Tag Archives: Doctrine

Kevin Hester & “Trinitarian Preaching”

by Theological Commission

Recently the Commission for Theological Integrity hosted its annual Symposium on the campus of Hillsdale FWB College. Among the many excellent papers presented was Dr. Kevin Hester’s entitled “Trinitarian Preaching: On the Father, in the Son, and through the Holy Spirit.” It was extremely well-received, and we’re happy to provide you with the audio file of this presentation. You can listen/download here.

Additionally, a paper copy of this presentation, along with the rest of this year’s papers, can be acquired by ordering a copy of the Digest of Papers. Checks for $20 (which includes S&H) can be made out to the ‘Commission for Theological Integrity,’ and mailed to the attention of Mrs. Martha Fletcher at 3606 West End Avenue, Nashville, TN, 37205. Notify us at fwbtheology@gmail.com if you’d like to place an order, and please provide your mailing address in the email.

Thank you for your interest.

What’s a Baptist to Do with Tradition?

by Kevin Hester

I can’t remember when I heard the pithy quote, “tradition is a good guide but a poor taskmaster.” Subsequent attempts to find the derivation of the quote have been fruitless. However, the quote seems to capture the general, Baptist approach to anything viewed as established practice.

When my Baptist friends use the word “tradition” in the context of a discussion about the church, many of them use the term incorrectly. Either, they view it as a mostly negative way of referencing the general approach to method and practice in the context of corporate worship or as a mostly positive signifier of Baptist, Protestant ideals. In the first sense, “tradition” really only means the complex set of characteristics of low-church Protestant worship that developed in America after the Second Great Awakening. This “tradition” is, therefore, something in need of correcting and modernizing. Tradition in this light has come to signify a particularly conservative position in the ongoing worship debates of modern Evangelicalism. In the second sense, tradition is used more correctly but dates no further back than the 16th century (and often in reality no further than the late 19th century). They give lip service to Luther, Calvin, and the Puritan Divines, but tradition in their sense is always Western, European, and Protestant.

As a historical theologian who specializes in the late patristic and early medieval period, I used to be amazed at my peers’ refusal to readily consider the contributions of almost 1,500 years of church history. I have come to understand that this is largely the result of ignorance of church history before the Protestant Reformation and a misunderstanding of the role of tradition. While I can do little in this short space to rectify the former, I can at least speak to the latter.

Tradition and Traditionalism

Part of the problem is a confusion of tradition with traditionalism. As Jaroslav Pelikan has pointed out, “Tradition is the living faith of the dead, traditionalism is the dead faith of the living. And, I suppose I should add, it is traditionalism that gives tradition such a bad name.” (The Vindication of Tradition: The 1983 Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities).

Traditionalism is the unthinking preservation of habit, just because. Tradition is the passing down of truth in contextually meaningful ways. Traditionalism is trapped in the amber of memory. While tradition isn’t timeless, it seeks to preserve meaningful truths in ways that renew them for each subsequent generation. Where traditionalism divides us from the culture, tradition clasps hands with the past and the future. Tradition forms and informs our faith as it flows out of the corporate body’s experience of faith in the application of Scripture to its historical context. Robust biblical exegesis must be coupled with a critical awareness of the past.

G.K. Chesterton said, “Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to that arrogant oligarchy who merely happen to be walking around.”

What many of my Baptist peers have missed is that between the ascension of Christ and the Protestant Reformation, a great number of believers have worked to know Christ and to make him known. They lived out a biblical faith in the midst of an often inimical culture and sometimes in the face of corruption and misinterpretation of their church. A real emphasis on tradition should break through the oligarchy of the sixteenth century and give voice to all members of the faithful cloud of witnesses.

If tradition is to be understood this broadly, it is important for us to understand just what that tradition entails. Within the Christian church, tradition typically has reference to two primary areas: liturgy and doctrine. Liturgy, or corporate worship, is an important cultural marker of the church and has the capacity to unite the modern church with the church throughout the ages. However, liturgy is also culturally shaped and intricately connected with significant theological distinctives that have come to be expressed in corporate worship. Because of this, a holistic embracing of liturgical tradition in Baptist circles is necessarily limited to its Puritan and Protestant forbearers and what can be gathered from the practices of the earliest Christian communities. Such focus must always account for Protestant and Baptist emphases such as the regulative principle and the priesthood of all believers.

However, Baptists must understand that theological tradition is definitional in nature. The rule or deposit of the faith is the church’s expression of basic biblical truth in creedal form. Such teachings were early identified with the Gospel itself and used to combat early heresies before being reified in the ecumenical creeds. This is not to say that the creeds of early Christianity are normative or prescriptive in the same way that Scripture is normative. But it is to say that Baptists should pay careful and close attention to the Vincentian canon (what has been believed everywhere, always, and by all). Such an understanding is a helpful, minimalist expression of the dogma of the Christian church and allows us to more easily differentiate between true and false tradition.

