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The Biblical Attitude to Erroneous Teaching

Category Articles
Date May 14, 2003

The Times announced on Saturday April 12 2003 that Dr Rowan Williams, the newly appointed Archbishop of Canterbury of avowedly modernist convictions had been invited by the National Evangelical Anglican Congress to attend their conference in Blackpool in September and speak to them. The following address was given at a Conference of the British Evangelical Council a number of years ago. It has lost none of it relevance.

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One usually finds that the Biblical attitude to erroneous teaching is treated in a superficial and piecemeal fashion. For example, those evangelicals who strongly advocate separation from ecclesiastical bodies in which doctrinal error is found appeal to 2 Cor. 6:17 and other related texts : ‘Come out from among them, and be ye separate, saith the Lord.’ On the other hand, those evangelicals who argue that they should remain in denominations in which doctrinal error is found, do so on the ground that if they withdraw, reformation according to the Word of God will become impossible to effect. They appeal to such texts as 1 Cor. 5:7 ‘Purge out therefore the old leaven, so that ye may be a new lump.’ Both schools of evangelical opinion are quite sure that Scripture justifies its position, and frequently the one cannot understand why the other does not see what is crystal clear to it.

Now it seems to me that part of the explanation of the divergences arises because neither school considers the teaching of Holy Scripture on the matter of erroneous teaching in a sufficiently comprehensive fashion. As we all know, such is the perversity of the human heart, even when it has experienced the cleansing of the blood of Christ, that we can justify, to our own satisfaction at least, our position by appealing to isolated texts of Scripture. The antidote to such a situation is to seek to discover what the total Scriptural teaching on any particular subject is, and also to view it in relation to the other doctrines of Scripture.

To my mind it is essential to consider the Biblical attitude to erroneous teaching in relation to two great Biblical themes, namely the revelation of God and the calling of the Church. I therefore propose in the first part of my paper to look at these two subjects, and then in the second part to examine the question of the Church and erroneous teaching, concluding with a postscript on the present ecclesiastical situation in Great Britain.

1. The Revelation of God

As evangelicals we take as our starting-point, the inspiration, infallibility and authority of Holy Scripture. ‘The Biblical conviction,’ says Dr Packer, ‘is that Scripture is in its nature revealed truth in writing, an authoritative norm for human thought about God.’ (Revelation and the Bible, ed. Carl F. H. Henry, Grand Rapids 1958, p.103). Because this is the conviction of the writers of Scriptures, we find that Holy Scripture has a distinctive view of that message which constitutes the Christian revelation. We can see that this is so, first of all, by examining the terms used in Scripture to describe that revelation.

(i)The terms used of God’s revelation

Firstly, the Christian revelation is termed

(a) the faith

The word ‘pistis’ is used in the NT, not only in the sense of trust, but also as meaning that which is believed, the body of faith or Christian doctrine. It is with this latter sense that we are concerned. In this connection it is, of course, frequently, though not exclusively, used with the definite article.

In Gal. 1:23 Paul declares that he now preaches the faith which once he destroyed. Rom. 12:6 is also interpreted by many commentators in an objective sense — ‘according to the analogy of the faith’ — though eminent commentators can be found who reject this interpretation. Eph. 4:5, Col.2:7 and Phil. 1:27 are other examples.

The most frequent use of ‘pistis’ in an objective sense is in the Pastoral Epistles. According to Donald Guthrie the objective use of ‘pistis’ with the article accounts for nine out of the thirty three occurrences of the word.

Thus we read of a future departure from the faith (1 Tim. 4:1), of the faith being denied (5:8), of the good fight of the faith (6:12 RSV) ; of the words of the faith (1 Tim. 4:6).

It is evident from these quotations that for Paul the faith is a body of truth to be held, (2 Tim. 1:19), a deposit to be guarded.

Finally Jude exhorts us ‘earnestly to contend for the faith once for all delivered unto the saints’ (v.3).

