Not a response to FTNCI per se, but a response to the classicalism they espouse.
Recently, White posted on Facebook:
“To be educated means to cease to be a presuppositionalist” says JD Hall’s personal manager while walking around a park recording on his camera. This, my friends, is the new Christian intellectual!
Meanwhile I hear Target still has toilet paper! Civilization endures!
Pro-tip: choosing to ignore the epistemological ramifications of a consistent, serious exegesis of Romans 1 (which the NCI guys have yet to produce) does not result in the rest of the world becoming uneducated.
There are a few problems with this, the least of which is not the fact it’s Facebook conjecture. One can’t help but notice the “pro-tip” smugness, a brand of self-exaltation I’m sure both Calvin and Knox dreamt of one day possessing (sorry, but that’s just what it is). In all seriousness, though, the devil is in the details. Let’s look further and avoid building mountains from molehills.
White implies there are epistemological ramifications of “serious” Romans 1 exegesis. I agree. But has he given us what he thinks these ramifications are? I’m not doubtful he has, but I am doubtful he’s applied his exegesis of Romans 1 within this particular context in any meaningful sense. Yet, he criticizes FTNCI for not producing serious exegesis on Romans 1 concerning this very issue.
Some questions: First, what is serious exegesis? Second, can White demonstrate FTNCI hasn’t produced such material? It’s unquestionable that they have produced material concerning Romans 1, so Dr. White merely needs to show where such material is wanting. This should be an easy task since—according to White—Brunton and Libolt are apparently beyond the reaches of rationality.
There’s More to this Debate
I’m concerned that as Christians on social media become more conscious of this near-fathomless discussion, their first impression might be that this is a narrow conversation between FTNCI and people like James White, as if FTNCI had some novel standing whilst White holds up the “Reformed” banner. This is a much larger discussion with personalities in the periphery such as Richard Muller, Craig Carter, and James Dolezal, the three of which might be contrasted with John Frame and Vern Poythress. Needless to say, there are some heavy-hitters producing scholarship either directly or indirectly associated with this discussion, not to mention the late Dr. R. C. Sproul who had a heavy hand in producing a monumental work in favor of classical apologetics (cf. Classical Apologetics, by Sproul, Gerstner, & Lindsley). It also included a death-blow critique of Van Til’s presuppositionalism.
Shifting the discussion back a few years, I would be interested to see if White could find any pre-Enlightenment doctors of the faith who would agree with him on presuppositionalism. We have every reason to believe Francis Turretin would’ve classified Cornelius Van Til’s work as Socinian with its notion of revelational epistemology (cf. Institutes, vol. 1). John Owen prefaced his work on biblical theology with a somewhat lengthy discussion on natural theology (Biblical Theology, ch. 1). Stephen Charnock, time and time again, relied on Thomas Aquinas in his argumentation for God’s existence (cf. The Existence and Attributes of God). Peter van Mastricht also presented the classical proofs and classical doctrine of God in volume 2 of his Theoretical-Practical Theology.
True, the Reformed and post-Reformed did not place the stress on natural theology that, say, the medieval scholastics did. The Puritans were especially eclectic in this regard. Nevertheless, the chorus composed of our theological forefathers would’ve wholesale rejected Van Til’s epistemology, the very bedrock of presuppositional thought. Concerning this, there ought be no doubt.
Know, therefore, that this discussion is not one merely had between some fringe entity called For the New Christian Intellectual and a few contemporary Reformed scholars. This discussion is between historical, classical Reformed orthodoxy (a la. the Puritans & every Reformed Confession) and those who have, mostly inadvertently, adopted post-Enlightenment thought into their philosophical and theological frameworks (a la. Van Tillian & Bahnsenite types).
Much of what I say here will be circling wagons. But White’s claim is that serious exegesis to the opposite effect of presuppositionalism from Romans 1 has not been conducted (at least by FTNCI). But it has been conducted in a most rigorous fashion throughout the years by classical theologians and FTNCI, as far as I can tell, is merely parroting the near-unanimous reading of Romans 1 prior to the Enlightenment.
