­
EFAC Australia

Theology

In our previous issue Mark Thompson took four examples of making a stand, three from the history of the churches over the past two thousand years and one from the New Testament itself, to make the point that taking a stand is an entirely appropriate thing to do.

Mark Thompson is the Principal of Moore College, Newtown NSW.

So if making a stand against prevailing and powerful opinion is legitimate and important, when do we make a stand? Of course, just as important, perhaps more important really, is how we make a stand. How do we treat those with whom we disagree and those whom we think are compromising God’s revealed truth and spiritually endangering God’s people? Whatever our answer to that question, it must not disqualify the approach of the apostle Paul given to us in Scripture. We are not in a position to look down on him or dismiss his stand as a product of his own psychological make-up. The how question is a very important question and one we need to face in the FCA movement because there are differences even among us which sooner or later will need to be addressed.

In this Part II, I want to set out a brief list of theological principles to consider as we approach the other question ‘when do we make a stand?’

3. Theological principles for making a stand
There are undoubtedly more principles than these that we could profitably consider but at least these five can give us a start.

Firstly, the good God has given us a good word which is for the benefit of his people. The benevolence of God is hardly controversial among us. God has demonstrated his love toward us in this, that while we were still sinners Christ died for us (Rom. 5.8). He gives good gifts to his children. His truth is life-giving. Paul could tell Timothy that the sacred writings  ‘are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus’ (2 Tim. 3.15). This means, conversely, that God’s people are harmed when God’s good word is obscured or denied. Error is dangerous and theological error is exceedingly dangerous. It also means that far from trying to minimise the application of this good word God has given us we should be seeking to understand just how much of a difference it makes for our good. God’s benevolence and the goodness of his word are foundational principles when considering when to make a stand. I want to ask, ‘Is this teaching, is this behaviour, drawing people away from the good God’s good word which nourishes and builds his people?’ ‘Does it build confidence in God’s good word as an instrument for good or does it undermine that confidence?’ ‘Does it suggest that the truth expressed in God’s word is incomplete, or out-dated, or ill-informed?’

Secondly, God’s word is the only authoritative basis on which to make a stand. Our consciences may not be bound any further than the word of God binds them. That was Luther’s point. We can only confidently make a stand when God has spoken and his word must not be silenced by institutional pronouncements or regulation, personal preferences or reasoning, cultural pressure, or any such thing. Here the theology of the written word of God is critically important. Because these words, though they bear the genuine conscious imprint of their human authors, are ultimately God’s word to us, they bear his authority. We can insist that there is no other name under heaven given to us by which we must be saved precisely because God himself has made that known to us in his word (Acts 4.12). So when contemplating making a stand I want to ask ‘Has God spoken on this issue?’ ‘Does his word make clear God’s perspective on this truth or this behaviour?’ Jesus himself, as well as his apostles, often clinched an argument with the words ‘It is written’. That is because they were convinced that where the written word of God addressed an issue, that settled the matter. On that ground a confident stand can be made. ‘Holy Scripture has spoken; the matter is decided’ (scriptura sacra locuta, res decisa est).

Thirdly, matters of indifference (adiaphora) only exist where either Scripture is silent or it gives freedom for diversity. The concept of adiaphora has a clear biblical warrant in Paul’s writing about circumcision. Three times he says to the Corinthians or to the Galatians the same thing: ‘For neither circumcision counts for anything nor uncircumcision, but keeping the commandments of God’ (1 Cor 7:19); ‘For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love (Gal 5:6); ‘For neither circumcision counts for anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation’ (Gal 6:15). When it didn’t matter and no one was making an issue of it, Paul could freely avoid all controversy by having Timothy circumcised (Acts 16:3). However, when it was an issue, when people were making something of it, Paul could resolutely refuse to endorse circumcision: when in Jerusalem with Barnabas and Titus ‘even Titus, who was with me, was not forced to be circumcised, though he was a Greek’ (Gal 2:3). Similar things could be said about the practice of eating food which had previously been offered to idols. It is not an issue when no one is making an issue out of it (1 Cor 8:8) but once it is made an issue, and there is the danger of harming a brother for whom Christ died, it is no longer a matter of indifference (1 Cor 8:9–11). There are circumstances in which something which might generally be thought to be a matter of indifference becomes a matter of principle.

