A Manifesto on the Value of Growth in Christian Understanding & Theological Pursuit

I’m looking at establishing a ministry at our church where we’d form a group that would read and discuss various works of theology and Biblical studies together. The following comes from a document I was working on this morning in which I outline various convictions and commitments underlying this pursuit.


The importance & value of Christian understanding

We strongly believe that growth in Christian understanding plays a vital and central role in our development as maturing worshipers of Jesus. When we ignore the pursuit of Christian understanding, we do so to our detriment, and the detriment of our churches (IOW, our churches our healthier when its members are growing in Christian understanding). In an age where Biblical and theological illiteracy abounds, we are committed to standing against this tide. Amidst a prevailing Christian culture that downplays the importance of theology and doctrine, we unashamedly and counter-culturally commit ourselves to this discipline.

The privilege of all

We believe that rigorous Biblical and theological study is not something reserved for pastors and theologians, but is the right and privilege of all believers.

A proper understanding of “theological maturity”

To be clear, we are not interested in a version of “theological mastery” which simply knows concepts or engages ideas as something like a hobby or mere intellectual exercise. We are after theological maturity. Such theological maturity entails not only (1) a right understanding of Biblical teaching and its theological import, but also (2) a deep conviction and belief in these things, as well as (3) a correlating theological discernment — the ability and inclination of character (virtue) to apply such theological knowledge to new and complex situations (what the Bible at times calls “wisdom”).

A rightly oriented knowledge

The apostle Paul says, “knowledge puffs up” (1 Cor 8:1), and “the one who thinks he knows obviously doesn’t know as he ought” (8:2). We want to take this seriously. As John Calvin said in his Institutes (paraphrasing), A genuine knowledge of God necessarily entails transforming us into worshipers of God. Legit theology is more than just ideas entering our minds for contemplation. To truly apprehend God is necessarily to be into made a worshiper of God and walk away transformed by the encounter. Or as Augustine said in his classic work on Doctrine (paraphrasing), all proper doctrine promotes the two-fold love of God and neighbor. If we are not increasing in our love of God and neighbor in our study of scripture and theology, we’re doing it wrong.

Renewal as worshipers through transformation of the mind

We understand that the way we are transformed as followers of Christ is through the renewal of our minds (Rom 12:1-2) and reorientation of our loves. Both scripture and experience testify to the impactful role that our thinking (our beliefs about God, the world, and ourselves — our “worldview”) has on the way we live. We were created to be worshipers. As such, we are always in awe of something (our god), and our imaginations captured by some vision of the good, the true, and ultimate. The direction of our lives ultimately follows the compass of our hearts and the rudder of our beliefs. Because of sin, however, our mind and affections have been colonized by false gods (idolatry) and deceived into false visions of the good life. We need a rehabilitation of heart and mind. We believe we that the avenue to our affections, among other things, is through the engagement and transformation of the mind.

The proper place of “application”

As outlined above, we wholeheartedly believe in the practicality and life-impactful significance of theology. Without the goal of life-impact (the very telos of theology, i.e., the very reason God has made himself known to us), we have actually distorted the very nature of theology and we exhibit an audacious affront to the design of God’s self-revelation. In other words, it’s no small slight, but actually an incredibly serious transgression (Mt 15:8; cf. Titus 1:16).

At the same time, however, we reject the current popular sentiment (a very American attitude) that theology’s value is to be measured by our own preset notion of what is “practical” (i.e., our felt-needs), and setting up application as our starting point for our approach and what we deem worthwhile. Yes, we expect to be transformed as we encounter God (and with that comes “application”). But we also understand that God knows what we need far more than we do, and that none of his self-disclosure was given in vain (none of it is unimportant for our study). Simply knowing and enjoying God (the very end for which we were created) is a good enough end in and of itself, notwithstanding its life-impacting benefits which surely do also follow. Moreover, the most impactful thing we can experience is not actually more “practical instruction” (prescriptions on “what to do”) — the history of Israel under the law bears this out — as good as sound practical instruction is; but to have our hearts convinced of the worth of God as we are struck with the awe of God. Our deepest problem is a disorder of worship; and therefore that which will meet us at the deepest, most life-impacting level is to walk away from our study as increasing worshipers and enjoyers of God.