Tradition and Scripture

John Henry Cardinal Newman presented the Roman Catholic perspective of tradition in his Essay on the Development of Doctrine (1845). In this work he argues that the Holy Spirit works within the church broadly to guide development in doctrine and practice. Such guidance when broadly recognized by the church body becomes normative as a secondary means of inspiration. This tradition clearly lies outside the Protestant principle of sola scriptura.

What Newman misses is that development can sometimes lead to discontinuity. Even well-meaning Christians sometimes fall into error and Scripture cautions us to always weigh our thinking with its teachings (I Th. 5:21, Rev. 2:2). After all, not all heretics intended to be evil schismatics. But if church history teaches us anything, it teaches us that redeemed humanity continues to struggle with the effects of depravity even, if not especially, upon the mind. This is why the Protestant church, though committed to tradition, must always be ecclesia semper reformanda est (the church always to be reformed).

Newman’s other assertion is that the Protestant emphasis on sola scriptura means that each individual exercises only “private judgment” in his or her interpretation and exercised undue privilege over the text. His slippery-slope accusation is that without the magisterium of the church there is no norm to the interpretation of Scripture and “each one does what is right in his own eyes.”

However, Protestants have always taught not only the perspicuity of Scripture but also that scriptura sui ipsius interpres (scripture is its own interpreter). The norm is then the Holy Spirit working through His own words in Scripture. Tradition exercises a role in the interpretive process which is why our theology takes place in a long line of orthodox interpretation as presented in the creeds and in living faith communities that are committed to the inspiration of scripture and its sufficiency to answer the needs of the church in all ages. Scripture is the anchor of tradition. Where development occurs it takes place only in light of the biblical norm.

Baptists, therefore, must navigate between two extremes. We must seek a middle way between jettisoning all tradition on the one hand and treating it as inspired on the other. We must know our own history. We must give a voice and vote to all the Christians of the past. We must read them with a critical eye, but should bend the same criticism toward our own theology. We owe it to the Tradition to be always reforming, but to be always reformed only by Scripture.

Why Do They Take the Bible Seriously?

by W. Jackson Watts

 

Recently our church baptized and welcomed into membership a couple who had been converted earlier this year. They had attended the church for well over a year, during which they developed a clearer understanding of the Gospel. Eventually they realized that their earlier professions of faith had been rooted in something besides the broken body and shed blood of Jesus, and finally they trusted in Him.

All Christians should be overwhelmed anytime a person ever responds positively to the Gospel of Christ. Additionally, it is humbling that God chooses the foolishness of preaching to elicit faith and repentance in people’s lives. However, it is equally humbling (and surprising) to see what sometimes transpires in the earliest stages of discipleship.

In the case of the aforementioned couple, and in many more instances, we often discover that new believers seem to eagerly latch on to what are sometimes seen as contested and controversial truths. Some of these Christian teachings include the complementarian view of gender roles in the church and home, the penal substitutionary view of atonement, and the inerrancy of Scripture. Such teachings separate Christians and entire denominations from others. Yet it often seems to be the case that new converts embrace the teachings of the church family in which they have been saved, even if they are doctrines which do not enjoy uniform support across confessional Christian groups.

Social scientists would simply refer to this as “socialization” in which we find individuals that are new to a group tend to adopt the beliefs and mores of the herd. Others may reduce it to a naïve willingness to entrust one’s mind to the faith community simply to be filled with whatever is thought to be true. There may be other explanations as well, or some combination of factors which contribute to new converts’ ability to adopt contested doctrines.

Admittedly, my own view is anecdotal and not driven by empirical research. However, I’d like to focus on one key doctrine—the inspiration and authority of Scripture—and offer two reasons why I think new converts often embrace a high view of the Bible. This subject is worth thinking about as we try to develop a strategy for catechesis. How much time do you spend on each doctrine in a new believers’ course, for instance? By considering how this doctrine is received by new believers, we may receive insight into how it might be further developed and taught to Christians in their initial stages of discipleship.

  1. When Jesus is taken seriously, the Bible is taken seriously.

A new convert recognizes that they have been saved not by a generic belief in God or confidence in self, but in a total surrender to the Lord Jesus Christ. No matter how basic their understanding of the Gospel is, they will have been presented with a biblical understanding of human nature, sin, Christ, and salvation. Often the evangelist, regardless of the setting, will have either held a Bible or shared verses directly from it. In instances where people attended worship services for a lengthy period of time before trusting Christ, they will have heard numerous sermons, songs, and prayers populated with biblical truths. Because of this, it’s very likely that upon being saved they would possess at least some of the mental and spiritual architecture necessary to embrace a high view of Scripture.