Historically the term adiaphora applied to the continuation of practices that existed in the Roman churches prior to the Reformation, such as the wearing of distinctive clerical dress and, as the Book of Concord (1580) put it, ‘ceremonies and church rites which are neither commanded nor forbidden in God’s Word’. It was never applied to matters of doctrine. It was never applied to matters directly addressed in the Scriptures. There is undoubtedly disagreement in the churches and perhaps even among us here on some matters of doctrine and some matters directly addressed in the Scriptures. But these would never classically be considered adiaphora. They are instead a reason to keep talking as we seek to come to a common mind, not a reason to stop talking and retreat to our own view. The simple fact of disagreement on an issue between godly men and women who are all seeking to be faithful to Christ and the Scriptures is not in itself sufficient to render an issue adiaphora. Too many other things can be going on in those cases, some of them acknowledged, some of them hidden, even from ourselves. We must not allow too quick an appeal to adiaphora to close down the conversation.
There is ample ground for generosity towards people in Scripture — believers and unbelievers, those we agree with and those we don’t — and ample precedent in church history for such generosity. We are called upon as disciples of Christ to love one another and not to be divisive (Jn 13.34; Rom. 16.7; Titus 3.10–11). But there is little ground for what some oddly call ‘a generous orthodoxy’. Generosity towards people — most definitely; but tenacious faithfulness when it comes to biblical doctrine. So our decisions about when to make a stand need to take account of matters of indifference, which exist where either Scripture is silent or where it gives freedom for diversity.  

Fourth, Christian ministry must have the courage to say ‘no’ as well as ‘yes’. Nobody likes negativity. It is much easier and much more acceptable to say ‘yes’ all the time. And yet you don’t have to read far into the Pastoral Epistles or any of the New Testament letters actually, before you realise that teaching and correction, encouragement and rebuke, go hand in hand in Christian ministry. Of course there is the question of how you say ‘no’, how you correct and warn and administer a rebuke when that is necessary. There is no license for harshness, or censoriousness, or condemnation in the New Testament. The goal is always repentance and restoration and a life realigned to the word of God and the mission of the gospel. But God’s people need to know not only what is true and right and appropriate but also what is false and wrong and improper. The ancient creeds spoke not only of what the truth was but also about what was not true. ‘Begotten not made’, according to the Nicene Creed. ‘Two natures without confusion, without change, without division, without separation’, according to Chalcedon. Very often the leaders of the church, following the example of the apostles, found that saying what was true was not enough. They also needed to be clear about what was not true. For the sake of the precious people for whom Christ died, we must be prepared to say ‘No’ as well as ‘Yes’.

Fifthly, the goal of making any stand is not a ‘party win’ but confessing Christ and caring for his people. We far too easily dissolve into factions and tribes and parties. It is a very human trait. And it happens amongst Christians as well. At one level it is entirely normal and good that we should gather with others with whom we have a common mind and a common mission. But if it becomes an exclusive grouping, if it refuses to learn from others and to go with them back to the Scriptures to hear God’s truth together, if it is an instrument of division and not one of mission at all in reality, then the group or party or collaboration is actually an opportunity for great harm rather than great good. Our concern in speaking the truth, and confuting error, and seeking to live out what we have been told and believe, is in order to confess fully, genuinely and without hesitation that Christ is Lord. It is in order that Christ might be known in all the world and Christ’s people might be built up within the churches. So we need to ask ourselves what is the real goal for which we are making this stand: to draw attention to ourselves or to draw attention to Christ? To put down those who oppose us, or to guard and protect and build up those who belong to Christ?

You know, even refusing to make a stand amounts to making a stand in the end. It is a statement about what matters most to you and for what you would be willing to risk misunderstanding, rejection, persecution and worse. It is always possible to do it all wrong. But not being willing to do it at all just doesn’t fit with the God who has spoken to us, the priority of Christ and his gospel, and the preciousness of his people.

