A Perspective on the Historical Development of “Calvinism”

There is much to be said about Calvinism among American Evangelicals today. In my own denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention, there has been no small amount of concern about the recent resurgence of Calvinistic theology and people claiming to be Calvinists.

In this brief essay, I merely want to offer a fast-paced perspective of how some of the foundational doctrines of Calvinism developed and were articulated throughout church history. This is obviously not an exhaustive report or historical volume. I simply want to offer the average reader an opportunity to gain an introductory perspective of how we arrived here in American Evangelicalism.

John Calvin did not invent “Calvinism”

The five doctrines, known as the “Five Points of Calvinism,” or “TULIP,” or “the Doctrines of Grace,” were not articulated as “five points” until sometime in the 1800s. John Calvin was born in 1509 and he died in 1564. As a matter of fact, the doctrines in focus in the “Five Points of Calvinism” were only collected in a group when students of a Dutch theologian, named Jacobus Arminius, protested these doctrines in a town called Dort, in the Netherlands (1618-19). Arminius was born in 1560, so he was 4 years old when Calvin died, and his students never met Calvin at all.

I will say more about the “Five Points of Calvinism” in a bit, and I will even give a brief overview of the acrostic “TULIP,” but before I do, let me show you that these doctrines were already in focus way back in the early church. In fact, the “T” in TULIP (standing for Total Depravity) can at least be traced back to a theological debate among churchmen in the fourth-century.

Augustine vs. Pelagius on Total Depravity[1]

Late in the fourth-century (like 398-99 AD), a North-African bishop by the name of Augustine wrote the longest prayer known to man. It was a 300+ page autobiography, emphasizing his own conversion to Christ from paganism, which was entirely written as a prayer. It was a best-selling book at that time, and you can still find it in print today because Christians have recognized Augustine’s tremendous biblical insight and humble honesty.

In this book, Augustine wrote,

My whole hope is in Your exceedingly great mercy and that alone. You command self-control from us, but I am sure that no one can have self-control unless You give it to him. Grant what You command and command what You will (or in some translations: whatever pleases You).”

Essentially, Augustine was claiming that fallen humans (i.e. sinful humans after Genesis 3) cannot do anything genuinely good unless or until God enables them to do so. This claim is basic to the doctrine known as “Total Depravity.”

Total Depravitydoes not mean that fallen humans are as bad as they could be… as though a sinner could not possibly be any worse than he or she already is. We all know that we could be much worse than we are right now. Instead, Total Depravityis the doctrinal understanding that fallen humans are affected by sin in such a way so that no part of the person is left untouched by sin (our body, our minds, and our will or desires).

Augustine’s view of fallen humanity was built upon biblical descriptions of the sinful corruption of fallen humans.

For example, Romans 3:10-12says, “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.”

Or Ephesians 2:1-3speaks of the deadness of man’s soul and the corruption of his desires. The Apostle Paul wrote to Christians, saying, “you were [once] dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience – among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.”

Pelagius, an ascetic monk and theologian who lived during the same time period as Augustine, read Augustine’s book and didn’t like that particular part of Augustine’s prayer.

Pelagius said, “How can God hold humans responsible for not doing what they cannot do? Man is either utterly free to obey the commands of God, or God’s commands are unjust… God is unjust.”

Pelagius argued that even fallen humans must be able to obey God’s commands without God’s help (i.e. without God’s gracious and active intervention). Whatever sinful corruption humans suffer after the fall of Adam, Pelagius argued, these effects have not taken away man’s ability to do genuine good and obey God’s commands.

Unlike Augustine, Pelagius does not have any surviving works today, so historians don’t know very much about him. His students were the ones who picked up his cause against Augustine’s doctrines of man’s depravity and God’s sovereignty, and the doctrinal dispute came to a head at the Council of Ephesusin 431 AD. That gathering of Christian pastors and theologians declared Pelagianism an officialheresy– a doctrine that is outside of the umbrella of Christianity (an unbiblical teaching of a First-Level doctrine).

On a side note: Southern Baptists have historically agreed with Augustine and the Council of Ephesus on this matter. The Baptist Faith and Message states, “Through the temptation of Satan man transgressed the command of God, and fell from his original innocence whereby his posterity inherit a nature and an environment inclined toward sin.” Therefore, anyone who disagrees with Augustine or John Calvin on the nature of fallen humans must also admit that they disagree with Southern Baptists.

