It seems that the “church is for the unchurched” crowd in evangelicalism gets things exactly backwards. The priority seems to be to design church/worship around what is pleasing to the unchurched, then the churched, then God, sadly in that order. Shouldn’t it be exactly the reverse? Shouldn’t church be designed FOR God (what pleases Him) and BY God (according to His biblical methodology)? What does the bible say? What are the dangers of doing church according to our own designs?
Calvin: First, it tends greatly to establish God’s authority that we do not follow our own pleasure, but depend entirely on his sovereignty; and secondly, such is our folly, that when we are left at liberty, all we are able to do is to go astray. And then when once we have turned aside from the right path, there is no end to our wanderings, until we get buried under a multitude of superstitions.”
Robert Godfrey has a helpful, fair, and accurate description of what separates Reformed worship from mainstream evangelical worship in this short essay (excerpt below).
One of the challenges of being Reformed in America is to figure out the relationship between what is evangelical and what is Reformed. Protestantism in America is dominated by the mainline Protestants, the evangelicals, and the charismatics. After these dominant groups, other major players would include the confessional Lutherans. But where do the Reformed fit in, particularly in relation to the evangelicals, with whom historically we have been most closely linked?
Some observers argue that the confessional Reformed are a subgroup in the broader evangelical movement. Certainly over the centuries in America, the Reformed have often allied themselves with the evangelicals, have shared much in common with the evangelicals, and have often tried to refrain from criticizing the evangelical movement. But are we Reformed really evangelical?
One area in which the differences between evangelical and Reformed can be examined is the matter of worship. At first glance, we may see more similarities than differences. The orders of worship in Reformed and evangelical churches can be almost identical. Certainly, both kinds of churches sing songs, read Scripture, pray, preach, and administer baptism and the Lord’s Supper. But do these similarities reflect only formal agreement, or do they represent a common understanding of the meaning and function of these liturgical acts in worship?
If we look closely, I believe that we will see the substantive differences between evangelicals and Reformed on worship. That difference is clear on two central issues: first, the understanding of the presence of God in the service; and second, the understanding of the ministerial office in worship.
If you’re a parent trying to give your child the best education possible, I would worry about teacher quality and your own involvement in your little one’s intellectual development before I’d worry about class size. I’m not saying that having 19 children per room isn’t preferable to 23. I’m just saying that the student-to-teacher ratio won’t matter a tremendous amount if your son’s teacher thinks four plus twelve equals purple or you want your kid to memorize the chronology of WWE champions instead of U.S. presidents.
So if little Bryden (because that’s what boys are named these days, in case you hadn’t already given up on humanity) has a bit of an overcrowded class, but a solid teacher and great support from you, don’t let anybody convince you that you’re selfishly endangering his education if you don’t turn your life upside down by moving to a slightly less-congested school district.
Likewise, if you’re a Christian parent trying to give your child the best spiritual formation possible, don’t let anyone convince you that you’re selfish for not making the size of a congregation your number one priority. In particular, don’t let megachurch pastor Andy Stanley convince you that you’re endangering your child’s soul if you don’t attend a large congregation.
If you’re a bit confused by Stanley’s accusation (one that, to his credit, he quickly recanted), here’s what he meant: Making friends at church is what keeps people in the faith, and the more kids your church has, the more opportunities your children will have to make friends. Therefore, if you attend a congregation that only has enough kids for a joint middle school/high school youth group, you’re reducing your kids’ friend-making potential and thus putting them at risk.
It doesn’t matter if the local megachurch’s Christology is wonky enough to keep you at a smaller parish or if the mid-sized flock you belong to is where you and your kids were both baptized and confirmed, apparently. To Stanley, it would be better for you to have a millstone hung around your neck and be thrown into the sea than that you should cause your freshman to share a bag of Doritos and a TeenzAlive! Study Bible with a seventh grader.
Ever wondered why Moses and Elijah were chosen to be with Jesus when he was gloriously transfigured high on the mountain? (Matt. 17) The typical explanation given, according Dr. James White, is that Moses represents the Law and Elijah represents the Prophets. Perhaps that is it or part of it. But Dr. White came across an explanation, from a liberal theologian apparently, that is intriguing if nothing else. It goes like this: Moses and Elijah came close to seeing God’s face in their own day (close encounters with the divine Holiness), but could not behold His glory so the Lord passed by them as they shielded their eyes. The appearance of Yahweh before them was accompanied by bright lights, earthquakes, fire, wind, and they had to look away from the face of God, cover their eyes with a cleft in the rock or with their hands. But now, Messiah has come, and “in Him the fullness of deity dwells.” The appearance of God, Yahweh Himself, passes before them and the appearance of God is translucently bright once again. Only this time, they safely beheld the very face of God in Jesus Christ without fear. That is, the very shield from the glory of God that they needed, the cleft in the rock, in order to see the face of God safely was now provided for them in Jesus Christ, our Rock of Ages ,Cleft for Me, as they looked upon the very face of the eternal and living God. And though Jesus said, “When you see me you have seen the Father,” for “I and the Father are one,” now he commands us to “have no fear” for Christ Himself is our hiding place, so that we may boldly “behold his glory.”
