So far in our walkthrough of Dr Roger Nicole’s Polemic Theology, we have considered the first of Dr Nicole’s questions, namely, What Do I Owe The Person Who Differs from Me? and made a start on the second, which is, What Can I Learn from Those Who Differ From Me?
Pressing on, we continue with that second question, looking at two further things involved in learning from those who differ from us:
3. What are the dangers? Part of the trouble we face in disagreement with one another is that we truly believe our views are beyond error. There couldn’t possibly be dangers to our own view which a disagreement with others could expose. Dr Nicole writes:
I may learn from those who differ from me that I have not sufficiently perceived certain dangers to which my view is exposed and against which I need to be especially on guard. I may find out notably that there are certain weighty objections to which I had not given sufficient attention heretofore. Here again, I must be grateful for a signal service rendered by the objector. Instead of being irked by the opposition, I should rise to the challenge of presenting my view with appropriate safeguards and in such a way as to anticipate objections that are likely to arise.
Part of the point of dialogue is to perform the function of a whetstone. If you’ve ever done any serious work in a kitchen (guys, I don’t mean making a sandwich), you know that knives can lose their edge when you use them over and over. To keep a knife sharp, you do something like this:
Now imagine doing that with human beings and not with knives – that’s what disagreeing with people ought to do! That’s a painful process but that painful process only serves to make the knife more sharp. So the next time your paedobaptist brother makes that point you can’t immediately answer, consider it a “whetstone opportunity” – a chance to go away, find the answers from God’s Word and grow it in your new-found knowledge. Remember – our aim is not to “win” but to fulfil what the Bible says:
Proverbs 27:17 HCSB Iron sharpens iron, and one man sharpens another.
4. What about ambiguities? In other words, what about what I am saying will bring up questions from my opposition (for lack of a better term)? A master at this can be seen in the Apostle Paul in Romans. Paul is simply fantastic at anticipating potential objections based on what has been said and answering them head-on. Now, hear me – this is not the idea of putting words in people’s mouths and saying that is what they meant. That’s rude and un-Christlike – even Jesus knew what the Pharisees were saying and said it verbatim. What we are saying is that as we speak, we need to be conscious of what may be legitimately mulling around in the minds of those who hear us – especially in matters where there is (despite the protestation of some) a level of ambiguity.
I simply love how Dr Nicole finishes up this section on what we can learn from those we disagree with:
When we give due attention to what we owe those who differ and what we can learn from them, we may be less inclined to proceed in a hostile manner. Our hand will not so readily contract into a boxing fist, but will be extended as an instrument of friendship and help; our feet will not be used to bludgeon another, but will bring us closer to those who stand afar; our tongue will not lash out in bitterness and sarcasm, but will speak words of wisdom, grace and healing (Prov. 10:20, 21; 13:14; 15:1; 24:26; 25:11; James 3).
In the next part of this series, we’ll begin considering how to cope with those we disagree with. Dr Nicole is going to lay out a feast of necessary truths for all Christians and especially for those who discuss sensitive issues over the Web. Hope you can tune in!
Pressing on with our walkthrough of Dr Roger Nicole’s Polemic Theology, we come to the second of Dr Nicole’s three questions:
- What Do I Owe to the Person Who Differs From Me?
- What Can I Learn from Those Who Differ From Me?
- How Can I Cope with Those Who Differ from Me?
But before I do, I want to add something I didn’t quite get to in part one. This series is making the assumption that the two sides are within the pale of Christian orthodoxy, for instance (but not limited to):
- Calvinists and Arminians
- Cessationists and continuationists
- Pre-, post- and amillenialists
- Dispensationalists and covenantalists (and other hybrids)
- Those for contemporary worship styles and those for more traditional styles
- Credobaptists and paedobaptists
I really don’t think that dialogue on brotherly terms with a Mormon or a Jehovah’s Witness is possible, since we affirm radically different gospels and without the Gospel, there is no bond of fellowship.
