Risking the truth: A review of my review

I recently reviewed Martin Downes book Risking the Truth and Martin has responded with a response to my review which I’m grateful for. This is good because this is a healthy debate. There are areas where I may not have been sufficiently clear and while of course there may well still be disagreement we can at least be clear about it (and hopefully gracious).

Martin helpfully expands on the motivation behind the book quoting 1 Timothy 6:3-5 and then writes,

“Part of the reason for the blog, and the book, is to promote a better understanding of these issues [heresy] and to promote responsible ways of handling them. In order to do that we have to take error with apostolic seriousness. In some circles there is a lack of seriousness about error, in others this seriousness can tip over into pre-occupation. We have to safeguard ourselves from both of these dangers.”

This goes some way to responding to my comment that the tone of the book was ‘defensive and fearful’, as Martin explains,

“The defensiveness is bound up with the nature of the book. I set out to ask questions about the errors that we are facing and how we should respond to them. Defending the faith is commanded in Scripture (Jude 3, 2 Timothy 1:14, Titus 1:9; Rev. 2:2, contrast that with 2:20). So being defensive is not, in and of itself, something negative that we should shy away from or feel bad about. Every day as a parent I protect my children from harm. So, the adjective is appropriate, and to be expected. In fact the apostle Paul uses militaristic language on several occasions to describe the Christian life in general and the work of pastoral ministry in particular.”

In many ways I understand this, the subtitle is after all ‘handling error in the church’ and as I said in the book there are several very helpful chapters, especially those dealing with a specific doctrinal focus. But let me expand on Martin’s reference to protecting children from harm, which is something every parent must do. The question is not simply a matter of whether or not this is an important task (it is) but what is the best way of doing so. How do we prepare our children for the inevitable moment when they face danger?

Let me switch metaphors to something I feel I know more about, football. Some teams approach a game determined not to lose, others approach the game setting out to win. Both teams will be aware of the dangers the opposition present but their ways of dealing with that are very different. One team puts 11 men behind the ball and its backs to the wall for 90 minutes, the other team still has a defence but seeks to score as many goals as possible.

So before I stretch the analogy too far, I hope I’ve made my point. Even though the questions Martin asked were about the dangers we face, the answers rarely equipped me with more confidence for Kingdom advance but left me hoping just to survive the onslaught of error from inside and outside the church, or in some cases worry that I wasn’t adding to the error!

So much for defensive, but what about ‘fearful’? I think it has to do with ‘tone’, some very healthy people are very worried about getting sick. Talk to one of those people and you will probably leave quite worried about your own state of health. As I read, an impression of what is being conveyed to me builds, this is of course very subjective and other readers may respond differently and that’s fair enough, but this was my impression.

Martin then responds to my description of the ‘narrow’ view of some of the ‘reformed’. Martin writes,

“On who might be saved or not then we must be as broad and narrow as Paul is in 1 Corinthians 15:1-10.”

Which I’m happy to agree with, I just wasn’t convinced all the contributors to his book did. Let me explain because it relates to the next point where a convinced ‘cessationist’ sounds forth about charismatics. Let me just add though that Martin had hoped to include Grudem and Driscoll but they were unavailable and rightly points out that other disagreements existed and that’s fair enough. My point was again broader than the cessationist vs charismatic disagreement but it serves well as an example. To that contributor charismatics are in error, it is heresy and those who practice it are deceived and then went (I felt) further to imply that they probably aren’t even Christians. Lines were drawn in places quite different to 1 Cor 15:1-10.

This left me personally feeling that by grace alone, through faith alone in Christ alone, actually wasn’t enough. Instead it needed to be a specific kind of ‘faith’. I doubted if I’d be able to share communion with many of these men who I one day hope to stand alongside for eternity and worship Jesus with them, and that I think is sad.

Nearing the end now, I said “all claim that the Westminster Confession and others like it are not Scripture but equally it is true that you won’t find anything in Scripture that contradicts these confessions either!” To which Martin replied,

“This is par for the course. Whether you hold to a fairly minimalist evangelical statement of faith or a more maximalist Reformed confession, you only want things in there that you believe Scripture teaches. If it’s not in Scripture then you don’t want it in your confessional statement.”

Which isn’t quite what I meant, so perhaps I should have been clearer. If I asked all of the people whether the Westminster Confession, for example, was equal in authority to Scripture? All of them (I hope) would reply ‘no.’ If I reframed the question and asked, ‘Does Scripture teach the Westminster Confession?’ you’d expect them to answer positively. What concerned me was how closely entwined the two documents seemed, one a simple elucidation of the other, to believe the one is to believe the other but also the converse to not believe the one is to not believe the other.

If you start with the Bible this is fair enough, if I don’t believe the Bible I won’t believe the Westminster Confession. But what if it’s the other way round, is it true that if I don’t accept the Westminster Confession (or at least not all of it) I don’t accept the Bible? And the answer, it seemed to me from some of the contributors at least, was ‘yes.’ Which was why I expressed my concern.

Lastly, I commented on the ‘seriousness’ of the whole enterprise of involvement in the church and a question as to whether there was any joy in it. Martin responded by saying,

“That the accent in the book should be on seriousness does not mean that there is an agenda to suppress or neglect joy. To even suggest otherwise would be to cast aspersions on these men and their ministries.”

No aspersions intended. Two observations in my life have I guess informed this response in me, so I’m quite prepared to say that this could have been my reaction to the book, and not the book itself. Firstly, let me reflect on my upbringing as an example. Growing up in a Christian home we had a fairly conservative approach to a Sunday as a family. We dressed up and we went to church where my father was pastor but the rest of the day became about what we couldn’t do and not about what we could do. No TV, no football, no going round to friends because it was ‘the Lord’s day’ and so on so that sooner or later Sunday became the most joyless day in the week rather than the most joyful. This was a shame.

The other observation is that the most miserable, dour, joyless Christians I’ve ever met have all been ‘reformed.’ It happened too often to simply be a personality thing, instead it seemed that it was a culture thing. The ‘joy’ was in how serious everything was. Getting a smile or a laugh from these guys was nothing short of a miracle but then they didn’t believe in those.

Now I don’t want to tar the author of this book with that brush but I felt that the same ‘culture’ of gravity was evident in the answers and I reacted against that culture.

One of the greatest discoveries I’ve ever made was when I realised I could enjoy worshipping Christ, that it should make me both weep and laugh, that this grace that saved me should at times cause me shout at the top of my lungs ‘hallelujah’, that I of all people should delight in the freedom that Christ has won for me on the cross, and I’ve not discovered a way to do any of that without smiling or letting that joy cross my face. I hope the contributors would join me in this, but I worried that they wouldn’t.

Heresy is a dangerous thing, it can shipwreck faith and so pastors and leaders must learn how to recognise it and handle it well. To that end, portions of this book succeed admirably while others, in this reader’s humble opinion enlarged the field of heresy unhelpfully.

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