Mark Thompson argues for the propriety of taking a stand in theological controversy. Indeed he argues that it is not merely permitted to Christians, but that in times of sore need it is a mark of great Christian leadership.

Dr Mark Thompson is the Principal of Moore College, Newtown NSW.

1. Three great stands

In the mid-fourth century the bishop of Alexandria looked increasingly isolated as a supporter of the decisions of the Council of Nicaea in 325.

As a young man, Athanasius had been present at the Council and he was committed to its view that Scripture teaches the Son is as much God as the Father is. One little word captured the sentiment, though for twenty-five years or so Athanasius avoided debating that word. It was the word homoousion, ‘of the same substance’. The Son is of the same substance as the Father — not another substance, not a derived substance, not a created substance — and because he is of the same substance, he is worthy of the same honour and obedience and worship as the Father. Because he is of the same substance, he is able to save us. That was the confession of the 318 bishops who gathered at Nicaea. It was Athanasius’ confession (he only became a bishop three years later). But following the council, one by one the bishops of the ancient church were persuaded to abandon the term and the Emperor himself spoke against it. In what is most probably an apocryphal tale, Athanasius’ servant is supposed to have come into his room one morning agitated and exclaiming ‘Athansius, do you not know the whole world is against you?’ And Athanasius is reported to have said ‘Well then, is Athanasius against the world’. Athanasius contra mundum — it is a Latin slogan that has become synonymous with integrity, with a willingness to stand up and confess the truth no matter what the odds. It meant having the courage to stand alone. It is one of the stirring stories of church history. It energises people even today. And one of the reasons for that is that in the end, at the Council of Constantinople in 381 (eight years after Athanasius’ death), he was vindicated.

Sally Shaw urges evangelicals to recognise the importance of creation care, pointing out some of the ways that some evangelicals are becoming more involved.

Sally Shaw is studying post-grad theology and is involved with A Rocha Australia

Now is the time for Evangelical Christians to get more involved in creation care. Now is the time to reflect on the implications of our theological interpretations when it comes to caring for God’s creation. The Paris Climate Change Agreement in December 2015 has shown us that significant action to curb climate change needs to happen not just with Governments but with each of us.  Evangelical Christians in Australia are starting to recognise the importance of creation care, but there is still much to be done. In July 2015 Gospel, Society and Culture: Creation Care was published by the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church of Australia in NSW.  It is an important report that leaves no room for complacency. It quotes Beisner et al who argue “To reject environmental stewardship is to embrace, by default, no stewardship. The only proper alternative to selfish anthropocentrism is not biocentrism but theocentrism: a vision of earth care with God and his perfect moral law at the centre and human beings acting as his accountable stewards.”   This paper complements the 2012 Lausanne Global Consultation on Creation Care and the Gospel, which built on the 2010 Lausanne Cape Town commitment, and is a significant voice from which we can learn.  

I had the privilege of being invited to join this Consultation. It was a gathering of theologians, church leaders, scientists, and creation care practitioners from 26 countries, who met to develop a more deeply biblical understanding of creation care.  Our aim was to create a document, ‘a call’, that the evangelical church around the world would be able to hear and respond urgently at the personal, community, national and international levels.

The final Statement made a number of specific calls for action, including the need for:

  • an integrated theology of creation care that can engage seminaries, Bible colleges and others to equip pastors to disciple their congregations
  • a theology that examines humanity’s identity as both embedded in creation and yet possessing a special role towards creation
  • a theology that challenges current prevailing economic ideologies in relation to our biblical stewardship of creation and
  • a theology of hope in Christ and his Second Coming that properly informs and inspires creation care.

Hearing these calls requires us to put aside our presuppositions and re-read God’s word through a new lens, recognising that it is the Christian worldview that gives the only viable basis for care of the natural environment. On this basis we should not withdraw from environmental concerns simply because we feel that other approaches to environmental care are flawed. Rather, we should be all the more concerned about the issue, just as other world-views give people reasons to be concerned about the environment. Like all genuine moral responses, these are signs of God’s common grace.  We, as Beisner et al say “should be ready to enter the debate, to present and to act on the clear Christian reasons for creation care, since they can provide the metaphysical basis that ecologists are yearning for.”   