With that, let’s dig into question two:
2. What Can I Learn from Those Who Differ From Me?
Before we can answer the question of what we can learn from those who differ with, we have to acknowledge that we can learn from those we differ from.
If there is one attitude that impedes this, it is what I call the “I’m-right” attitude. I’m sure we’ve all been in conversations like this – you’re trying to explain a point but all you get is parroted statements from the opposition, said with so much pseudo-confidence that you wonder what the point is. You’re not in a dialogue – you’re in an annoying, frustrating victory speech and you’re the heckler.
Now I’m not saying you shouldn’t have convictions and feel strongly about them. I have them – lots of them – and for some of them, I am more than willing to engage in spirited debate over. However, having convictions without teachability is the first step on the road to arrogance. In this regard, I love what my friend Steve Jeffery says about our theology. He compares it to an artist working on his masterpiece – you don’t create masterpieces overnight. It’s a small bit of paint here, a small bit of paint there, a few corrections here and there along the way and you constantly revisit it. An unwillingness to be discerningly open is like drawing a stickman, colouring it in with felt tip pens and then locking away all your art gear because in your mind, you’re done! We must come to the place where in the words of Scripture, we are “quick to hear, slow to speak, and slow to anger” (James 1:19)
If then we can indeed learn from others, how do we do that? Dr Nicole posits four key questions which may prove helpful in our walkthrough of this crucial issue of learning from others:
1. Could I be wrong? We all hate to admit it but as long as we are in flesh, there is the reality that we may indeed be straight-up WRONG. The first step in learning from others is the reality that we may be wrong and the humility to realize that it may well be the case that we can learn where we are wrong from an opposing position.
Dr Nicole is magnificent:
Our reputation will be better served if we show ourselves ready to be corrected when in error, rather than if we keep obstinately to our viewpoint when the evidence shows it to be wrong. I should welcome correction. It renders a signal service to me! I should respond, “I was mistaken in this; I am glad that you straightened me out; thank you for your help.” People who are unwilling to acknowledge their mistakes, by contrast, may be called stubborn and lose their credibility.
2. What are the facts? There is the secondary danger of having incomplete knowledge of a subject. We may well be right as far as it goes but that an be the problem. Our knowledge of a subject over which we disagree may be limited. It is the godly thing to do to fully search out the nature of a matter before we speak on it. I fear for many of us, the ungodly way in which our culture parades its freedom of speech has meant that we treasure our right to talk, more than the responsibility to talk right. Part of speaking right is speaking with all the facts on the table, not just those that appeal to us or make our case. Truth is truth, even if it makes us uncomfortable.
Like I said in the first part, the Biblical ideal is “quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger” – and that idea is constant is unchanging, rather of our personal feeling.
There is still more to go through under this question of what we can learn from our brothers with whom we disagree. But that’ll be for after Christmas. Have a pleasant festive season!
Something of a theological seismic shift has been happening with me in the last few months. The epicenter of this theological earthquake has been related to the subject of Dispensationalism and Covenant Theology. Before I launch into the next book review I wish to embark on, I want to say something about the tenor of this discussion. For reasons I will never fully understand, in Reformed circles, being dispensational meets with the same level of disdain that is met with pop-Arminianism. I present a personal example.
I became Reformed in my late teens (though some of my Truly Reformed friends would quibble with that seeing as I was a Reformed Baptist, holding to the 1689 Baptist Confession). For a while, I simply co-opted the system I had heard growing up until I got round to studying it. As time went on and I did a little study, the flimsy quasi-dispensationalism I had grown up with pretty much came apart and I would become more or less covenantal and definitely amillennial. I eventually moved churches to a church plant pastored by two Master’s Seminary graduates (a more or less dispensational institution) and decided to revisit the issue. In the process of that, being the social media aficionado that I am, I mentioned it in passing on Facebook that I had come round to a more rounded dispensational perspective. That was another of my many life-regret type mistakes. I wasn’t attempting to start a riot or to get into exegetical gunslinging (and am not seeking to do so now or frankly ever again) – I was simply stating a change of views and I met with some of the following:
- Are you serious? (Well, yes, thank you for asking…)
- Have you read any of the critiques? (Again, yes…)
- Did you actually READ Hebrews and Galatians? (word-for-word quote – a little condescending…)
- It’ll be impossible to be both reformed and dispensational (OK…)
That’s the stuff that I got to see. Word reached me of being accused of having no backbone, being weak, etc. By the end of that experience, my general thought was, “Really? This is Christian love…”
Well that was last June, it’s now late December. In that time, I’ve resolved to say nothing about the subject except from with a select few who I trust not to throw “subliminals” or to take our conversations outside of the privacy of our discussion. But the whole experience had me thinking: How do we disagree like brothers and not like enemies?