Though Pelagianism was outed as an official heresy in 431 AD, a similar doctrinal teaching emerged among Christians only about 100 years later (called Semi-Pelagianism). In this modified view, Semi-Pelagians claimed that fallen humans do not have the ability to do genuinely good things, but they argued that there was a general distribution of God’s grace among all humans, which brought every person back to a neutral position from which they could choose to do good or evil (this is known as “prevenient grace”).

In 529 AD, Semi-Pelagianism was also condemned as a heresy at the Council of Orange(in southern France). For the next 1,000 years, Augustine’s view of natural man’s inability to choose genuine good (Total Depravity) was the standard of orthodox Christian doctrine in Western Christianity. And yet, Semi-Pelagianism remained a constant doctrinal rival to the orthodox view, sometimes gaining and sometimes losing ground. In fact, the doctrine of “prevenient grace” was a dividing line between Roman Catholicism and Protestants during the Reformation.

Protestant Reformers vs. Roman Catholic Church on “Monergism”

During the Protestant Reformation, this millennium-old doctrinal dispute came to the fore again. This time theological terms were coined to describe the work of regeneration (This is the biblical term associated with the concept of being “born again”). The argument was set something like this: If fallen humans are in fact unable to do genuine good unless or until God enables them to do so(i.e. Total Depravity), then God must be the one who acts alone upon dead sinners to make them spiritually alive and desirous of genuine good.

Of course, this kind of reasoning was not invented by mere philosophy. This argumentation is directly drawn from Scripture. Consider Ephesians 2:1-8.

1 You were dead in the trespasses and sins 2 in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience – 3 among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. 4 But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, 5 even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— 6 and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, 7 so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. 8 For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God…”

The doctrinal divide between the Reformers and the Roman Catholic Church is best summed up in two words: Monergismand Synergism.

Monergism literally means “one unit working.” Monergism, in our theological discussion, declares “God alone works to regenerate the sinner.” In other words, regeneration is an act or work of God’s grace, to which the sinner responds with faith and repentance… one has faith because he/she is born again… one is not born again because of faith.

The Protestant Reformers argued that fallen humans can do nothing to save themselves or even to make themselves savable. Salvation (particularly regeneration) is by the grace of God alone, and the sinner is merely a passive beneficiary of this miraculous divine work.

Synergism literally means “units working together.” Synergism, in our theological discussion, declares “God and the sinner cooperate in the work of regeneration.” In other words, regeneration is the cooperative work of both God and the sinner… one is born again partly because he/she has faith and partly because God graciously works spiritual life in them.

The Roman Catholic Church argued that fallen humans are indeed sinful, but God distributes “prevenient grace” to all people everywhere, which brings humans to something of a neutral state in their desire for good and evil. The sinner cooperates with this “prevenient grace” in order to prepare himself/herself (by doing genuine good) to receive God’s saving grace. In this way the Roman Catholic Church brought Semi-Pelagianism back from the heresy trashcan.

On a side note: If you are wondering where Southern Baptists land on this issue, we may look again to the Baptist Faith and Message, which says, “As soon as they [i.e. humans] are capable of moral action, they become transgressors and are under condemnation. Only the grace of God can bring man into His holy fellowship and enable man to fulfill the creative purpose of God [i.e. God’s commands].” The Baptist Faith and Message goes on to say, “Regeneration, or the new birth, is a work of God’s grace whereby believers become new creatures in Christ Jesus. It is a change of heart wrought by the Holy Spirit [i.e. brought about by the Holy Spirit] through conviction of sin, to which the sinner responds in repentance toward God and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.” Note that the Baptist Faith and Message says that ‘repentance’ and ‘faith’ are how the sinner ‘responds’ to the gracious work of regeneration. In other words, regeneration is the act of God alone, which precedes faith… This is a clear affirmation of Monergism. So, again we find that those who disagree with John Calvin (also a Monergist) are in disagreement with Southern Baptists as well.

Before there was such a thing as a Southern Baptist, and even before John Calvin was a theologian, Protestant Reformers were Monergists. Peter Waldo (born 1140), John Wycliffe (born in 1330), Jan Hus (born 1369), Martin Luther (born 1483), Ulrich Zwingli (born in 1484), Thomas Cranmer (born 1489), William Farel (born 1489), Martin Bucer (born 1491), and William Tyndale (born in 1494) were all Monergists. John Calvin wasn’t born until 1509, and Martin Luther published his masterful book (Bondage of the Will), describing the inability of man’s will and the necessity of God’s monergistic work, when John Calvin was only 16 years old.