Consider this explanation for yourself as you read the close encounter accounts:
And after six days Jesus took with him Peter and James, and John his brother, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. 2 And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became white as light. 3 And behold, there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. 4 And Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good that we are here. If you wish, I will make three tents here, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah.” 5 He was still speaking when, behold, a bright cloud overshadowed them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my beloved Son,[a] with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.” 6 When the disciples heard this, they fell on their faces and were terrified. 7 But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Rise, and have no fear.”8 And when they lifted up their eyes, they saw no one but Jesus only.
Moses said, “Please show me your glory.” And he said, “I will make all my goodness pass before you and will proclaim before you my name ‘The LORD.’ And I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy. But,” he said, “you cannot see my face, for man shall not see me and live.” And the LORD said, “Behold, there is a place by me where you shall stand on the rock, and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by. Then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back, but my face shall not be seen.”
1 Kings 19
And behold, the LORD passed by [Elijah], and a great and strong wind tore the mountains and broke in pieces the rocks before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind. And after the wind an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake. And after the earthquake a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire. And after the fire the sound of a low whisper. And when Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his cloak and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave.
In one sentence, how would you define “inerrancy”?
The word “inerrancy” simply means without error; the doctrine of inerrancy is nothing more than the affirmation that the Bible always tells the truth.
If the word “inerrancy” requires so much careful definition and discussion, is it still the best word to use today?
Certainly inerrancy requires careful definition and discussion. For example:
(a) Inerrancy is not to be confused with precisionism. We expect more precise statements only where the context demands them. “It took him three hours to walk home” may be a true statement, even if it took him two and three-quarters hours, provided the context leads the reader to expect rounded-off figures.
(b) Inerrancy does not refer to grammatical irregularities. To think otherwise is to misunderstand how language works: usage drives change, and in every culture the degree of conformity between usage and a somewhat artificial grammar-book ideal varies with different strata.
(c) The Bible includes countless passages where its “truthfulness” is not the controlling issue. Consider, for example, the anguished laments of Scripture—for example, Jesus’s anguished lament “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” It is true, of course, that Jesus said this, but as for the words themselves, the focus of interest is less on their truthfulness than on their meaning. By contrast, the assertion that Ehud was left-handed (Judges 3:15) makes a factual claim that is either true or untrue. This is one of the reasons why inerrancy is a useful expression. It is potentially misleading to say “all Scripture tells the truth” if we thereby convey the impression that “Scripture is nothing more than factual expressions.” But to say “all Scripture is inerrant” is to affirm that it is without error, and this negation of untruthfulness covers all of the Bible indiscriminately.
These and similar discussions of inerrancy may seem like nitpicking to some conservatives, while many liberals infer from such discussions that the term itself is useless if it requires so much “careful definition and discussion,” as your question puts it. But the obvious riposte is that once a word or concept is challenged, there is no important term that does not require “careful definition and discussion.” God? Love? Justification? Truth? Spiritual? Trinity? Messiah? Inerrancy is no different. Like the other words, and countless more like them, it can serve as a useful one-word summary, even while it needs unpacking with care and with great attention to what Scripture says.
The Chicago Statement remains a useful and helpful guide. Nevertheless, some new questions have arisen, and some old ones have surfaced in new contexts. Moreover, a formal statement, despite its lengthy affirmations and denials, doesn’t engage all the questions swirling around it, but rather stakes out a position. The position itself may still be defensible, but the discussion is ongoing. Our book addresses questions both old and new.
How can the average Christian have confidence in the meaning of God’s Word when two godly New Testament scholars hold to inerrancy, study the text their entire lives with the best tools available, and still disagree on the meaning of a passage?
At least two issues stand behind this question: (a) Isn’t the truthfulness of Scripture jeopardized if two equally devout and learned Christians cannot agree on the truth Scripture is articulating? (b) More broadly, how is this problem related to the old doctrine of claritas Scripturae, the clarity of Scripture?