The divide between classicalism and presuppositionalism is epistemic in nature, and it largely revolves around two major questions: “What does everyone know about God?” and, “How do they know it?” I believe Romans 1:20 answers part of the first question and nearly all of the second:
For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead, so that they are without excuse… (NKJV)
What is known about God? His invisible attributes. His invisible attributes (lit. the invisible things of Him) are thoroughly perceived, and they are perceived in the present tense. Further, the Lord’s eternal power and divine nature (Godhead) are also presently revealed. This is revelational information made available to all people. This is what constitutes natural (general) revelation.
The next question to answer from this text is how (?) these things about God are perceived. This is the question of natural theology, or our knowledge of natural revelation. How does natural revelation “get into” our intellects (thus becoming a natural theology)? How are the things about God understood (νοούμενα)? They are understood presently and passively. This means that at present all rational human beings understand or perceive God through what has been made. The “by the things that are made” is in the dative case signifying instrumental causality. It is by or through what is made that people perceive the divine nature. The NASB renders it as follows:
For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse.
None of this ought to be controversial. The classicalist merely affirms everything that is said here. We deny that the sensus divinitatus is a content-loaded repository of pre-downloaded (a priori) facts about God possessed by all people from the womb. That is simply not what Romans 1 teaches. Romans 1:20 tells us that we perceive through what has been made (mediately). But v. 20 would be false if indeed we do not know God through what is made. As it is, however, we know through a process of ratiocination—looking at our surroundings, examining what has been made, etc. We have a mediate knowledge of God which begins with basic sense perception.
It’s on the basis of Romans 1 that classicalists have rejected Van Til’s revelational epistemology with its demand for an illogical presupposition of God. For Van Til, Bahnsen, and Oliphint alike, God must be presupposed before any fact, even the laws of logic. But, as Sproul’s Classical Apologetics points out, such an idea engages the principle of explosion. How is God made intelligible to us without the laws of logic first being presupposed?
The Purpose of God in Creation
White has also claimed that God’s existence is the sole subject of general revelation (revelation of God through nature). He contends that “all general revelation communicates is the existence of God—but not His purpose.” If White means here that God’s saving purpose is not revealed through general revelation, we’d be happy to grant the claim. But that’s not what he wrote. He seems to be saying God’s purpose is per se not revealed through general revelation.
Yet, if we simply move beyond Romans 1 to Romans 2, we’d see this is prima facie false. Not only does existence itself bear purpose (through final causality, teleology), and not only do the Reformed confessions say that we know God’s wisdom through that which has been made, Romans 2 tells us that the law of God is written on the hearts of Gentiles. Romans 2:14-15 says:
… for when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do the things in the law, these, although not having the law, are a law to themselves, who show the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and between themselves their thoughts accusing or else excusing them…
I’m 99% positive White and I would agree on the meaning of this passage. Even the pagans have the law of God revealed in themselves. This is one of the senses in which knowledge of God may be considered innate. But for the Reformers (cf. Turretin), the innate knowledge was still inferred knowledge. We reason to the existence of a law-Maker through the revelation of a natural law.
I once had a seminary professor contend that the Gentiles in this context were believing Gentiles. Such an interpretation would be a stretch since (1) Paul never calls Christians Gentiles in the present tense (Gal. 3:28); (2) the context, starting in Romans 1, are those who are outside of Christ. In the very next passage, starting in v. 17, Paul moves to discuss a second guilty party, the Jews. The point of Romans 2 is to say there is no exception. God does not show partiality (Rom. 2:11). All are guilty in His sight. Romans 1-3 set the reader up for the glories of Romans 4-9. It’s doom and gloom, and then Christ!