The reason for citing all of this is, once again, to say that John Calvin did not invent what is known today as “Calvinism.” The “Five Points of Calvinism” or “TULIP,” as we shall see, is the summary of doctrines that have deep roots in Christian history. But, Christians have been looking to the Bible a long time for answers to all kinds of questions. Many of the questions that center on salvation are at the heart of Christian doctrine.

The Five Points of Calvinism

As I mentioned earlier, what often goes under the heading of “Calvinism” today was not the invention of John Calvin. In fact, anyone who has read Calvin’s writings would know that Calvin would be horrified to learn that Christians have used his name to label any doctrine. Calvin was a bookish introvert, who almost never spoke or wrote about himself. His life’s work was given to studying, preaching, and teaching the Bible. Many Christian theologians today think that Calvin was the best Christian mind up to that point in history (the 1500s), but Calvin wanted nothing of any celebrity status. At Calvin’s request, his body was buried in a mass unmarked grave when he died, because he did not want any fuss made about his burial place.

So where did the so-called “Five Points” come from? When did the TULIPs bloom? Well, simply put, it is not clear exactly when the acrostic “TULIP” was fist formulated.

As I said before, it was sometime in the 1800s when TULIP was first used to describe the “Five Points of Calvinism.” But before then, there was a statement that came out from a council of churchmen in the Netherlands, which articulated the doctrines in summary form. It is important to remember, however, the “Five Points” stated at this gathering were only in response to “five disagreements” that an outside group raised in dispute.

Synod of Dort: The Origins of TULIP

Jacobus Arminius was a Dutch theologian (1560-1609) who lived a generation after John Calvin. Arminius thought highly of Calvin, saying, “Next to the study of the Scriptures… I exhort my students to read Calvin’s Commentaries carefully and thoroughly… for I affirm that he excels beyond comparison in the interpretation of Scripture.” However, Arminius disagreed with some of Calvin’s theology. Arminius believed that God elected to save some sinners because God knew these sinners would respond positively to the gospel in the future. Arminius also believed that sinners could restrain the renewing power of the Holy Spirit and that Christians could lose their salvation if they did not persevere.

Calvin and Arminius never met (Calvin died when Arminius was 4 years old), but Arminius’s followers (known as the “Remonstrance”) organized their opposition to some of Calvin’s doctrines about 50 years after Calvin died. It all came to a head at the Synod of Dort(1618-19).[2]

The Remonstrance were 42 ministers, influenced by Arminius’ writings against some of Calvin’s theology. They petitioned the state to ask for theological allowance since Semi-Pelagianism was already classified as a heresy 1,000 years earlier. At that time in history, most Reformers were magisterial (meaning they still operated inside of a church structure that was connected to the civil magistrate). Religious freedom as we know it in America today isn’t really a thing until very recently in human history.

The Five Articles of the Remonstranceare:

Conditional Predestination: God predestines some sinners for salvation, and this predestination is conditionally based on God’s foreknowledge about each person’s anticipated faith or unbelief.

Universal Atonement: Christ died for all humans, and God intended His sacrifice for all humans, but only those sinners who accept this atoning work will be saved.

Saving Faith or Serious Depravity: Sinful and Fallen humanity is unable to attain saving faith, unless he is regenerated and renewed by God in Christ through the Holy Spirit.

Resistible Grace: The grace of God is effective, but it is resistible, so man must cooperate with God’s grace to bring about personal salvation.

Uncertainty of Perseverance: Although God’s grace is abundant, the sinner can lose that grace and become lost even after he has been saved.

The Synod of Dort ended with a judgment against Arminianism, which declared that Arminianism was a heresy alongside Semi-Pelagianism. With this judgment, the Synod produced several “canons” or statements about the doctrine of salvation, some of which became the origins of the “Five Points of Calvinism.” These five statements are commonly listed today in short form with the acrostic TULIP.

A Summary of TULIP

Regrettably, many who call themselves “Calvinists” today are merely intending to say that they affirm somewhere between 3 and 5 of the “Five Points of Calvinism.” Calvin is so much more than these isolated points. Calvin’s commentaries on various books of the Bible are a treasure to any Christian who desires to understand the depth of Scripture. Calvin’s life-long work, the “Institutes of the Christian Religion,” are a touchstone for almost every systematic theology book written in the last 500 years. I have personally found Calvin’s “Little Book on the Christian Life” to be one of the most praise-inspiring books I have ever read.

Now, don’t forget that Calvin was a sinful human just like everyone else. I am not saying that he was perfect, or that anyone should try to follow him above or even beside Christ. I am saying that Calvin was a hero of the Christian Faith, and we are fools to disregard or disparage someone like Calvin – especially if we haven’t even read anything he actually said for himself.