(b) the truth

Here again the objective nature of the Christian revelation is emphasised; Arndt-Gingrich in their lexicon state that ‘aletheia’ is used ‘especially of the content of Christianity as the absolute truth.’ The truth is firstly incarnated truth, for Jesus Christ is the Truth (John 14:6). The truth is therefore to be found in Jesus (Eph. 4:21). Secondly, it is communicated truth–truth which is disclosed through the apostolic preaching– ‘the open proclamation of the truth’ (2 Cor. 4:2, cf. 1 Peter 2:25). The objective character of truth as revealed by God is underlined by the context of this statement. ‘We refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God’s word’ (RSV), which most probably means the message of Jesus Christ. Thirdly, it is inscripturated truth. Because the truth of God is objective it maybe given a written form. Because it can be communicated by words it can be committed to writing. Now into the subject of inscripturation I have not space to go (those who wish to pursue the matter are recommended to read the chapter by Ned B. Stonehouse: ‘Special Revelation as Scriptural’ in Revelation and the Bible.) But I would like to point out that both Paul in Galatians, and John in the Revelation presuppose the Scriptural character of revelation. In Galatians 1:6-12, Paul is at pains to emphasise that the gospel he proclaims is of absolute divine authority and possesses the character of revelation. He is concerned that his defence of it should be recognised as coming from his pen (Gal. 6:11). ‘We can hardly allow,’ says Professor Stonehouse, ‘for any other possibility than that those who received his gospel as true also accorded his written presentation thereof the authority of divine revelation’ (op. cit. p.84). The apostle John provides the clearest evidence of the scriptural character of the New Testament revelation, which must be always viewed as grafted on to the organism of the Old Testament revelation, when he writes: ‘I testify unto every man that heareth the words of the prophecy of this book, if any man shall add unto these things, God shall add unto him the plagues that are written in this book ; and if any man shall take away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part out of the book of life, and out of the holy city, which are written in this book.’ (Rev. 22:18f). ‘These solemn words of the epilogue,’ writes Prof. Stonehouse, ‘like those of the prologues, directly apply only to the Book of Revelation, but they show how even within the New Testament the scriptural character of special divine revelation came to explicit expression’ (ibid, p.86).

(ii) The nature of revelation

Here we come to the crucial area of difference between evangelicalism and liberalism on the one hand, and evangelicalism and Roman Catholicism on the other.

(a) As against liberalism evangelicalism affirms that revelation is objective. God has been graciously pleased to publish his revelation in recorded, written form, so that men who are blinded by sin might have a true, reliable and fixed revelation of his Being and purposes. Liberalism, because it makes man’s reason the arbiter in all things, finds the objective character of revelation anathema, because it holds that the theologian of the twentieth century is in a better position to know the mind of God than the apostles of the first. It holds that the truth is so wonderful that it cannot be put into words. On the liberal view the apostles should simply have had their mouths open in wonder, but they were utterly wrong to put their message into words.

(b) As against Roman Catholicism we insist that revelation is scriptural, and scriptural only. ‘Sola scriptura’ is our watchword. We believe that the faith was once delivered to the saints–hapax–once for all (Jude 3). The deposit of the faith is now inscripturated, and cannot be added to, since it has been delivered once and for all. We do not, therefore, believe that the Church can now be an organ of revelation, since the canon of Scripture has been completed. Whilst we believe that the Church may receive illumination as to the meaning of Scripture, we cannot without compromising the authority and finality of Scripture accord, as Roman Catholicism does, illumination the status of revelation. In other words because we hold that revelation is scriptural, we cannot subscribe to a two-source theory of revelation–Scripture and tradition.

(c) Thirdly, as against liberalism in general, and Barthianism in particular, we affirm that revelation is propositional. This is an implicate of the inscripturation of revelation. If revelation can be inscripturated, it must be propositional in character. This Barth would deny. He would affirm that the Word of God cannot be defined in terms of the words of Scripture. Scripture becomes the Word of God only as any part of it speaks to us, and ‘finds’ us.