On the first point, the only way to imagine how God might have arranged things so all interpretations agreed with one another is by hypothesizing that he might have performed an endless sequence of revelatory miracles in the minds of every interpreter, so that they could not get things wrong. Transparently, God has not done this, nor has he promised to do so. What he has done is given us a truthful and reliable revelation and made us responsible for trying to understand it aright, even as we feel our limitations and need for grace. Ideally, differences of opinion shouldn’t drive us to the conclusion that the revelation isn’t true, but rather to a profound recognition of our limitations, of our need for grace and for the Spirit’s help, of a form of theological argumentation that’s strong but also respectful—one that recognizes the truth matters but tries to keep the interpreter’s ego out of the matter.
As for the second point—the clarity of Scripture—perhaps I could refer to the excellent essay by Mark Thompson in the book (ch. 20, “The Generous Gift of a Gracious Father: Toward a Theological Account of the Clarity of Scripture”).
While you underscore the importance of considering inerrancy, you admit the exercise is in “at least some danger of serving as a distraction.” How so?
Just as it’s possible to ignore what Scripture says about its own truthfulness, it’s possible to so focus on internecine debates about inerrancy that one forgets to promulgate the gospel, forgets to walk in humility before God in his holiness, forgets to love brothers and sisters in Christ as Christ has loved us. God still says he favors, not those who defend inerrancy, but those who are humble and contrite in spirit and who tremble at his word (Isa. 66:2)—though we must immediately add that if one approaches God with such contrition, humility, and reverent fear before his word, he or she is far more likely to think of the doctrine of inerrancy as something easy to believe.
You argue inerrancy must be “a place to live,” not just a position to hold. What do you mean?
John Frame’s lovely expression is wonderfully articulated in his Evangelical Theological Society plenary address a couple of years ago. Inerrancy is not an isolated belief that one can carve off or tack on to an otherwise robust Christian faith. Rightly articulated and worked out in our lives, it shapes how we think about God, it forms a huge part of our epistemological structures, it determines where we go to hear the voice of God, it calls us back to the gospel and its promises both for this life and for the life to come, it establishes common ground with believers in other cultures and other centuries, it impels us to worship—in short, it is “a place to live.”
Stephen Nichols: We are visiting again with our good friend Dr. Guy Waters. Dr. Waters, welcome back.
Guy Waters: Thank you, Dr. Nichols.
SN: Most of the time we look to the past in the church but church history is being written. But it’s being written today. And I suspect if the Lord were to tarry, that as the church history books are written, one of the things they will talk about of the early twenty-first century is the New Perspective on Paul. You’ve written a number of books on the New Perspective. Would you tell us, what is the New Perspective on Paul?
GW: The New Perspective on Paul is not as new as it used to be. It’s been around forty years or so, but it is an epochal movement in the study of Paul. It begins with the reevaluation of the Judaism contemporary to the New Testament writers. It argues that we need to understand that Judaism was a religion of grace. If we think of it as a religion of works we have misunderstood what it was about. Now that raises a question, of course, because if Judaism is a religion of grace, then why does the New Testament take issue with Judaism? If Judaism was a religion of merit or of works, and the gospel is a gospel of grace, then we understand the difference. But if they’re both promoting grace, then where’s the difference?
The New Perspective argues that the real difference between Judaism and first-century Christianity lay in a couple of areas. One, of course, was Christianity’s conviction that Jesus is the Messiah. But beyond that, the New Perspective argues that Christianity was advancing inclusivism, that is to say, that the people of God included not only Jews but also Gentiles. That becomes significant in the way in which the Apostle Paul’s teaching on justification comes to be reenvisioned. Justification is no longer understood to be the way in which a sinner is declared righteous on the basis of the imputed righteousness of Jesus Christ and received through faith alone. Justification is said to speak of God’s declaring a person, Jew or Gentile, to be a member of His covenant people, His church, because of that person’s faith. Faith is that person’s badge, his identifier, his identify marker, not works of the law, not Sabbath or circumcision or other distinctively Jewish ordinances. So justification has historically been understood in the church to answer the question of the Philippian jailer—”What must I do to be saved?” And the New Perspective says, “That’s the wrong question. Justification as Paul advances it is not really concerned to answer that question.”
SN: It seems like if you want to have the gospel you need to have the doctrine of justification, and behind that you need to have the doctrine of imputation. Is that what’s at stake here?
GW: The problem is that when they do begin to talk about the salvation of the sinner, it’s done in such a way that there’s no place for imputed righteousness and it becomes Christ’s work on the cross plus the work of the Spirit in me, my good works as a Christian. These combine so that I can be just or accepted on the day of judgment. And there’s nothing new about that. That’s precisely the position that the Protestant Reformers were protesting against at the time of the Reformation.
SN: Dr. Waters, thank you for helping us understand this crucial departure from the orthodox understanding of the gospel.
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