Another regrettable reality, when it comes to “Calvinism” today, is that the acrostic “TULIP” provides us with some less-than-helpful phrases. The flower is easy to remember, but its theological precision is quite lacking.

Here are the Five Points of Calvinismor TULIP:

Total Depravity: Fallen humans, since Adam, are affected by sin in every aspect of who they are – their bodies, minds, and wills/desires; and they are incapable of naturally doing anything genuinely good (Rom. 3:10-18).

Unconditional Election: God elects some sinners unto salvation, whereby they become beneficiaries of God’s blessings, not because of any condition in them, but according to the riches of God’s gracious grace and the purposes of His divine will (Eph. 1:3-6).

Limited Atonement: Jesus Christ’s atoning work on the cross is priceless, sufficient to cover all sin and all sinners, but Christ’s work was intentionally for those who believe and not for anyone else (Jn. 10:14-16).

Irresistible Grace: God alone causes sinners to be born again (Monergism), through the proclamation of the gospel and powerful work of His Holy Spirit. All who are born again possess new hearts with which they respond in loving affection for God, trusting and repenting by His grace (Eph. 2:1-10).

Perseverance of the Saints: All sinners whom God has elected unto Himself, those for whom Christ has died, those God has made spiritually alive, will grow in personal holiness in this life and will persevere unto glory (Rom. 8:28-39).

Not every Christian will immediately agree with these five points of Calvinism, and many Calvinists have even found some disagreement with some of these points. The object of this essay is not to convince anyone to be a Calvinist, or even to explain what Calvinism is. I have simply endeavored to give an introduction to the historical development of some of the central doctrines of Calvinism.

[1]See a very helpful breakdown of Pelagianism, Semi-Pelagianism, and Augustinianism here: https://www.monergism.com/thethreshold/articles/onsite/semi-pelagian.html

[2]See a great historical and theological explanation of the Synod of Dort here: https://tabletalkmagazine.com/article/2018/06/the-synod-of-dort/

God’s Sovereignty & Human Responsibility in Evangelism

From very early in Christian history, Christians have wrestled with the Scriptures and with each other over how to understand God’s sovereignty in relation to man’s responsibility. The subject is all-encompassing. Just consider the question, “If God is sovereign, then does man have meaningful freedom to think, speak, or act?”

But the purpose of this brief essay is to focus more narrowly on a specific area of interest, namely the activity of evangelism. More directly, I shall try to answer the question, “What is a proper understanding of the relationship between divine sovereignty and the task of personal evangelism?” In short, I will argue that God’s sovereignty and personal evangelistic activity are both essential to evangelism.

Theologically I am a compatibilist, which means I affirm the compatibility of God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility (including real human volition). I believe God is sovereign over whatsoever comes to pass and man is truly and rightly responsible for all he thinks, says, and does.

I do not understand these doctrines as opposed to each other, or incompatible. Rather, I see numerous passages in Scripture that either assume or argue positively for both of these truths side-by-side (see Isaiah 10:5-19; Acts 2:22-24; Acts 4:24-28). With J.I. Packer, I affirm the antinomyand not the incongruity of God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility. Packer writes, 

“What should one do, then, with an antinomy? Accept it for what it is, and learn to live with it. Refuse to regard the apparent inconsistency as real; put down the semblance of contradiction to the deficiency of your own understanding; think of the two principles as not rival alternatives but, in some way that at present you do not grasp, complementary to each other… Use each within the limits of its own sphere of reference… teach yourself to think of reality in a way that provides for their peaceful coexistence, remembering that reality itself has proved actually to contain them both.”[1]

And yet, as I said above, this essay is not focusing on such a panoramic vista as is displayed in the vast subject of divine sovereignty and human responsibility. Instead, I am focusing on a narrow view, writing from the compatibilist theological position in order to answer a particular question of application.

In the following content, I will argue that God’s sovereignty and personal evangelistic activity are both essential to evangelism in this world. First, I will define evangelism, recognizing that such a term may not always be readily understood. Second, I will demonstrate the necessity of God’s sovereignty in evangelism. Third, I will argue for the necessity of personal evangelistic activity in the task of evangelism. And finally, I will conclude with a call to confident and humble evangelistic activity in the world.

Defining Evangelism

J.I. Packer defines evangelism by saying, “evangelism is just preaching the gospel, the evangel. It is a work of communication in which Christians make themselves the mouthpieces for God’s message of mercy to sinners.”[2] Packer argues that evangelism must never be defined in terms of the “effect achieved,” and, therefore, his definition is quite precise and limited.