While I appreciate Dr. James White’s years of service to the church, I do not think he has been correct in his characterization of the current apologetic landscape. Though I disagree with much of their approach, the lion-share of FTNCI’s argumentation, in terms of apologetic substance, are simply those of Reformed Scholastic antiquity. All people know God, but they know God through inference—by what is made. All knowledge begins at the senses through which it ends up in the intellect. Helpful on this point are the words of Dr. Ed Feser:
The standard Scholastic position, following Aristotle, was that (a) there is a sharp difference between the intellect on the one hand and the senses and imagination on the other, but that nevertheless (b) nothing gets into the intellect except through the senses. To have a concept like triangularity is not the same thing as having any sort of mental image (visual, auditory, or whatever), since concepts have a universality that images lack, possess a determinate or unambiguous content that images cannot have, and so forth. Still, the intellect forms concepts only by abstracting from images, and these have their origin in the senses.
I would love to see more dialogue on this point, especially with White and some other larger influences. This discussion in particular has a lot of far-reaching corollaries which take us all the way into the social justice controversy with its standpoint epistemology; the great divide between the rationalists and the empiricists; pre-modernity v. modernity and post-modernity; realism v. nominalism, etc.
There are questions being asked in this debate with answers that have shaped the very bedrock upon which the contemporary church does much of its thinking, for better or worse. Many of these questions have been given wrong answers for many years, post-Enlightenment. It is crucial we labor to provide the right ones, to the glory of God and for the sake of future generations.
There’s a difference between pastoral theology and public theology. Recent demands, however, would lead one to think otherwise.
The recent phenomenon of the “address public content privately” principle has become the go-to response to criticisms of American evangelicalism and its leaders. Power players such as the SBC and TGC are perhaps the greatest apologists for this principle. It affords them the opportunity to minimize the attention drawn to possible errors, and carves out room for the victimhood of professors and other leaders and makes provision for academic negligence. This amounts to an effort to keep the discussion underground. It amounts to a nil rate of productivity, the suppression of truth, and the willful malnourishment of fellow Christians who might benefit from said discussion.
Before I jump into relevant texts, I want to unequivocally state that academics in a teaching position do not have the luxury of public theological error without consequence—a kind of public theology with no strings attached. What I mean by this is that a teacher who teaches something publicly ought to be more than willing to own their public error publicly. This is basic academic decorum, a minimum requirement for all who accept the sacred opportunity to teach theology. Personally, if I publish error, I expect to be corrected publicly. If I’m being honest, the prospect of public invalidation keeps me on my toes. At the very least, if there are those who disagree with me, I most certainly expect public responses and, hopefully, fruitful public dialogue.
The Example of Apollos
Apollos is introduced to us in Acts 18:24 as a man who was mighty in the Scriptures. He had been instructed in the way of the Lord, was fervent in spirit, and he taught accurately the things of the Lord (v. 25). Thanks to God’s grace through Aquila and Priscilla, he understood the way of God “more accurately (v. 26).” In v. 27, when Apollos arrived in Achaia, he “greatly helped those who believed through grace.” How did he help his fellow believers? He “vigorously refuted the Jews publicly, showing from the Scriptures that Jesus is the Christ (v. 28).”
There are three observations we need to make here.
First, godly refutation is a great help to God’s people. Those who downplay the need to refute bad ideas do not understand this biblical principle which evidences itself all over the pages of Scripture (Prov. 17:10; 19:25; Is. 1:17; Tit. 2:15).
Second, this refutation was a great help precisely because it was public! God’s people benefitted from Apollos’ exchange with the Jews because it was a public exchange with men who were no doubt also teaching publicly (as the Jewish rabbi were prone to do). Imagine if another Christian wrote to Apollos, questioning, “Did you first speak to those Jews privately? Huh? Huh?!” Such a thing would be inconceivable to the rhetorically trained first century mind.