Organisations such as A Rocha Australia  and Hope for Creation   are examples of evangelical Christians taking wholistic action to help curb the environmental injustices of this earth. In addition, the Seminary-Stewardship-Alliance, a consortium of evangelical seminaries and theological colleges in the USA and Australia, is seeking to take on this challenge, both in the curriculum, on campus and in other ways.

These calls and examples should compel us in our passion for justice and our love for God, our neighbours and the wider creation to urgent and prophetic ecological responsibility, seeing the biblical doctrine of creation as an essential part of the gospel story.    

Sally Shaw

Rhys Bezzant reports on the recent international congress on Jonathan Edwards at Ridley College, Melbourne.

In our quest for relevance, we easily neglect our roots, but it doesn’t take an arborist to tell us that neglect of roots jeopardises health and vitality, or that a tree without roots is dead. Evangelical Christians need to study history, and to understand our story, otherwise our fruit will wither on the vine. It is that important, though honoured chiefly in the breach. Not all evangelical colleges teach church history after first year, and few teach the history of modern evangelicalism at all.

Perhaps, in a small way, the Jonathan Edwards Congress, hosted recently at Ridley, can help to set an agenda.

There are about eight Jonathan Edwards Centers around the world, and Ridley is privileged to host one. These centres are satellites of the JEC at Yale University, which is charged with cultivating the study of the texts and teachings of Edwards. And every four years one of those centres convenes a conference. This year was our turn. After four years of planning, I was pleased to welcome to Melbourne delegates from every continent (except Antarctica!), and from every state in Australia. Eight of the world’s leading Edwards scholars presented keynote addresses, and pastors and academics led parallel sessions. I attend history conferences overseas, and few of them are overtly Christian, but at Ridley we began the day with the morning office, and affirmed the contribution of pastors and junior academics in the programme. There was a clear sense of the importance of fellowship amongst the participants – after all, we were talking about revivals, preaching, missions, doctrine and piety, so encouraging a Christian mood ought not to have been out of place. We ran an MA unit as part of the conference, in which seven pastors took part. This was a global conference.

And it is indeed quite extraordinary how scholarship on Edwards is booming in every corner of the globe. South Africans are looking for a way to be Reformed after the compromises of apartheid, Poles are investigating the way the revivalists used rhetoric to communicate their message, Brazilians want depth after the expansive but shallow growth of Pentecostalism in South America, and Australians are discovering how Reformed faith provides a sense of beauty and cohesion, which together provide deep satisfaction in a fragmented post-modern world. Of particular note amongst the keynotes was Stuart Piggin’s presentation of the role of Edwards in praying for Terra Australis long before it was settled by Europeans, and in motivating world missions through his writings, which encouraged and equipped our earliest chaplains and later pastors.

As part of my own long-term project in writing about the ministry of mentoring, I was able to present a paper on David Brainerd, the sometime mentee of Edwards, who ministered amongst the Indians on the frontier and provided a model for future cross-cultural workers. Though often heroically portrayed as an individual fighting the elements and facing the howling wilderness at great personal cost, demonstrated in his untimely death, it was time to argue instead for the importance of the church in his ministry, his reliance on the means of grace, and his desire to place the weakness of his ministry in the context of God’s eschatological power, which was making significant advances despite Brainerd’s sin and fragility. His own agency was a function of the church’s authority – a great reminder of the high place God has for the church in his own gospel purposes.

We need more reflection on the roots of our tradition, not less. We need to give more attention to the global dimensions of the evangelical movement, not less.

We need more appreciation of the church not merely as a means of outreach, but as an exalted and permanent gift of the Father to the Son. We are the bride of Christ. And how wonderful that Edwards can still serve as a midwife, delivering to us such wonderful riches.
Rhys Bezzant, Ridley, Vic.

Tolerance or a Contest of Power?

How todays ‘tolerance’ has become repressive.      