The evangelical position is that the Bible is the Word of God. It has an inherent authority as God’s Word written. Barth confuses the persuasion of the Bible’s authority through the working of the Holy Spirit with the Bible’s own inherent authority as God-breathed. The Bible does not become the Word of God when it speaks to us ; it is the Word of God, and by the working of the Holy Spirit in our hearts its truth and authority are acknowledged within us.

Now what I have been saying about the nature of revelation may have little apparent connection with the subject we are considering. But in reality it has a great deal to do with it, particularly with reference to the contemporary situation in the Church today.

(d) If revelation is objective then its content can be defined While it is true that no attempt to define the content of revelation can ever be said to achieve complete finality, it does not follow that no attempt should be made, as liberals in principle maintain. All statements of doctrine must be subject to correction by Scripture, but if the faith has an objective content expressed in words, then such statements are both necessary and in keeping with the character of verbal revelation.

Thus we find that in connection with the concept of the faith the NT speaks of ‘the words of the faith’ (1 Tim. 4:6) on which the believer is nourished. It seems probable that Paul has in mind certain summaries of doctrine, perhaps containing ‘faithful sayings’ such as he gives in the course of the Pastoral Epistles, which provided solid spiritual fare. It is more than likely that 1 Tim. 3:16 is such a summary.

The faith can be expressed in sound words (2 Tim. 1:13), which promote spiritual health. Teaching has form, because it has a definable content (Rom. 6:17). Paul strikingly emphasises the objective content of apostolic teaching by saying that the believers at Rome were delivered to it — they were handed over to the gospel pattern. As Prof. John Murray well says, ‘This… underlines the objectivity of the pattern…’ (Romans Vol. 1, p.232).

The practical implications of the assumption of the New Testament writers that the faith can be defined are enormous.

The first implication is that summary statements of doctrine are desirable so that all who are charged with teaching will teach apostolic doctrine. If the content of the Biblical revelation cannot be defined then it is useless to expect teachers to give assent to any summary of it. But if it can, then a summary of doctrine will provide a standard by which orthodoxy may be judged.

It is just such an understanding of a doctrinal statement that is anathema to many today. An influential Baptist minister is on record as saying that to define the faith would ‘take away from him the thrill of being a Christian.’ His fundamental premise is, of course, that fuzziness is a virtue and precision is a vice!

Secondly, if the content of the faith can be summarised in doctrinal statements then catechizing is both possible and desirable. Children and recent converts are to be taught the faith in summary form in order that they may know what is to be believed, and that their thinking and practice may be shaped by the teaching which is according to godliness.

It is no accident that when in the nineteenth century the emphasis shifted from the objectivity of revelation to the subjectivity of Christian experience, and later to the subjectivity of human reason, the well-tried method of catechizing fell into disuse. It is one of the most hopeful signs of our times that today we are witnessing in some quarters a return to catechizing.

(e) If revelation is Scriptural and propositional then Scripture-based confessions of faith in contemporary language are a prime necessity. Scripture must govern both the compilation of a confession of faith, and any revision of it. Why evangelicals should object to confessions of faith I am at a loss to understand. To my mind it is impossible to ensure the doctrinal purity of the Church if a vague phrase such as ‘according to the Scriptures,’ is counted adequate as a doctrinal basis.

If a Church is not prepared to express the faith in a confessional (of if you will, creedal) statement then how can it discipline a teacher who is propagating false doctrine? In the course of the Down Grade controversy Spurgeon realised that until the Baptist Union adopted an adequate doctrinal basis, it would be impossible to discipline those who were teaching erroneous doctrine. Of course, he was faced with the objection, still abroad in certain circles, that a creed tries to express the inexpressible. To this objection he replied, ‘Surely, what we believe may be stated, may be written, may be made known; and what is this but to make and promulgate a creed? Baptists from the first have issued their confessions of faith. Even the present Baptist Union has a creed about baptism, though about nothing else.’ (The Sword and Trowel 1888, p.82). Furthermore, in replying to another common objection he said, ‘To say that “a creed comes between a man and his God”‘, is to suppose that it is not true; for truth, however definitely stated, does not divide the believer from his Lord’ (ibid, p.82).

