Is Debating the Finer Points of Theology Important?

June 14, 2011

“If we cannot hope to understand these details why is it important?”

“Does anyone really believe Calvin and Lewis are now in Heaven debating the finer points of the atonement?”

These are some of the questions of recent that I have come across as a pastor both within my church and without. I have faced some heavy criticism of being a very heavily “theological” pastor. Whether it be preaching the Word or interacting with people or teaching a theology class in our PM services, I have felt that a thorough and sound teaching of the foundational theological truths is incredibly important for the life of the Christian and the church. Unfortunately, this has met with some resistance. When we have been discussing the finer points of thinking on human responsibility and God’s sovereignty in salvation I have heard the comments that this is really unimportant. We need simply to preach the Word. All of this fine theological discussion does not actually help us to grow in the faith.

Yet, does not our love for God grow through our profound knowledge of God? And as our love for Him grows does not our service to Him grow in proportion?

I had the same discussion with someone on Facebook about the differences between John Calvin and C. S. Lewis and that neither are debating issues of “Calvinism and Arminianism” in heaven. I was astounded at this. Will, when we reach heaven, know infinitely all there is to know about God and His plans? Or will we continue to plumb the depths of the wisdom and glory of God for all eternity since He is infinite and we will always be finite? No, Calvin and Lewis are seeking to still understand the wisdom of God in all these things. They’re just not doing it as acrimoniously as we do today.

I wondered if this was simply new to our age. We live in an age or feeling and emotion and care not for the finer details of theology. But as I was reading Justification Vindicated by the Scottish Covenanter, Robert Traill (1642-1716) written when it was a time when theological precious and acumen was greatly prized, I realized the same issue has existed forever. He writes,

A light, frothy, trifling temper prevails generally; doctrines of the greatest weight are talked of and treated about with a vain, unconcerned frame of spirit, as if men contended rather about opinions and schoolpoints than about  the oracles of God and matters of faith. But if men’s hearts were seen by themselves, if sin were felt, if men’s consciences were enlivened, if God’s holy law were known in its exactness and severity, and the glory and majesty of the Lawgiver shining before men’s eyes, if men were living as if leaving time and launching forth into eternity, the gospel salvation by Jesus Christ would be more regarded (pp. 39-40).

The reality is, these finer details of theology, about justification, regeneration, election, substitutionary penal atonement, are of paramount importance both for the individual Christian and for the church. And if we only recognized our own limitations and God’s glory, we would spend far more time seeking to fine tune our theology to be most faithful to the Word of God.

So, I continue to teach theology. I continue to preach the whole counsel of God. I continue to recommend (and read myself) good, solid books, emphasizing right theology. I realize it is not just this day that makes men sloth for caring about the eternal purposes of God in the Word, but every age. And with every age there needs to be pastors who prompt and prod his people to know God and His Word better and to live it more faithfully and teach it clearly to the next generation.

In the end, we’re not going to know everything. There is a certain mystery to so much of the workings of God. Yet, our goal is to know and love God completely. We won’t have that perfected even on the other side of glory, but that does not abrogate my responsibility to work at it. I pray, that as I teach theology to my people, they will in turn love God more, and serve Him more faithfully.

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Book Review – Rediscovering the Church Fathers

June 8, 2011

Michael A. G. Haykin, Rediscovering the Church Fathers: Who They Were and How They Shaped the Church (Crossway, 2011).

I consider Michael Haykin a dear friend. He previously had been my boss at Toronto Baptist Seminary and a one-time mentor to me on a now defunct PhD dissertation. I consider him one of the keenest theologians and historians in Evangelicalism today and am so thankful for his ministry in my life. One might think that would make the following review too biased to be worth reading. This would be true if the reviewer had nothing negative to say about the book. But while I think it is a wonderful contribution to Evangelical thinking on the Fathers, I think there are a number of deficiencies that create for it a rather limited market.

Haykin is a Patristics scholar par excellence and this volume brings his writings back to a subject area so precious to him. The introduction and the conclusion make reading the book imperative for any thoughtful Christian. His pilgrimage with the Fathers is something of an encouragement and challenge to us all as we seek to live out the historic Christian faith with our ancestors. Especially helpful is how Haykin lays out important and practical reasons for studying the Fathers that most of us would not have considered.

The main bulk of the book is chapters on particular Fathers treating particular issues in Christian thinking and practice (most of the chapters have appeared elsewhere). To those who are widely read in significant Christian theology or in Patristics these chapters are welcome additions from an Evangelical perspective on key issues. Yet, for those average Christian these chapters would be difficult to read and focus upon as they are fairly technical. If Haykin wants us in the church to learn to love and appreciate the Fathers then I would argue perhaps he should identify that his book is really written for pastors and scholars. Yet, the issues that are treated in it are imperative to have a firm understanding of. Ignatius of Antioch’s thinking on martyrdom, apologetics from the Letter to Diognetus, hermeneutics with Origen, the Lord’s Supper with Cyprian and Ambrose, holiness and the Spirit from Basil of Casesarea, and the missionary piety of Patrick are all important things to consider. Yet, the language and details offered put this book out of reach of most average Christians.

The other weakness of the book is the Fathers that Haykin leaves out. Interestingly, in his appendix on a guide to reading the Fathers, Haykin talks about reading Augustine, The Odes of Solomon, Hilary, Athansius, and Gregory of Nyssa. None of these were dealt with directly in the book. It is a shame that Haykin asks us to read the works of those that we might be unfamiliar with and does not introduce us to them through his book. Would not it have been better then to treat these as well if he wants us to become familiar with the Fathers? In the opinion of this reviewer, two monumental Fathers were left out of the main section of the book and it is virtually unforgivable: Augustine and Athanasius. No book seeking to introduce us to the value of the Fathers should leave out these two men.

Now, this is not to say the book is without value. If you are patient and read thoughtfully you will glean fantastic material that will challenge your mind and warm your heart and motivate your hands to serve God more faithfully. We have much to learn from those who have gone before us and those willing to mine the details that Haykin presents will not be disappointed. But, if you are looking for a basic introduction to the Fathers from an Evangelical perspective, I would not recommend Haykin. Instead I would recommend Bryan Litfin’s helpful, Getting to Know the Church Fathers: An Evangelical Introduction. In it he surveys the life, thinking, and major contributions of the major Fathers including Augustine and Athansisus and includes reading recommendations and study questions for each Father. Now, if you want to move further than an introduction, then Haykin is where you should turn, but for the novice looking to study the Fathers, Litfin is a better introduction.

So, while Haykin is a dear friend and I think his book makes a wonderful contribution to Patristics, it is not for those looking for a basic introduction to the Fathers. But, again, for those who want to mine the riches of the Fathers that Haykin does address, it is worth every penny.