Thursday, January 17, 2008

Learning From History

The winter academic semester begins next week at TBS and I am looking forward to teaching Systematic Theology II which looks at the person and work of Christ and the application of salvation to human beings. In preparation for the course I have been going over a number of books including For Us And Our Salvation by Stephen J. Nichols. It is an excellent, very readable book that surveys the doctrine of Christ in the early church. I have been reading it as I make my way into Toronto on the GO Train (which gives me lots of time because this government train service has been arriving late more often than not) and I have been reminded that the church has always had to defend this vital doctrine from heretics and innovators.

Writing about Valentinus and the Valentinians, docetists, who were more influenced by Platonism than by the Bible, Nichols draws out some lessons regarding heresy. He writes: "First, we see how heresy retools biblical teaching, conforming it to other ways of thinking rather than vice versa. In this case Plato's doctrines of matter and idea, as well as his cosmology, form the starting point for understanding what, if any, contributions biblical teaches makes to an understanding of the world. Second, we see how once a system has a faulty starting point, it sets off a chain reaction of false teachings. Heresy on one point, in other words, tends to beget heresy on others, which beget heresy on others still. Thirdly, we see how heresies set up sects or groups of people who have a privileged status, having been enlightened, and are above others. This overinflated sense of their own selves is what tended to make heretics so divisive in the early church" (27-28).

His analysis not only sums up early docetic heresies but speaks to the theological confusion in our day. Professing themselves wise too many professors of theology are in danger of making the same errors that were rejected by earlier generations of Christian teachers and scholars. Carried away by their contemporary surroundings they are attempting to re-interpret the Bible in light of current theological and philosophical fads that only distort the faith that has been definitively revealed to God's people. Most so called advances in our understanding of the person and work of Christ are just old heresies dressed up in new clothes which deceive the unwary and historically ignorant. Even if these errors are presented with superior stagecraft that receives enthusiastic applause, that does not change their insidious and sometimes damnable nature.

While I believe we must be constantly examining the Scriptures to make sure our doctrine is consistent with its teaching, and while I believe that we need to apply the word of God in fresh ways to our generation, we are not free to alter the heart of the message. It is presumptuous in the extreme to proceed as though God has mislead his people, or allowed them to be misled, all these years with regard to the person and work of Christ, and now, thanks to our brilliance, we are finally getting it straight. Any proposal that begins with this premise is deeply flawed. In our study of theology we must remember that our task is not be innovative but to accurately reflect what God has made known. Innovators will always attract a crowd initially but time and analysis will reveal the bankruptcy of their ideas when it comes to addressing the real needs of fallen sinners.


Anonymous said...

The ghost of Plato lurks in evangelicalism today and I also see it in the misundestanding about the immortality of the soul.

Allen R. Mickle, Jr. said...


Great overview. The failure to have a historical mindset today is killing the church. I hope Nichols writes other books like this. Faithful historical theology is absolutely necessary in the church today!

Kirk M. Wellum said...

Thanks Allen. I trust you are doing well. We miss you at TBS. Thanks for all that you did when you were with us and may you know God's blessing in the future.