The aid & treasure of Christian literature

We enter our pursuit with the belief that God has gifted the church across the ages with men and women who are great resources to us in understanding God’s Word and his truth. Although the central tenets of the Bible are clear (perspicuity) and the Bible is sufficient for knowing these things adequately, we reject that hubris which ignores the help of others and the collective wisdom found in the communion of the saints. We uphold the Biblical place of teachers, and value learning from the writings of others, even those who may be outside our exact tradition, as they can serve to broaden our perspective. In distinction from such presentist tendencies that place nearly exclusive attention on contemporary productions, we especially value the historical authors, whose works have proven worth, having stood the test of time, who give us a sense of rootedness in the Christian tradition, and whose voice cuts through our sometimes near-sighted contemporary perspectives.

The urgency of our situation & the need for retrieval

We live at a crossroads which only increases the urgency of this pursuit. We live in an age in which the plausibility structures that once gave Christianity credence are quickly deteriorating and in which we are regularly being desensitized to sin and acclimated to false outlooks on life. The pressure to cave and compromise Biblical truth is potent. False teaching abounds. And the contemporary issues that challenge us are proliferating at a pace that’s dizzying. For those of us who are parents, we also face the task of discipling our children through this ethically and religiously volatile maze. At the same time, many in a previous generation moved away from certain traditional practices of theological education (e.g., catechisms, creeds, pedagogical hymns, etc.) at precisely the time when we now feel we may actually need them most. That crowd sought more “fresh” and pragmatic approaches. Among other things though, we see the damage caused by what was left behind and the void this abandonment has now created. We therefore desire to recover / retrieve the pursuit of theology for both ourselves, our families, and our churches.

Jonathan Edwards on Christian Warfare and Boldness Against the Enemies of Christ

But here some may be ready to say, Is there no such thing as christian fortitude, and boldness for Christ, being good soldiers in the christian warfare, and coming out bold against the enemies of Christ and his people?

To which I answer, there doubtless is such a thing. The whole christian life is fitly compared to a warfare. The most eminent Christians are the best soldiers, endued with the greatest degrees of christian fortitude. And it is the duty of God’s people to be stedfast, and vigorous in their opposition to the designs and ways of such as are endeavouring to overthrow the kingdom of Christ, and the interest of religion. But yet many persons seem to be quite mistaken concerning the nature of christian fortitude. It is an exceeding diverse thing from a brutal fierceness, or the boldness of beasts of prey. True christian fortitude consists in strength of mind, through grace, exerted in two things; in ruling and suppressing the evil passions and affections of the mind; and in stedfastly and freely exerting and following good affections and dispositions, without being hindered by sinful fear, or the opposition of enemies. But the passions restrained, and kept under in the exercise of this christian strength and fortitude, are those very passions that are vigorously and violently exerted in a false boldness for Christ. And those affections which are vigorously exerted in true fortitude, are those christian holy affections, that are directly contrary to the others. Though christian fortitude appears in withstanding and counteracting enemies without us; yet it much more appears in resisting and suppressing the enemies that are within us; because they are our worst and strongest enemies, and have greatest advantage against us. The strength of the good soldier of Jesus Christ appears in nothing more, than in stedfastly maintaining the holy, calm meekness, sweetness, and benevolence of his mind, amidst all the storms, injuries, strange behaviour, and surprising acts and events, of this evil and unreasonable world. …

The surest way to make a right judgment of what is a holy fortitude in fighting with God’s enemies, is to look to the Captain of all God’s hosts, our great leader and example, and see wherein his fortitude and valour appeared, in his chief conflict. View him in the greatest battle that ever was or ever will be fought with these enemies, when he fought with them all alone, and of the people there was none with him. See how he exercised his fortitude in the highest degree, and got that glorious victory which will be celebrated in the praises and triumphs of all the hosts of heaven, through all eternity. Behold Jesus Christ in his last sufferings, when his enemies in earth and hell made their most violent attack upon him, compassing him round on every side, like roaring lions. Doubtless here we shall see the fortitude of a holy warrior and champion in the cause of God, in its highest perfection and greatest lustre, and an example fit for the soldiers to follow, that fight under this Captain. But how did he show his holy boldness and valour at that time? Not in the exercise of any fiery passions; not in fierce and violent speeches, vehemently declaiming against the intolerable wickedness of opposers, giving them their own in plain terms; but in not opening his mouth when afflicted and oppressed, in going as a lamb to the slaughter, and, as a sheep before his shearers is dumb, not opening his mouth; praying that the Father would forgive his cruel enemies, because they knew not what they did; nor shedding others’ blood, but with all-conquering patience and love shedding his own. Indeed one of his disciples, who made a forward pretence to boldness for Christ, and confidently declared he would sooner die with Christ than deny him, began to lay about him with a sword: but Christ meekly rebukes him, and heals the wound he gives. And never was the patience, meekness, love, and forgiveness of Christ, in so glorious a manifestation, as at that time. Never did he appear so much a Lamb, and never did he show so much of the dove-like spirit, as at that time. If therefore we see any of the followers of Christ, in the midst of the most violent, unreasonable, and wicked opposition, maintaining the humility, quietness, and gentleness of a lamb, and the harmlessness, love, and sweetness of a dove, we may well judge that here is a good soldier of Jesus Christ.