Of course, creeds can never partake of the fixity of Scripture, which is why they need to be subject to revision in the light of Scripture. Furthermore they require rewriting in contemporary language, if there is any possibility that the comprehension of Scriptural truth is being hindered by an out of date way of expressing it.

My argument so far may be expressed in two propositions

(1) Scripture contains a concept of orthodoxy. This contains the following elements: objectivity, fixity, the adequacy and reliability of word revelation. Unless this is accepted erroneous teaching becomes a mere difference in opinion, not a threat against the very life of the Church of God.

(2) Scripture contains within it summaries of the content of revelation.

Though the OT Scripture was able to make men wise unto salvation, this did not prevent Paul from using summary statements of doctrine. Nor does the completion of the canon of Scripture rule out the use of credal statements as tests of orthodoxy and summaries of Scriptural teaching. Rather the nature of the Scriptural revelation is such that credal statements are perfectly in accord with it.

If Scripture contains the concept of orthodoxy then that must have content. Thus the concept of orthodoxy demands the statement of what constitutes orthodoxy.

In other words, a properly constituted Church must have an adequate doctrinal basis which will have a threefold use

(i) to anchor teachers in the Scriptural revelation.

(ii) to serve as an educational or teaching instrument, so that members of the Church may be instructed in the faith.

(iii) to furnish a means whereby teachers may be tested and if necessary, disciplined.

2. The Calling of the Church

Intimately related to the biblical concept of revelation is the biblical view of the calling of the Church. The Church exists for a threefold purpose, (1) to worship the living and true God, (2) to nourish believers, (3) to preach the gospel. It is with the last two that we are especially concerned.

Believers are sanctified through the truth (John 17:17). The truth must therefore be taught in its fullness — the whole counsel of God must be declared. And the truth of the gospel must be preached to unbelievers, if they are ever to know the truth, and to walk in the way of truth (2 Peter 2:2).

It is because the Church is charged with the declaration of the truth of God that it is described by Paul as ‘the pillar and ground of truth’ (1 Tim. 3:15). A better translation is ‘a pillar and buttress of the truth’. It is so called because in the words of J. N. D. Kelly ‘it is the function and responsibility of each congregation to support, bolster up, and thus safeguard the true teaching by its continuous witness.’ The Church is called a pillar and buttress because there are many local churches throughout the world performing this function.

Each local church must firstly, adhere to the truth as it is found in Scripture. This it must do not only in its constitution but in its life and practice. It must achieve by confessing it.

Secondly, each local church must reform itself according to the truth. Reformation must be according to the Word of God, and embrace both doctrine and practice.

And thirdly those who teach in the local church in whatever capacity must be required to teach the truth. This applies to resident teachers (Acts 20:28-32) and to visiting preachers (1 John 10). The Church must be watchful lest false teachers worm their way into the fellowship and spread damnable heresies (Acts 20:29; 2 Peter 2:2; 2 Cor. 11:13).

Each church, then, is called to confess the truth, to reform itself by the truth, and to discipline those who do not teach the truth.

This view of the Church is of course, abhorrent to all who regard the Church as a fellowship which comprehends those who hold widest possible opinions as to what constitutes the truth. But a Church of the living God is a pillar and buttress of the truth. It, therefore, cannot include those who deny the revealed gospel of God, and proclaim their man made sophistries in place of it.

3. The Church and Error

We must turn now to consider in some detail the subject of the Church and error, bearing in mind the nature of the Christian revelation and the calling of the church.