By Peter Corney

The Catholic Archbishop of Hobart has recently been taken to Tasmania’s anti-discrimination commission for distributing a pastoral letter on the doctrine of marriage to the church's members! The complainant also seeks to have all church schools forced to promote LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex) awareness, tolerance and behaviour. This is a misguided, repressive use of the law and a suppression of free speech and freedom of religion.  

As well as the many serious concerns this raises about our democratic values, it also highlights the unsatisfactory drafting of our anti-discrimination laws that generally are far too broad and do not have sufficient protection of freedom of speech.
It is becoming increasingly difficult to conduct an intelligent, reasoned, respectful and open public debate on issues of values, morality, ethics and religion without fear of legal action and the resulting suppression of free speech.
Behind this repressive and dangerous atmosphere lies a radical change in the way we understand tolerance and intolerance.

The traditional or liberal view of tolerance is based on the following two key ideas which can be expressed in the following way: (1) it has an egalitarian view of people. Every person is equal and has an equal right to their views and beliefs and a right to express them respectfully. (2) It has an elitist view of ideas. Not all ideas, views and beliefs are equally valid or sensible, some are true, some are false, some are just, some are unjust, some are dangerous and some are just plain silly. So while everyone has a right to speak not all views and beliefs are right. This is what we might call ‘principled tolerance.’
The current view of tolerance and intolerance turns this on its head. (1) It has an egalitarian view of ideas and beliefs. All ideas, views and beliefs are equally valid (a relativist view) and therefore should not be critiqued. (2) It has an elitist view of persons. Only persons with this relativist view about ideas have a right to speak in the public forum. All others with a different understanding about ideas and truth and who wish to contest people’s views and critique them, no matter how respectfully, may not speak! If they do they will be branded intolerant and discriminatory.

There is also another more sinister force at work here. Some lobby groups have worked out this change that has taken place in people’s view of tolerance and intolerance and exploit it very skilfully in the media and public forums to suppress criticism and reasoned argument about the particular ideas they are promoting. Many in the media are easily drawn into this strategy.  For a diverse society sensitive to any ethnic, religious or cultural divisions that might create disharmony or public disorder this sensitivity is a very easy but cynical button to press for strategic campaign reasons.

The new view of tolerance and intolerance owes a great deal to Post Modern thinking and its anti- foundationalism and rejection of objective truth which has reinforced the relativist position. The English philosopher Roger Scruton has a very apt and ironic comment on this trend in contemporary thought; the very reasoning that sets out to destroy ideas of objective truth and absolute value imposes a political correctness as absolutely binding and a cultural relativism as ‘objectively true’

In the end all this leads to the death of the contest of ideas and the emergence of our very destructive default position, the contest of power. In the battle of “the will to power” eventually one side imposes by force their will on the other by unethically suppressing their right to dissent by either ridicule and closing down discussion or by the force of laws like our current anti vilification legislation that while well intended were poorly drafted and while never intended to restrict the right of free speech can be used to do just that. This ‘violence’ to the other is the beginning of the destruction of our liberal society.

 

In August David Peterson gave the Mathew Hale Public Lecture for 2015 entitled “Holy Book and Holy Living” at the Mathew Hale Library in Brisbane. This is his abridgement of his lecture.  Copies of the full text of the lecture may be purchased from the Library.

Rev Dr David Peterson is a New Testament scholar, formerly Principal of Oak Hill Theological College in the U.K., now back at Moore College in Sydney.

In the debates that have taken place about homosexuality and gay marriage, many Christians have sold out to secular values. Critical to the whole matter is the question of biblical interpretation and authority.  It is clear from Paul's broader teaching about marriage and sexuality that he was one with Jesus in endorsing the principles of the Mosaic Law and applying them to believers under the New Covenant. A good example is found in 1 Thessalonians 4:1-12.

Discerning the will of God

When Paul first shared the message of the gospel with his predominantly pagan converts (1:9-10), he gave them specific ethical guidelines (4:1, 'how to live in order to please God'). And he did this 'by the authority of the Lord Jesus' (4:2), as his commissioned representative.