Third, Apollos’ refutation was derived straight from the Word of God. It didn’t consist of man-made doctrine, sayings, or preferences. His responses weren’t couched primarily within the faculty of emotion, but came to him as he put his regenerate reason to work for the glory of God. He wasn’t holding age, experience, or intellect over his interlocutors as an authority (as some have done recently). Rather, he was reasoning from the Scriptures, publicly, for the benefit of God’s people. Apollos was a noble man, a man’s man, who operated according to the Scriptures, that is, with integrity and transparency.
The Example of Paul
In case the objection comes, “But Apollos was interacting with unbelievers!” I want to be clear that public responses to public content or error is the biblical norm, whether that be among believers or unbelievers. The exception to the rule is the inner operations of the local church, especially when in comes to church discipline (Matt. 18). I’m not talking about the intramural business of any given local church. I’m talking about public theology. The disciplinary procedure of Matthew 18 cannot apply to extramural discussion because Matthew 18:17 necessarily places the procedure within the context of the local church.
Moreover, Paul sets a precedent for addressing erring believers in public. Galatians 2:11-14a says:
Now when Peter had come to Antioch, I withstood him to his face, because he was to be blamed; for before certain men came from James, he would eat with the Gentiles; but when they came, he withdrew and separated himself, fearing those who were of the circumcision. And the rest of the Jews also played the hypocrite with him, so that even Barnabas was carried away with their hypocrisy. But when I saw that they were not straightforward about the truth of the gospel, I said to Peter before them all…
Peter, the apostle, was in error. How did Paul address Peter’s error? He opposed Peter. Not only did Paul address Peter in person, an ideal form of communication, but he opposed him before an audience! Now, the reason Paul opposed Peter in front of everyone is not expressly stated, but I believe Paul’s desire was to correct Peter for the edification of those over whom Peter had the most influence.
In fact, Paul does explicitly disclose his purpose behind public interaction when he writes to Timothy, “Those who are sinning rebuke in the presence of all, that the rest also may fear (1 Tim. 5:20).” Again, correction ought to be done in public for the benefit of all. To drive that interaction underground is selfish, cowardly, and rips away any possible way other Christians might benefit from the discussion. To drive public issues under ground is to play a card Roman Catholicism has been playing for hundreds of years: The more ignorant the public, the less power they have.
Some have attempted to use 1 Timothy 5:1 as a tool to silence those who address public issues publicly, especially when it comes to younger men attempting to refute the ideas of older men (cf. 1 Tim. 4:12). Whilst I fully affirm that our rebukes ought to be seasoned with the spice of humility, the salt of truth ought to be tasted throughout. In 1 Timothy 5:1, Paul isn’t telling Timothy to never rebuke an older man. If that’s what he was saying, he’d be contradicting what he writes later on in v. 20. Moreover, the terms used are different.
In v. 20, a different Greek term is used for rebuke (ἐπιπλήσσω) than that which is used in v. 1 (ἐλέγχω). There’s a right way to rebuke (v. 20), and a wrong way to rebuke (v. 1). Using different terminology is Paul’s way of making a distinction. Interestingly, the context of right rebuke seems to be public.
Apollos, a man who was mighty in the Scriptures, publicly refuted the Jews. Paul publicly rebuked his friend, brother, and fellow apostle in front of impressionable onlookers. Moreover, Paul encourages young Timothy to publicly rebuke those who are in sin.
In the current dialogue climate, many are either ignorant or have outrightly rejected the biblical principle of public theology in public. The exhortation from prominent evangelical leadership for critics of their public content to go underground by writing letters and making phone calls (both of which have already been attempted by many) is simply not a biblical approach to public discussion. Rather, the biblical principle seems to suggest that public examples and public content, whether written or spoken, are subject to the public criticisms of fellow believers so long as those fellow believers have a mind to edify the body of Christ rather than simply tear down a personality or argue for argument’s sake.
Therefore, I conclude that the principle of “address public content privately” is a false if not morally atrocious principle designed by men (not God) to silence opposition and provide an excuse for willful academic disingenuity or irresponsibility.