If there is such a thing as sound doctrine which is called such (1 Tim. 1:10; 2 Tim. 4:3) because it promotes spiritual health, then conversely there must be unsound doctrine which proves detrimental to the life and testimony of the Church.

(i) The nature of erroneous doctrine

Error to the NT concerns either the Person of Christ or the way of salvation or behaviour in the life of the Church or individual Christian believer.

The Epistle to the Colossians and the First Epistle of John were written to counteract error in the realm of the Person of Christ. The Epistle to the Galatians, and 1 Corinthians 15 were written to counteract error that imperilled the doctrine of salvation. If circumcision is necessary as an addendum to the gospel of grace, then salvation is no longer by grace through faith. If the dead rise not then our faith is vain (1 Corinthians 15).

The First Epistle of Paul to the Corinthians, chapters 12-14 deals with error which affects ecclesiastical life, namely the improper use of spiritual gifts. To counteract this, Paul lays down principles which are to govern their exercise. In the same epistle he deals with a case of moral lapse (1 Corinthians 5).

The NT does not divorce doctrinal error from moral turpitude. Indeed it is insistent that error in doctrine leads to error in living. Thus the exhortation to contend for the faith once delivered unto the saints occurs in a context where immoral behaviour is in the writer’s mind. There must be contention for the faith since ‘ungodly people who alter the grace of our God into debauchery’ have gained an entrance into the Church. The false teachers of 2 Peter 2:1-2 are licentious in life, as well as pernicious in doctrine. Men who oppose the truth are among those who ‘worm their way into households and mislead idle women’ (2 Tim. 3:7, 8). It cannot be too strongly emphasised that error in doctrine in principle always leads to a denial of Christian morality. Thus the new morality is but the outcome of the new theology.

(ii) The effects of erroneous teaching

Erroneous teaching has two effects. Firstly, if unchecked, it substitutes the imaginings of men for the revealed truth of God. Heresy has a destructive power for according to 2 Peter 2:1, heresies lead to destruction.

Heresy undermines the hold that the Church should ever maintain on the truth of God. Instead of being ‘a pillar and support of the truth’, the Church becomes a veritable babel of tongues. When teachers turn away from the truth they are not left in a vacuum; rather they turn to myths (2 Tim. 4:4). In such a church a sinner will not hear the gospel of God’s grace. In such a church the believer cannot be edified, for the Word of God had been set aside.

The second effect is that the life of the Church is imperilled, and unless there is a return to God in repentance, the Church will become extinct. When the General Baptist Churches in England became Arian in the eighteenth century it was not long before they began to die. When Methodism substituted philanthropy for the gospel it soon began to close its chapels. In short when a church turns from the truth of God, God turns from it.

When God’s Word is abandoned then the Holy Spirit is grieved, and his presence may very well be withdrawn altogether.

(iii) The counteraction of erroneous teaching.

How did the apostles counteract false teaching ?

(1) By teaching the truth

The best antidote to error is the full and fearless proclamation of the truth. This was Paul’s method. To counteract the error which was prevalent in the Corinthian church he gave the magnificent exposition of the resurrection of the body which we find in chapter 15. To counteract the incipient Gnosticism of Colosse he dwelt upon the pre-eminence of Christ.

Undoubtedly one reason why false cults flourish today is because they fill a vacuum caused by a failure to preach a full-orbed gospel, in other words the failure to preach the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

(2) By disciplining teachers who do not preach the truth.

The disciplining of errorists is an inevitable corollary of the revelatory status of the Christian revelation.

No words are more solemn in this connection than the word of Paul in Galatians 1. ‘But though we, or an angel from heaven’ — an apostle or a messenger of God — ‘should preach any other gospel unto you than that which we have preached unto you, let him be accursed.’ If the immoral were handed over to Satan, then surely the errorist must be disciplined, for by his teaching he subverts his hearers, and imperils the testimony the Church.