Will Metzger agrees with Packer’s warning about confusing the results with our own human responsibility, but Metzger provides an expanded definition of evangelism. Metzger says, “Our task is to faithfully present the gospel message by our lives (what we do) and our lips (what we say).”[3]

I like both of these definitions, especially within the context each author respectively articulated them. But I like Mack Stiles’ definition of evangelism even better than these. Stiles writes, “Evangelism is teaching (heralding, proclaiming, preaching) the gospel (the message from God that leads us to salvation) with the aim (hope, desire, goal) to persuade (convince, convert).”[4]

With Packer, the message is rightfully central; and with Metzger, the life and conduct of the messenger are given appropriate weight. Yet with Stiles, the goal or aim of the messenger is affirmed without placing undue responsibility upon the messenger for any result. Of course, God’s glory is always the greatest aim, but this does not obliterate all other aims in evangelism, such as the lesser-but-fitting desire to see the hearer converted.

In my view, the evangelist should humbly understand that God alone can produce spiritual life, and this should keep him or her from thinking evangelistic efforts which do not result in conversion are insignificant.  But the evangelist’s chief end (God’s glory) should not dispel his or her ambition to persuade the hearer. 

If I might be so bold as to rearticulate a definition of evangelism by amalgamating these three, I think evangelism is teaching the gospel, the evangel, as an extension of living a life of love and obedience to Christ with the aim to persuade our hearer to believe and live as we do. This is not to say that evangelism only occurs when the hearer believes and lives as a Christian, but it is to say that conversion is indeed the aim of evangelism. Because of this target, God’s sovereignty is essential to evangelism.

God’s Sovereignty

God’s sovereignty is essential to evangelism because fallen, unregenerate humans are utterly incapable of believing the gospel and loving the God who saves. The special focus here is upon God’s sovereign act of regenerating spiritually-dead sinners. The need for such a divine action, initiated by God Himself, is indisputable when one considers the natural state of fallen, unregenerate humans.

Simply put, if God did not sovereignly and independently initiate an effectively saving relationship with at least some sinners, then no sinner would ever be saved… even if every person on earth heard and understood the gospel.

After Genesis 3, all humans bear the mark of their universal forebear, Adam. That first human’s sin brought a curse upon all creation and especially upon all humans. Not only are all people born guilty, bearing the imputed guilt of that first sin (Rom. 5:12), all humans are also born with a natural inclination towards sin and disobedience. Many passages affirm this reality, but one quintessential text on the matter is found in Ephesians 2. The Apostle Paul wrote,

“you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience— among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind” (Ephesians 2:1–3).

In this passage, we may read of the biblical understanding of human volition, especially in regard to the unregenerate man’s propensity, desire, and affection. Here the metaphor is “death,” but not physical, since “death” is something in the passage that defines people who are physically alive. In verses 2-3, there are at least two ways in which the Apostle Paul explains the form and substance of death, i.e. spiritualdeath(v1). It is portrayed as (1) following a worldly course and a powerful prince; and (2) living in fleshly passions and carrying out fleshly desires. 

Following a worldly course and a powerful prince. A “worldly course” and a “powerful prince” are both examples of language not uncommon to Scripture generally or the Apostle Paul specifically. In fact, Paul uses similar language in Galatians and Colossians. To the Galatian Christians, Paul wrote of their having been “enslaved to the elementary principles of this world” (Gal. 4:3). To the saints in Colossae, he wrote of their “deliverance from the domain of darkness” (Col. 1:13). The imagery is clear: devilish dominion enslaves all those who are spiritually dead, and these zombies walk according to the dark course or path of their evil prince. This imagery may be unenjoyable to our eyes, but it is not difficult to observe. 

Living in fleshly passions and carrying out desires. These “passions” and “desires” are also frequently found in the biblical text. Paul says that Christians are to renounce “worldly passions” (Titus 2:12), and Peter says Christians are to resist conformity to the “passions” that accompany a “former ignorance” that characterizes unregenerate humanity (1 Peter 1:14). Jesus made a scathing remark against fallen humans, summarizing all of this, when He said, “You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires” (John 8:44). In each case, “passions” and “desires” refer to lustful cravings and preferences of the will. When such cravings are qualified by the term “fleshly,” it always conveys the idea of immoral desire.

According to Scripture, fallen man is not in sinful bondage unwillingly, but he gladly wears his chains and even pursues heavier and lengthier ones. If a fallen, unregenerate human is to believe the gospel and love the God who saves, then it must be because of some divine intervention that produces and provokes such faith and love within the person.