Intentional instruction on the Christian view of Scripture should still take place despite the pieces already in place in the new believer’s heart and mind. In no time, unsaved friends, family members, or a History Channel documentary will undermine their budding conviction of God’s Word. So for apologetic and the purpose of spiritual formation, it is wise and necessary that we help new converts learn the Bible (what it says and how it applies) and learn about the Bible (how we got it). But thankfully, people often make the connection between the Jesus who saves and the words from Jesus you can rely upon.

  1. When the Spirit works, God’s Word is at work.

As I noted in a previous post, “without the Holy Spirit, no human being will be saved.” The faithful Christian must regularly pray, teach, think, and live with this truth in mind. But it is equally significant that we apply this to the nature of conversion.

First Corinthians 2:12 reminds us that “now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God.” Later in verse 14, Paul asserts, “the natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.”

We find a link established in these verses between the Holy Spirit and the understanding and acceptance of truth that comes through His work in a believer. In the larger context of this passage, Paul demonstrates how the Gospel confounds all forms of earthly wisdom and power as it comes to us in the form of the suffering Christ. Therefore, we can see that the Holy Spirit who opens our eyes to accept this Christ is the same Spirit who regenerates us when we profess faith in Christ. It is the same Holy Spirit who “carried along” the prophets and apostles (cf. 2 Pt. 1:21). And since the Word of God is inspired (regardless of whether a hearer knows or accepts this), it seems to explain why a truly converted person gravitates toward a high view of Scripture: The Holy Spirit intends to move them in that direction.

Conclusion

These reasons certainly don’t exhaust or completely account for this pattern that I and others have observed over the years. However, it should offer us pause as we praise God for the unity between the Triune God’s work in salvation, and His involvement in developing our convictions about His Word.

A Trinity in Name Alone is Not Enough

by Kevin Hester

In October of this year, Christianity Today reported the findings of a recent LifeWay Research poll commissioned by Ligonier Ministries. The poll was targeted at the evangelical community and surveyed a number of key theological topics and concepts including God, the person and work of Christ, the Holy Spirit, Scripture, and salvation. While these topics would seem to be basic Sunday School fodder, the results of the survey were disturbing. In most cases, 25-50% of Evangelicals reported a lack of awareness or assurance regarding the teaching of the Church on basic dogma.

One seeming bright spot was that 96% of self-reported Evangelicals believed in the Trinity. However, subsequent questions revealed that this affirmation lacked significant comprehension. For example, 31% of respondants said that God the Father was more divine than Jesus, and 58% believe that the Holy Spirit is a force rather than a personal being.

This survey reveals that our churches, while confessing dogma, are failing to adequately teach, define, and defend the basic beliefs of the Church. Evangelical ignorance of basic Trinitarian theology is especially troubling given the evangelistic efforts of anti-Trinitarian sects like the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints and various oneness Pentecostal groups. When these efforts are coupled with societal forces pushing the Church toward inclusivism, it is not difficult to imagine a new Socinianism arising.

In order to defend the faith, our churches must remain committed to theological catechesis in the home, in our Sunday Schools, and from our pulpits. Yet many forces press against such teaching. Emphases on practical Christian living and evangelism are needed, but not at the expense of doctrine. An identification of catechesis with “liturgical” or “liberal” faith communities pushes many Evangelical congregations toward a softer social focus. In downplaying doctrinal distinctions, the non-denominational movement has left many Evangelical churches devoid of any theological teaching at all. When these forces are coupled with a lack of education among the clergy and the arguments of the cults, we leave our congregants open to heresy and fail to heed the words of Paul (Ephesians 4:14) and Peter (2 Peter 3:17).

There are biblical, historical, and theological reasons for the Christian doctrine of the Trinity. While the word “trinity” is not found in Scripture, the concept certainly is. God is clearly presented as one God (Deuteronomy 6:4, Isaiah 44:6, Romans 3:30). At the same time the Father, the Son, and Holy Spirit are all clearly defined in Scripture as personal beings who do the work of God and receive the worship that is due only to God. The union of their purpose and will as well as their economic distinction is seen in Jesus’ baptism (Matthew 3:13-17), the Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20), and in the great benedictions of the Church (2 Corinthians 13:14).