The late Dr Roger Nicole, professor for many years at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, authored what I believe to be one of the most important essays ever penned in evangelical life. The title? Polemic Theology: How to Deal with Those Who Differ from Us.
In that essay, Dr Nicole asks three key questions:
- What Do I Owe to the Person Who Differs From Me?
- What Can I Learn from Those Who Differ From Me?
- How Can I Cope with Those Who Differ from Me?
Those three questions have become something of a personal canon in how I deal with those who disagree with me – be it on this issue and on any other theological issue:
1. What do I owe to the person who differs from me?
In a lot of pop-Reformed circles, that question simply doesn’t get asked. Of anyone. Nicole parses out two implications of that:
A. We have obligations to people who differ from us.Nicole writes: “This does not involve agreeing with them. We have an obligation to the truth, and that has priority over agreement with any particular person. If someone is not in the truth, we have no right to agree. We have no right even to minimize the importance of the difference. Consequently, we owe them neither consent nor indifference. But what we owe that person who differs from us, whoever that may be, is what we owe every human being–we owe them love. And we owe it to them to deal with them as we ourselves would like to be dealt with or treated. (Matthew 7:12)” That last sentence is earth-shattering in its implications – the first step in disagreeing like brothers is coming to the realization that you ought really to deal with the “other side” as you wish to be treated. Your primary obligation, without question, is to the truth – but that responsibility to tell the truth is mediated through the NT as “speaking the truth in love” (cf. Ephesians 4:15). It is not loving to put words in the mouths of others to suit the point you wish to make. It is not loving to demean others in the name of truth. It is not loving to not listen. Discussions are very much like bank withdrawals – you can’t expect to take out of the account what hasn’t been put in, dear friends.
B. We must attempt to understand what a person means. It is actually disheartening when Christians do not care enough to actually state an opposing view – get this – as the opponent would actually say it! That means, in a lot of cases, people (including myself at times) need to take their posterior, apply it to a chair, hit Amazon, get the best books the other side of a debate, wait for said books to arrive (side note: I hate e-books of any kind – so I’m assuming hardcopy here), read said books until they get what is actually being said and then say your piece. I fear too many of us cherish a right of reply without bearing the responsibility to study that comes (and I believe precedes) that right.
Check for Part 2 on Thursday!
We began our series on sanctification with a little personal testimony as to why I think this subject is important. In short, this is not your average theological discussion with ethereal, “pie-in-the-sky” approaches leading to issues of no real consequence. How we view the sanctifying work of God in us as believers is a subject of utmost importance to us for reasons which I trust to be apparent. It is with that in mind that of late, I have been (quite frankly) deeply concerned with a teaching that is flying around in the theological camp I would loosely consider myself a part of.
In Reformed circles, it has become ‘trendy’ (for lack of a better term) to fold our sanctification into our justification. The inadvertent result, dear friends, in that you end up with a lot of talk about justification and/or “the Gospel” and little to no talk of the work of the Gospel in and through us in sanctification. Camden Bucey, part of the team at Reformed Forum, nails it in a video he did a while back:
(As an aside, much of this confusion stems from a hermeneutical grid that I find more and more alien to the Scriptures the more I read them – that of “law and Gospel”. While I accept the idea of a distinction between law and Gospel, I think the definitions of law and gospel presented are enforced on the text, rather than gleaned from the text. I will discuss this in a future part of the series so I will hold back on that topic for now.)