This is, in fact, what the Scriptures affirm God does in regenerating sinners (Jn. 3:3-8; Titus 3:4-5). God sovereignly saves sinners, gifting faith to them, and recreating them in Christ Jesus (Eph. 2:8-10). God’s sovereignty is essential to evangelism because the aim of evangelism is conversion, and such ambition is absurd without the independent regenerating activity of the sovereign God.

Personal Evangelistic Activity

Personal evangelistic activity is essential to evangelism because God regenerates sinners through the declaration and reception of His word. I believe my argument for the essential element of God’s sovereignty in evangelism requires a greater defense than the essential element of personal evangelistic activity. One reason for this is that our modern western culture is loathed to even consider the possibility that anyone but ourselves could be autonomous.

Indeed, the Scriptures confront us on this foundational point, unambiguously announcing that God alone is truly autonomous. And yet, we are right to also understand a personal responsibility for every human everywhere.

As the Westminster divines put it, all humans are responsible to glorify God and enjoy Him forever. Since no human does this (Rom 3:10-18), and an increased awareness of moral propriety only compounds human guilt (Rom. 3:19-20), the reality is that humans are in desperate need of a rescuer. Unless or until God graciously intervenes, humans are under God’s condemnation with no hope in themselves for escape. In other words, humans are naturally guilty, not naturally neutral or innocent.

The beauty of the gospel is that God has actually done something comprehensive and profound to rescue sinners from His own wrath. Namely, God has sent His own Son into the world (Jn. 3:16-18) as a perfectly obedient representative for all who love and trust Him (Rom. 5:15-19) and as a propitiatory sacrifice who suffered under the punishment they deserve (Rom. 3:21-26).

However, all the benefits Jesus Christ earned in this gospel only come to those who are made aware of it and believe it. Therefore, it is necessary for the gospel message to be proclaimed by those who know it to those who do not.

The Scripture succinctly states this very fact. The Apostle Paul wrote, 

“Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved. How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching?” (Rom. 10:13-14)

In this brief passage, we see the promise of salvation to all who believe and the essential element of preaching and receiving the gospel. In other words, the evangelist must preach (speak, proclaim, assert) the gospel (the message about the Lord Jesus Christ) in order for anyone to receive the blessings of salvation by believing (trusting, clinging to, and following Jesus).

This passage from Romans 10 logically works backward from “calling on” Christ to the essential starting point of “preaching” the message of Christ. Therefore, personal evangelistic activity is essential to evangelism because God regenerates sinners through the declaration and reception of His word.

Call to Action

The core doctrines of Christianity undergird every assertion in this essay. God holds all people everywhere responsible for their disobedience, and yet God has done everything necessary for sinners to be transferred from their status of guilty rebels to adopted and beloved children of God. Though this work is already accomplished in the person of Jesus Christ, God relates to humans through His word, and none can be saved from their sin and guilt apart from receiving and believing God’s word – namely the gospel.

And yet, simply receiving God’s word is insufficient to cause belief. Through teaching the gospel, God miraculously (according to His good pleasure) causes spiritual life in some of the recipients, which effectively results in true conversion of their heart and life.

God’s sovereignty and personal evangelistic activity are both essential to evangelism. In God’s wisdom and grace, He has ordained that His people play a part in the expansion of His kingdom in the world by proclaiming the regal and merciful message of the gospel. And in God’s lovingkindness, He sometimes grants spiritual life to the recipients of this supremely gracious message.

These realities compel me toward evangelism because I know that I must tell others about Jesus in order for them to believe in Him, and I am eager to see God work the powerful work that only He can by regenerating dead sinners through ordinary means. May God help more Christians be humbled and emboldened by these marvelous truths.


[1]J. I. Packer. (Kindle Location 155). 

[2]J.I. Packer. (Kindle Location 335).

[3]Metzger, Will (p. 56). Explanation added.

[4]Stiles, J. Mack. (p. 27). 


BIBLIOGRAPHY

Metzger, Will. Tell the Truth: The Whole Gospel Wholly by Grace Communicated Truthfully and Lovingly: An Evangelism Training Manual for Group and Individual Use. Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2012. Kindle Edition.

Packer, J. I. Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God. Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2012. Kindle Edition.

Stiles, J. Mack. Evangelism: How the Whole Church Speaks of Jesus. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2014. Kindle Edition.

Does God speak?

My thesis:

God has revealed Himself commandingly and sufficiently in the written canonical word (i.e. the Bible).