To refuse the discipline is to be indifferent to truth, and to be unconcerned for the honour of God. If the Church rightly insists that her teachers proclaim the faith, then she is right to exercise discipline when any one teaches contrary to the doctrine she has received from the living God. He who does not bring or teach apostolic doctrine ought not to be received by the Church which is built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets (2 John 10).

It ought to be noted that the NT assumes that false teachers will be separated by discipline from the Church. Unless this is recognized the exhortation ‘Come out from among them and be ye separate’, will be misapplied. The same apostle who penned these words wrote, ‘Purge out therefore the old leaven that ye may be a new lump.’

The NT does not envisage a situation in which, because discipline has not been exercised, false doctrine predominates over sound doctrine. It assumes that discipline will be exercised before such a sad situation has come to prevail.

But our situation is that in many churches, even those with an evangelical basis of doctrine, the teachers of error far outnumber the teachers of truth. What is the duty of the latter? This is one of the most pressing problems that evangelicals have to face today, and I propose in concluding this paper to consider this issue and other related matters.

4. The Present Ecclesiastical Situation

As I understand, many evangelicals are utterly confused as to what their duty is in the present complex situation.

Many evangelicals today argue that so long as they are free to preach the gospel, they will remain in their mixed denominations. ‘The time to leave,’ they say, ‘is when we are cast out.’

Now such a view has the merit of being simple, but I would ask is it justified by Scripture? And my answer would be an unequivocal ‘No.’

On this view the evangelical must concede freedom to the errorist to preach his false doctrine. ‘So long as he lets me alone,’ says this type of evangelical, ‘I must let him alone.’ But could we imagine the apostle Paul saying to the Judaisers, ‘So long as you permit me in my sphere to preach the gospel of free grace I will grant you the right to preach salvation through the gospel and circumcision’? Paul would not tolerate for a moment such an idea and nor should we. Surely the Church must give a united witness to the truth. The New Testament conjoins the one body of Christ and ‘the unity of faith’ (Eph. 4:12, 13). And so must we.

Does it therefore follow that it is the duty of evangelicals at the moment to withdraw from their denominations if these should contain false teachers? Some would answer with an unhesitating ‘Yes.’ But it is well to pause and to ask ourselves, ‘On what grounds is an evangelical justified in remaining in?’

My answer would be that he is right to remain in if he is determined, along with others of the same mind, to reform the Church according to the Word of God and to see to it that those who teach doctrines contrary to it are disciplined. Now if it should be replied that if evangelicals attempted to exercise discipline in their mixed denominations they would be cast out, surely they have the answer that if the situation has become so impossible that those who preach the truth are disciplined for insisting that all ministers do likewise, then evangelicals have no course open to them but to separate.

To my mind the crucial question in the present dilemma is, ‘Are evangelicals remaining in to influence their churches or to reform them?’ If the former then their influence does not seem to prevent the utterance of terrible blasphemies. If the latter, then why is it that we hear so little of reformation according to the Word of God? One may sum the matter up thus the concept of influence is inadequate in the light of NT teaching; the concept of reformation is explosive in the situation in which many evangelicals find themselves today.

It must be admitted that many evangelicals distrust the idea of separation largely because they have seen it used to justify all sorts of ungodly behaviour. Often divisions have been caused less by erroneous doctrine than by the clash of strong personalities. Is it possible, I wonder, to draw a distinction between a carnal separation, stemming from fleshly motives, and a spiritual separation in which the good of the Church and the honour of God are the paramount considerations?

Finally it is becoming increasingly obvious that among many evangelicals there is a desire for fellowship together that is based upon the Word of God. Evangelicals are at last really beginning to wrestle with the doctrine of the Church, a doctrine that has been relegated to the sidelines for far too long. It is heartening to see a new awareness that the doctrine of the Church is of crucial importance in the New Testament. But if this new awareness is to be more than academic theorising evangelicals, and especially pastors, elders and deacons, must take seriously the Biblical attitude to erroneous doctrine.

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