The apostle regarded the will of God as the ultimate guide to human behaviour. In line with biblical teaching, he therefore declared that the essential will of God is that his people should be holy in all their conduct (cf. Leviticus 11:44-5; 19:2; 20:7; 1 Peter 1:15-16). But what that means in practical terms needed to be explained, since the apostle did not regard Christians as being under the written code of the Mosaic law (cf. Romans 7:1-6; 2 Corinthians 3:1-18). Paul endorsed and re-presented Old Testament ethical teaching in ways that are relevant and applicable to Christians living in the Gentile world.

Bodies devoted to God's service

Paul's first point is that holiness must be exhibited in the sexual realm. This is consistent with Leviticus 18, where regulations about unlawful sexual relations come first in a section about ethical holiness (Leviticus 18-20). The command that a man should not  'have sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman' is found in 18:22.  'Chastity is not the whole of sanctification, but it is an important element in it, and one which had to be specially stressed in the Greco-Roman world of that day.'1

Various forms of extra-marital sexual union were widely tolerated and some were even encouraged. Sexual indulgence was often associated with the practice of religious cults and there was no widespread public opinion to discourage immorality.  It hardly needs to be pointed out that contemporary Christians find themselves in a similar ethical environment. But when the gospel is introduced into a culture it demands a new way of life in those who believe it.

Paul's claim that holiness must be expressed by abstaining from sexual immorality (1 Thessalonians 4:3, Greek porneia) is explained in vv. 4-7, where it appears that any form of sexual relationship outside marriage is covered by the term.2 If our bodies belong to the Lord, we are no longer free to use them selfishly or in accordance with the accepted values of the time. They must be kept or controlled 'in holiness and honour' (ESV, cf. 1 Corinthians 6:20; Romans 12:1).3 Those who have come to know God in Jesus Christ will treat their bodies as his property.

Love and holiness

Paul warns against the social consequences of sexual indulgence in v. 6.  Christians must beware of trespassing against brothers and sisters in Christ by behaving covetously. This theme is developed in vv. 9-10, where a close link between holiness and love is made.  By crossing forbidden sexual boundaries, we may enrich ourselves at someone else's expense. Husbands, parents, and other family members are all hurt when someone is seduced into an improper relationship.  The Lord Jesus himself is 'an avenger in all these things' and will inflict the appropriate judgment on those who disregard his will (v. 6b; cf. 2 Thessalonians 1:6-10).

Love of neighbour was central to the demand for holiness in the Mosaic Law (Leviticus 19:18). As in Leviticus 18-19, love and sexual purity come together in 1 Thessalonians 4. Love for those who are struggling with sexual temptation does not mean lowering the standards that God has set for his people. As a fellowship of believers we are bound to support and help those who struggle with sexual temptation or failure.

Conclusion

In current debates among Christians about sexuality, holiness hardly ever surfaces as the controlling idea. Fundamental to this notion is the challenge to be different from the culture around us in values and behaviour. Biblical authority is also dangerously challenged and undermined in these debates. If, in our desire to show love to those who are same-sex attracted, we abandon the biblical teaching about marriage and sexuality, we dishonour God, obscure his best intentions for humanity, and show the world that the Bible is no longer to be taken seriously. It is merely the play-thing from which to formulate a new version of Christianity suitable for the people of the 21st century.

 

1 Frederick F. Bruce, 1 & 2 Thessalonians (Waco: Word, 1982), 82. He discusses the sexual mores of the Greek world more fully on pp.86-87.

 

2 Cf. Horst Reisser, New International Dictionary of New TestamentTheology Vol. 1 (Exeter: Paternoster, 1975): 497-501. The word group can describe various modes of extra-marital sex 'insofar as they deviate from accepted social and religious norms (e.g. homosexuality, promiscuity, paedophilia, and especially prostitution)' (p. 497).

3  'To control his own body'(ESV, NIV) is a more appropriate rendering of the Greek in this context than 'to take a wife for himself' (ESV margin) or 'to live with his own wife' (NIV margin).

­