At this point, I wish to put forward a definition for sanctification that encapsulates both the realities that sanctification is grounded in God’s grace and God’s grace actually is at work in transforming our corrupt nature. It comes to us from the Westminster Shorter Catechism (it is also produced in the Baptist Catechism) in question 35 in the section dealing with the benefits of salvation. The Catechism writes:
Sanctification is the work of God’s free grace by which we are renewed throughout in the image of God and are enabled more and more to die to sin and live to righteousness.
Now please note the following:
- Sanctification is the work of God’s free grace – this is not a moralistic exercise on our part that seeks to “improve ourselves” or “become a better us”
- It is a work in which we are renewed in the image of God (Ephesians 4:24, Colossians 3:10)
- It is a work in which we are being enabled more and more to do two distinct things:
- To die to sin – or to use the classic Puritan term, “mortification”. We’ll come to this in our series towards the end.
- Live to righteousness – we are actually being brought to the place daily where we are being brought to life in righteousness, not just statically but dynamically in our everyday lives.
I’ll lay my cards on the table at the start – in my opinion,that does far more justice to the Bible’s teaching on sanctification than a view which simply considers folds justification and sanctification into a vague indistinguishable mass where one supersedes another with ease.
At this point, I wish to put to death (no pun intended) some rather annoying generalizations through a number of “this does not mean” statements:
- This does not mean we get to a place where we need Jesus less and less. Some systems of sanctification might lead you there but I am convinced that the Reformed and (more importantly) Biblical understanding of sanctification doesn’t.
- This does not mean that justification is unimportant in the Christian life. The NT is very much filled with the idea that we work out what God has worked in. I am arguing that the working out is as important as what God has worked in.
- This does not mean a “treadmill” mentality of constantly working to get and/or keep God on-side in the drudgery of the Christian life.
What it does mean is this – holiness is actually possible for the child of God. Not angelic perfection but a real living out of the divine nature every believer became a partaker of in regeneration! (cf. 2 Peter 1:3-4). Before we get there, there are a number of key theological concepts we need to nail and we’ll start that process next time.
To be continued…
I’ve adopted a new practice of late. On the train to and from university, I’ll listen to some teaching, saving the music for the walk home from the train station.
This past week, I had the opportunity to listen to a fantastic teaching on the Godhead entitled “The Greatness of the Godhead” by Pastor Steve Cooley, one of the pastors at Bethlehem Bible Church in West Boylston, MA and “the Tuesday guy” from No Compromise Radio (a podcast that is the first thing I listen to when I get through the door every day).
In this teaching from their Sunday school class (or so I gather), Pastor Steve takes a look at some of the attributes of God and parses out the Biblical teaching behind them as well as showing the application. I really enjoyed this teaching, not only because it was Biblically grounded but also because Pastor Steve is quite the humorous guy. Listen out for his “dude over the cliff” story ;)
The teaching is in four parts – right-click the links to download them:
At the moment, if you were to ask me for a theological label, I would say “theological mutt”. By that I mean that at the present time, I am a weird mix of committed Calvinism with a twinge of dispensational thinking. As my friend The Squirrel so aptly notes, “When [I'm] with our dispensational brethren, [I'm] in the minority as a Calvinist and when [I'm] with our Reformed brethren, we’re in the minority as dispensationalists. “
One thing I love about the Reformed side of my faith is its robust, practical doctrine of sanctification. I came out of a traditional Pentecostal background with strong Word-Faith tendencies. The Pentecostal side of things especially came to the fore with a belief called entire sanctification. To quote the statement of faith of my old church growing up:
Entire Sanctification is a definite act of God’s grace, subsequent to the New Birth, by which the believer’s heart is purified and made holy. It cannot be attained progressively by works, struggle or suppression, but is obtained by faith in the sanctifying blood of Jesus Christ. Holiness of life and purity of heart are central to Christian living. Luke 1:74,75; John 17:15-17; 1 Thessalonians 4:3,7,8; 5:22-24; Ephesians 5:25-27; Hebrews 2:11; 10:10,14; 13:11,12; Titus 2:11-14; 1 John 1:7; Hebrews 12:14, 1 Peter 1:14-16.