It is commonplace today for Christians to accept that God speaks in ways outside of His written and authoritative Word (the sixty-six canonical books found in the Protestant Christian Bible). While all Christians recognize that God has spoken in ways outside of His written Word, particularly during the time before human authors completed the canonical books of the Bible, many Christians still expect this kind of special and personal revelation today.

Christians who expect, or at least accept, modern-day prophetic revelation from God are often called continuationists. In only rare cases do continuationists claim that these modern-day prophecies are divinely authoritative (equal to the authority of Holy Scripture), but the prophetic visions and/or dreams are also said to be in the category of revelation from God. I will attempt to provide examples of this kind of acceptance and expectation by citing some professing Christians on the matter, and I will also try to present the thinking that undergirds this nebulous position by sketching the logical assumptions at its foundation.

Ultimately, I will seek to demonstrate the logical and Scriptural problems associated with the continuationist position, and I shall argue for an outright rejection of it. In the end, I hope to concisely show that any expectation for receiving divine visions or experiencing revelatory dreams is at least awkward and at worst dangerous.

Setting the Scene

Since the Charismatic[1]movement began in the early 1900s (not becoming mainstream until the 1950s and 1960s), Christians have generally become increasingly open to the idea that God is still speaking to His people today in ways other than biblical revelation. I am the lead pastor of a First Baptist Church located in an unincorporated rural Texas town, and even among this conservative-minded Southern Baptist congregation you will find many who are quite accepting of the idea that God speaks today through visions, dreams, and other forms of special prophecy.

As far as I know, none of my congregants would affirm that any modern-day prophecies should be added to the canon of Scripture, and I am thankful for their hesitation. However, I am also confused by the apparent inconsistency in pairing these two affirmations. As I recently presented the difficulty to some of my congregants, I am utterly unable to understand how someone can receive a “word from God” that is not the “Word of God.” Yet, there are some who feel perfectly at ease with this dichotomy.

Visions of Today

Wayne Grudem, in his standard-setting systematic theological work, defines prophecy as “telling something that God has spontaneously brought to mind.”[2]This essay is primarily interested in the purported experiences of dreams and visions as God’s special revelation to twentieth and twenty-first-century people. However, such dreams and visions fall into the category of prophecy since they are intended to perform as God’s special revealing mechanism to humanity – even if only one human in particular.

Grudem also groups visions under the umbrella of prophecy when he explains how Agabus’s prophecy concerning the arrest of the Apostle Paul might be best explained as an errant articulation of a divine vision.[3]Therefore, I believe it is helpful to consider the argument for modern-day prophecies as contributing to the overall support for the expectation of modern-day visions and dreams from God. Let us now consider the argument for experiencing prophecy today and the expression of prophetic practice by those who live with a contemporary expectation of dreams and/or visions.

Post-Apostolic Prophecy

If one is going to advocate for present-day prophets, those who experience divine revelation through dreams and/or visions, he or she will need to begin by demonstrating some biblical basis for them. Dr. Harwood, presenting his own contemporary openness to revelatory dreams and visions, cited several biblical examples of these prophetic experiences. Among the Apostolic examples, Harwood says “Jesus appeared to Saul (later Paul) on the road to Damascus (Acts 9)… Later, God directed Paul’s ministry through a vision of a man from Macedonia (Acts 16:9)… God spoke to Peter through a vision of animals lowered on a sheet (Acts 10:9-23).” Just as Harwood mentioned elsewhere in his article, these are only some of the many biblical examples of such things.[4]These examples do not prove that one should expect twenty-first-century prophets, but they do present prophetic dreams and visions as having been a method used by God to communicate with people at some time in history – namely those whose spiritual office was that of Apostle and/or prophet.

Citing a few Bible passages (such as 1 Thess. 5:19-21 and 1 Cor. 14:29-38) that speak of prophets and/or prophesying, Grudem argues that this New Testament activity is practiced consistently by simply telling something God spontaneously brought to mind.[5]In these passages we also find some instruction concerning prophets and prophecies, as they existed and operated in the context of the New Testament local church. It is from this platform that the leap is made into the present day. If there were ordinary prophets who prophesied through the medium of visions and/or dreams in the New Testament, then it is at least possible that there would be some expectation to experience the same today. However, there is still one more loose string that must be tied before this massive leap can be safely attempted.

