|A page in the PC(USA) Book of Confessions|
“[W]e do not approach God’s Word as if we were the first people to read and interpret it. In fact, we draw upon 2,000 years of study, exegesis, reflection, and interpretation that testify to the truths of Scripture.” —Daniel R. Hyde
The doctrine of the perspicuity of Scripture states that what’s ultimately necessary for salvation can be drawn from Scripture with relative ease, but there are some Scriptural truths and doctrines that are more difficult, requiring a great deal of study and learning. So it takes study and learning to be able to discern whether certain things are actually taught in Scripture. The early church found it necessary to form councils and develop creeds to summarize the doctrines of the faith, because so many aberrant teachers were claiming to be ‘biblical’. Similarly, the Reformed churches published their confessions as apologetic documents to set them apart from the Roman church, and to explain to their magistrates and rulers that they were truly orthodox and not some new cult. In modern times, many churches have shorter ‘statements of faith’ that may either summarize the credal doctrines or itemize the particular distinctives of their congregation.
More than a year ago, I started working on a letter about church reform that I wanted to send to the leadership of the church we were attending at the time. We had some issues with their published statement of faith, and when a new pastor was appointed whose eschatological views were more like ours, it seemed like a good opportunity for reform.
So I started looking into the sources of their statement of faith, and it turned out to be a verbatim copy of the one from John MacArthur’s church. I began analyzing each point of the document to see where it diverged from a more standard Christian creed or confession. Some of the key tenets were dispensational premillenialism, separationism/isolationism, Lordship salvation, and very dogmatic interpretation on the days of creation and the age of the earth. I think most of you know how I feel about dispensationalism if you’ve been reading this blog for a while, so we’ll look at the other issues here. (As the church I’m talking about has acknowledged it needs to replace the statement, these criticisms should be taken as towards the source; MacArthur is well-respected and I’m sure there are other churches out their that have adopted similar statements without understanding its roots.)
The idea of identifying separationism/isolationism as tenets of the Christian faith was a big concern to me, especially after what happened with the Schatz family, who seemingly raised their large number of children in extreme isolation from the world. Their children were so well-behaved, but it wasn’t until it was too late that we understood it was because they feared a beating. Investigators found a fundamentalist book called To Train Up a Child in the house, and discovered the Schatzes were using techniques taught by the book. When I saw that there was a direct connection with fundamentalism there, I developed a very strong aversion to all things fundamentalist. If there is anything that remotely alludes to it (things like huge, extremely well-behaved families who take up a third of the church, unbalanced references to “the world”), we want to avoid it.
Isolationism is not Reformed, but hails from Anabaptists and the Radical Reformation. It is a form of legalism and perfectionism, as if they think Christians no longer have a sinful nature to battle against so by staying away from “the world”, they can avoid sin altogether. Isolationism isn’t the only Anabaptist aspect to Fundamentalism. R. B. Kuiper has identified the whole Fundamentalist movement with “a rather pronounced strain of Anabaptism”—Anabaptism to the extreme, in other words.
Furthermore, there are God-given cultural blessings that separationists are missing out on. The Reformed doctrine of common grace shows us that God has the sovereign power to use unbelievers as the means to teach us important things. John Calvin wrote:
Whenever we come upon these matters in secular writers, let that admirable light of truth shining in them teach us that the mind of man, though fallen and perverted from its wholeness, is nevertheless clothed and ornamented with God’s excellent gifts. If we regard the Spirit of God as the sole fountain of truth, we shall neither reject the truth itself, nor despise it wherever it shall appear, unless we wish to dishonor the Spirit of God. (Institutes of the Christian Religion, 2.2.15)
…if the Lord has willed that we be helped in physics, dialectic, mathematics, and other like disciplines, by the work and ministry of the ungodly, let us use this assistance. For if we neglect God’s gift freely offered in these arts, we ought to suffer just punishment for our sloths. (Institutes, 2.2.16)
In the 21st century, as a result of fundamentalist separationism, the church is in danger of disengaging from the post-Christian American culture in a way which will prevent us from fulfilling our calling as salt and light in our generation. We are not to be conformed to the pattern of the world, but to be transformed by the renewing of our minds through Scripture. But this doesn’t mean we all need to move off to compounds in the hills and homeschool our kids. We are to be in the world—but not of it—but we are still to be in the world.
Jesus refused to separate himself from sinners, and because of this, the fundamentalist religious people of Jesus’ day separated themselves from him! C. H. Spurgeon said, “Let us … take heed that our separateness from the world is of the same kind as our Lord’s. We are not to adopt a peculiar dress, or a singular mode of speech, or shut ourselves out from society. He did not so; but He was a man of the people, mixing with them for their good.”