In other words, sanctification is not a process but an event that happens post-conversion in which (to quote another phrase from my upbringing) “the root of the Adamic nature” is taken out, allowing the believer to walk in holiness of life. You can only imagine the complete nightmare it made the Christian life on the one hand for the one who didn’t have this experience and the smug self-satisfaction that it engendered on the other hand for the one who claimed to possess it.
Then, I came to embrace the doctrines of grace in my late teens. The doctrine of justification – that God has declared me righteous in Christ, not on the basis of my own righteousness but Christ’s – became an immense comfort. I can still remember reading with joy the Westminster Shorter Catechism’s classic definition of this glorious doctrine:
Justification is an act of God’s free grace, wherein he pardoneth all our sins, and accepteth us as righteous in His sight, only for the righteousness of Christ imputed to us, and received by faith alone.
Yet I still had some niggling questions. If this is true, what about sanctification? Is it an event like I heard and was encouraged to pursue as I grew up? Was it a process and if so, does it come to an end in this life or is it ongoing but never fully done? Where do my works factor into that grand equation?
Thankfully, in God’s providence, this zealous but incredibly ignorant teenager wasn’t alone. I had the privilege of being discipled by a retired Presbyterian minister who worked with me through the relevant Bible texts and pointed me to the vast riches of the Reformed tradition on this doctrine and so I came to embrace a view of sanctification that steered well clear of the “Let go and let God” theology I had heard growing up and the weird legalism I had also seen as folks tried hard to walk the straight and narrow in their own strength.
But alas, that was five years ago and since then, I’ve noticed a weird trend in evangelical, “gospel-centred” (read: reformed) circles. But I’ll save that for Part 2.
To be continued…
We live in an age where, in proportion to the amount of confusing and downright bad teaching, good Bible teachers are hard to come by. Bearing that in mind, any opportunity to see more sound teaching and preaching of the Word go out tends to excite me. So I was really excited to hear that my friend and brother Anthony Forsyth had the opportunity to go and study at The Master’s Seminary in California next year .
Anthony is a great Bible teacher who has helped me work through some theological issues over the last few months with an interesting mix of theological insight and pastoral concern. I’m excited to see my brother and his wonderful family head off to the US for the next chapter of what God has in store for them. However, they could do with your help.
In order to get a visa to head off to the United States, they need somewhere in the region of £25,000 – no small amount to be sure and so as the Lord gives opportunity, they are raising funds to make it happen and so I have three requests. Firstly, click the link to head over to Anthony’s ministry website and have a listen to some of his teaching. You’ll be glad you did. Secondly, if you are indeed blessed by the ministry you hear, I would encourage you to prayerfully support the Forsyth family’s move to the US as you are able. Thirdly, if you aren’t able to financially support, please keep them in prayer.
In whatever way you are able to support – thank you. Every little bit helps (sorry, Tesco…)
This piece, in a lot of ways, will be a rant. A good, old-fashioned, “do you know what gets on my nerves?” rant. I have put some thought into this piece – especially when arguably the most publicized election in the free world is around the corner – but for the most part, this will be very much on the fiery side of the Fiery Logic spectrum.
As I’m sure some of you know, I’m privileged to be a part of the fellowship at GraceLife London, a church plant based in the Clerkenwell area here in London. Each Sunday after service, we have a class called Foundations of Faith, working through the major tenets of the Bible’s teaching. Last Sunday, I had the privilege of teaching the class, dealing with the order of salvation and conversion.
If you’re in the London area, we’d love to have you at church with us sometime. Our service is at 4pm every Sunday and all the information you need can be found at your website.