When persons are fierce and violent, and exert their sharp and bitter passions, it shows weakness, instead of strength and fortitude. …

There is a pretended boldness for Christ that arises from no better principle than pride. A man may be forward to expose himself to the dislike of the world, and even to provoke their displeasure, out of pride. For it is the nature of spiritual pride to cause men to seek distinction and singularity; and so oftentimes to set themselves at war with those whom they call carnal, that they may be more highly exalted among their party. True boldness for Christ is universal, and carries men above the displeasure of friends and foes; so that they will forsake all rather than Christ; and will rather offend all parties, and be thought meanly of by all, than offend Christ. And that duty which tries whether a man is willing to be despised by those of his own party, and thought the least worthy to be regarded by them, is a more proper trial of his boldness for Christ, than his being forward to expose himself to the reproach of opposers. … He is bold for Christ, who has christian fortitude enough to confess his fault openly, when he has committed one that requires it, and as it were to come down upon his knees before opposers. Such things as these are much greater evidence of holy boldness, than resolutely and fiercely confronting opposers. …

There is indeed opposition, vigorous opposition, that is an attendant of it; but it is against things, and not persons. Bitterness against the persons of men is no part of, but is contrary to it…. It is no other, in its very nature and essence, than the fervour of christian love. And as to what opposition there is in it to things, it is firstly and chiefly against the evil things in the person himself who has this zeal; against the enemies of God and holiness in his own heart; (as these are most in his view, and what he has most to do with;) and but secondarily against the sins of others. And therefore there is nothing in a true christian zeal contrary to the spirit of meekness, gentleness, and love; the spirit of a little child, a lamb and dove … but is entirely agreeable to, and tends to promote it.

Edwards, Jonathan, A Treatise Concerning Religious Affections: In Three Parts, Part III, Section VIII in The Works of Jonathan Edwards. Vol. 1, Banner of Truth Trust, 1974.

What’s going on in Acts 21:4? Is the Spirit giving conflicting revelation?

The Issue

There seems to be a contradiction between what these individuals are telling Paul “through the Spirit” and what Paul felt constrained to do by the Spirit (20:22-23).

4 Views

1. Paul is disobedient to the Spirit.

The Spirit is telling Paul not to go, and he is simply being stubborn, disobedient, and determined to go to Jerusalem regardless.

  • However, the language in ch.20 is that the Spirit is constraining him to go (vv.22-23).
  • Paul’s attitude is not one of rebellion, but utter submission (v.24).
  • Furthermore, the rest of the book (chs. 21-28) outlines Paul’s path from Jerusalem to Rome as something positive and fitting the very programmatic design of 1:8.

2. “Soft prophecy.”

We have a case here of what might be called “soft prophecy,” i.e., it comes from the Spirit’s influence generally speaking, but is open to error and misconstrual. Therefore, what the disciples here are telling Paul to do in 21:4, as well as 21:10ff, is generally but not perfectly accurate (Wayne Grudem’s view, popular among many continuationists and charismatics).

  • It is troubling to surmise that prophetic revelation is not reliable or entirely accurate, or that God would fail to convey this information without it being intercepted by human fallibility. If it is true that prophecy can error, what does this mean for our ability to trust other prophecy / the Bible as a whole?
  • It is odd to expect a qualitative difference between OT prophecy (proper) and NT “soft” prophecy, especially in terms of it moving from infallible (better) to fallible (worse), especially when everything else about the New Covenant is better. Unless given really good reason, we should assume both forms of prophecy to be the same. And if there is a reasonable way to understand this passage along those lines (i.e., prophecy remains the same) that is to be preferred.
  • Many appeal to Agabus’ prophecy in 2:10ff as an example of such “soft” potentially somewhat erroneous prophecy, since Agabus predicts that the Jews will bind Paul when in fact it ends of being the Romans. However, this is surely to press the details too far. This is not how prophecy works elsewhere (consider Acts 2:36 where Peter accuses his Jewish hearers of killing Jesus, although it was in fact the Romans who in fact carried out the execution).  So here, although the Romans in fact arrest Paul, the Jewish crowds certainly play a role in his arrest (ch. 21).

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