There was this argument in the church a few decades ago, a battle fought by John MacArthur against those who he saw as promoting “cheap grace”. MacArthur insisted it’s not enough to have Jesus as your Savior, he must also be your Lord, while those on the other aide insisted making Jesus your Lord was a sort of higher-level version of the Christian walk, for the “more advanced”, but people didn’t really have to change to be saved. And so, in non-Reformed churches on both sides of the argument, it results in legalism, because the Lordship-types are trying to prove their salvation, and the so-called cheap-gracers are also being legalistic to earn their heavenly rewards, since their view of entry-level salvation results in only a beggar’s spot on the streets of gold.
MacArthur’s “Lordship salvationism” is relatively new on the scene. In the Reformed faith, there are no categories for this kind of talk. Jesus is the Lord of the universe, and that is a fact that has nothing to do with whether you “make him your Lord” or even agree with it (confessing it is another matter). It’s good to be part of a denomination—even a congregation—that predates this argument.
The view commonly known as young-earth creationism, or YEC, is the belief that the earth is only 6,000 years old and was created in its present form in seven literal earth days, with the animals only one day older than humans, and plants only one day older than animals, etc. I had already been doing research on the opening chapters of Genesis, and adopted the Framework view held by Lee Irons and Meredith Kline (see last year’s polemic on the subject). Last year I started reading white papers by Tim Keller about it and paying attention to what the BioLogos Foundation had to say.
A couple years ago, MacArthur held a conference in which he declared that every self-respecting Calvinist has to be a young-earth creationist. Calvin would beg to differ, as he wrote in his commentary on Genesis, “He who would learn astronomy and other recondite arts, let him go elsewhere.” In other words, you don’t learn science from the Bible.
At first, the reason I hadn’t delivered this letter about church reform was that I prayerfully hadn’t come to the point where I felt it was the right time, on the one hand; and on the other, so many of the changes I was asking for were starting to be adopted and therefore didn’t need to be addressed by me explicitly. I had written this massive report but there were only a couple matters still outstanding; it was like the overarching theme of the letter didn’t work anymore. However, once I came to the point where I realized I believed that science had proven the Big Bang (representative of God’s ex nihilo creation), theistic evolution (by God’s providence), a very old earth (as evidenced by natural revelation), and a localized Noahic flood (also proven scientifically), I realized to make this announcement would only be a stumbling block at the tiny church of fundamentalist home-schoolers. No longer would I be asking them to make room for gaps in the seven days, but I’d be asking them to make room for Darwinism. I thought forward to the days where my public-school-educated children would be sitting in Sunday school with home-schoolers and end up being told that their science is false and their daddy’s a heretic…
Yet my conscience requires that I not just sit in the pews and hide my views.
It really made a big impression on me when, a year after my looking into these MacArthur statement of faith issues, worrying about how to break the news to our friends, I started visiting Bidwell Presbyterian, and discovered that one of their pastors actually wrote a book on the intersection of science and faith which embraces the views I’ve come to hold. Furthermore, the church has received a grant to promote conversation between science and religion, and is even overseeing a grant program to help other churches do the same. A phrase heard often is this isn’t a church where you have to check your brain at the door.
And it’s not just one pastor in one congregation. The 1969 Presbyterian General Assembly issued this statement: “Neither Scripture, our Confession of Faith, nor our Catechisms, teach the Creation of man by the direct and immediate acts of God so as to exclude the possibility of evolution as a scientific theory.” The other, more conservative Presbyterian denominations have made strong statements to the contrary, and so does the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod.
To put a section in a church’s statement of faith about a young earth and a literal 7 x 24-hour-day creation week is to constrain members’ consciences in a way that God himself does not require. This is referred to as a “quest for illegitimate religious certainty” by Reformed scholar R. Scott Clark. It is also a distinctly American issue; the Europeans got over it rather quickly. Finally, the push for YEC over the last hundred years or so is actually due to the work of Seventh-Day Adventists, who advocate it not for exegetical reasons, but because one of their leaders supposedly had a vision from God on the matter. As Clark writes, “Any boundary marker … that includes the Adventists and excludes Hodge, Warfield, Bavinck, and Machen should not commend itself to confessional Reformed folk as a way to mark out Reformed identity” (Recovering the Reformed Confessions, p. 50).
In strong contrast to John MacArthur’s particularist, peculiar, fundamentalist statement of faith, all Presbyterian and Reformed churches subscribe to the Westminster Confession, the Westminster Larger and Shorter Catechisms, and the Heidelberg Catechism, among others—in other words, “the Reformed confessions”. I’ve come to realize the importance of having these deep roots in the historic Reformed confessions and avoiding all ties to Fundamentalism. Like the church in the days of Copernicus, folks like John MacArthur and Al Mohler, in regurgitating their fundamentalist YEC and dispensationalist views, are really doing a lot of harm to the Christian faith in the 21st century.