Historically, the Church has affirmed its Trinitarian belief in consistently rejecting teaching that sought to conflate the persons of the Godhead (Monarchianism) and beliefs which denied the full divinity of Christ (Adoptionism and Arianism) or the personality and divinity of the Holy Spirit (Pneumatomachianism). The Church established this belief in the foundational confessions of the Church at Nicea (A.D. 325) and Constantinople (A.D. 381) affirming that the one God exists eternally as three distinct (but not separate) personal ways of existing.

Theologically then, the Church teaches that God is one in number, purpose, and will, but three in relation to dispensation or work. The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are united in one God all possessing the attributes of God in full measure. Because God cannot change this Trinitarian, existence is an eternal aspect of God’s ontological existence.

So what? Is this theological jargon really all that important? What is really at stake other than some old arcane creeds and musty hymns? The implications of the doctrine of the Trinity likely go farther than you would ever imagine. As we will see below, without the Trinity we have no way of understanding who or what God is. Without the Trinity, there is no Gospel and no pattern for governance in the world. Without the Trinity, there is no reason to love and no model for what that love looks like.

Personal, Relational God

Personal beings are beings that are capable of relating to others. If God does not exist as a Trinity, then there is no ontological basis for the relational attributes of God. To paraphrase Augustine in de Trinitate, what does it mean for God to be love (1 John 4:8) if there is no object of that love? God’s love means that God is a relational God who is infinitely loving. This love has always been part of God’s nature. Without the Trinity, God could be eternally existent, having omnipotence, and immutability, but these characteristics would be self-contained without reference to anything outside God’s self. There would be no underlying reality for its expression and therefore no creation, no redemption, no revelation.

Revelation

The Trinity serves as the basis for our understanding of God’s personality and as a consequence, God’s revelation. We are personal beings and therefore relate personally. Revelation cannot be separated from personhood. To deny the Trinity undercuts any basis for communication between God and humanity. It also brings Scripture into question. We have noted the way that Scripture speaks of both the unity and three-personal nature of God, but Scripture also bases God’s revelation in this fact as well. Jesus is the Word of God with all that entails (John 1). Jesus says when we see Him we have seen the Father (John 14:9). Hebrews testifies that Jesus is the radiance of God’s glory and the representation of His nature (Hebrews 1:3). The reality, and by extension the accuracy of the revelation found in the incarnation, is tied to the Trinity.

Gospel

The Father’s sending of the Son and the sending of the Holy Spirit are revelatory, but they are also redemptive. The economy of God’s work in the world involves all members of the Trinity and they work together in creation, revelation, and redemption. The Father accomplishes redemption by sending the Son and accepting His sacrifice for sin. The Spirit applies the benefits of Christ’s death to the believer and works to draw the world back to the Father through the Son. The Gospel itself is therefore meaningless without reference to the Trinity. As Lesslie Newbigin has pointed out an ecumenism that denies Christ’s central role in salvation and its Trinitarian framework is devoid of the power of redemption (Trinitarian Doctrine for Todays Mission, passim).

Human Society

The loss of a rigorous doctrine of the Trinity not only impacts the relationship between humanity and God. The Trinity also serves as the basis for all human relationships in all areas of human society. Inasmuch as humans are created in the image and according to the likeness of God, we should expect to find traces of the Trinity in human relationships. The Trinity serves as the foundation for the equality of humankind (as all members of the Trinity are equally God) but also the order of society. There is a hierarchy of roles in the economy of God’s work in the world, but this is a functional subordination rather than an ontological division. While the Father sends the Son and the Spirit testifies to the Son, each member of the Trinity relates to one another in love and order. The obedience and order demonstrated in the economy of God establish important principles of human subordination as well without denying equality. Each member of the Trinity works in love to glorify the other members rather than themselves.

Love

Naturalism teaches that people are valuable only as they are capable of exercising their will to power; they are simply commodities. Christianity teaches us that humans are intrinsically valuable by nature and that our response to one another must be guided by love. This is indeed part of the greatest commandment (Mark 12:29-31). This commandment is based in God’s nature and is exemplified for us in the members of the Trinity. The interpersonal relationship of the Trinity teaches us how to love. The love for others we are commanded to have is a selfless love that glories in another’s creation in the image of God, recognizes their value, and willingly submits to God’s order. The doctrine of the Trinity helps remind us that love is an action rather than an emotion. As John has said, “My little children, let us not love in word, neither in tongue; but in deed and in truth” (1 John 3:18).

Conclusion

Part of loving then, is being willing to tell the truth. The Trinity is more than a word. It is more than a quaint, old-fashioned notion or a dusty dinosaur of a dogma. It lies at the very foundation of Christianity and cannot be removed without disrupting the entire edifice of the Church. Rather than a confusing distraction to the Gospel, preaching and teaching on the Trinity (and other foundational Christian dogmas) is the Gospel. Such preaching might just be the most loving thing we could do.