When Old Testament prophets prophesied, their words were authoritative and binding – the imposing and dependable Word of God. Yet, as we have already established, very few (none that I know of) advocates of modern-day prophecy desire to present it as equal in authority with canonized Scripture. Harwood affirms “the need to judge any supposed vision or dream against the truths already revealed in the Bible.”[6]

Billy Graham’s staff also encourages the use of “godly counsel” and the Scriptures when filtering a contemporary prophetic vision or dream. Gudem, too, distances himself from any claim that all prophets and prophecies carry the same authority as Scripture. In fact, after attempting to demonstrate from Scripture some reasons to accept that some prophetic visions have less than binding authority, Grudem says, “prophecies in the church today should be considered merely human words, not God’s words, and not equal to God’s words in authority.”[7]Grudem quoted Donald Gee, representing the Assemblies of God, in order to assist in clearing up the difficulty created by this two-tiered significance for prophecy. Gee said:

[There are] grave problems raised by the habit of giving and receiving personal “messages” of guidance through the gifts of the Spirit…. The Bible gives a place for such direction from the Holy Spirit…. But it must be kept in proportion. An examination of the Scriptures will show us that as a matter of fact the early Christians did not continually receive such voices from heaven. In most cases they made their decisions by the use of what we often call “sanctified common-sense” and lived quite normal lives. Many of our errors where spiritual gifts are concerned arise when we want the extraordinary and exceptional to be made the frequent and habitual. Let all who develop excessive desire for “messages” through the gifts take warning from the wreckage of past generations as well as of contemporaries…. The Holy Scriptures are a lamp unto our feet and a light unto our path.[8]

While the heart of such a desire for propriety is commendable, the subjectivity of this position presents an extremely open-ended experience for Christians in the present day. In short, it is like calling gluttons to address their insatiable desire for food by using common sense consumption principles and by keeping proper perspective through an awareness of the problems overeating has caused for others. If gluttons were capable of benefitting from these simple measures, then they would not now be gluttons! So too, those who expect ‘messages’ of special revelation from the Holy Spirit are in no way dissuaded from expecting more by a subtle call to an arbitrary sense of propriety.

Furthermore, error is much more likely to enter through the subjective experiences of humanity than through the study and application of Scripture. Experience has always been pitted against God’s revealed truth, and the Bible is full of examples of humans trusting their own experiential understanding rather than trusting and submitting to God’s Word. As the next section will show, people will inevitably prefer the subjective and effortless (personal prophetic revelation) to the objective and challenging (the diligent study of God’s Word).

Dreamers Dream

The staff of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association claims that God speaks “primarily” through His Word, but “God may communicate through dreams or visions even today.” Of course, a caveat comes quickly behind such a statement, “but we need to carefully check any such guidance we receive with Scripture and godly counsel to be sure it is from the Lord.”[9]Billy Graham is an ordained Southern Baptist minister, and these statements from his staff are indicative of the common view among the Southern Baptist congregants that I have encountered over the last decade and across the United States.

While it can be somewhat difficult to acquire a scholarly work on the matter of contemporary visions and dreams, a more open view can be illustrated in the words of a distinctively charismatic writer. Goodwyn, a Christian Broadcasting Network producer, said, “[My] personal experience has confirmed” the notion that “dreams are the perfect way to hear from God.” She went on to say, “Through biblical study, I have found that God intends to speak to each of [His] followers in this manner.” Then Goodwyn quoted the oft-cited text for charismatics when they address this topic, “I will pour out my Spirit upon all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy. Your old men will dream dreams, and your young men will see visions” (Joel 2:28; cf Acts 2:17). She does warn, though, “It’s important to understand that not all dreams are God-given.” Indeed, she asserts, “Dreams can also be from Satan.”[10]

These two examples concerning the expectation and nature of prophetic dreams and visions are not the same in every way, but they both provide some basis for further examination of the reasoning behind the continuationists position. I believe the following conclusion statements can be drawn from these two distinct sources above. (1) God does communicate with humans today through visions and dreams, and apart from His Word; (2) Not all visions or dreams are from God; (3) Dreams and/or visions are a personal message directly from God; (4) Subjectively, personal direct messages from God are preferable to ancient indirect ones.

First, both Graham’s staff and Goodwyn affirm that visions and dreams, as special revelation from God, are for Christians today. I shall address this further below, but this is an open and direct assault on the sufficiency of Scripture. If Christians should expect visions and dreams as a kind of supplemental revelation from God today, then the canon of Scripture is (by logical necessity) insufficient for the Christian to be completely equipped for all that God would do in and through him or her.

Second, both Graham’s staff and Goodwyn also affirm that Christians can receive misleading (at best) and nefarious (at worst) visions and dreams. While Graham’s staff does not explicitly attribute erroneous visions and dreams to Satan, as Goodwyn does, they still leave room for massive delusion. Moreover, if visions and dreams are to be weighed against the full counsel of God’s Holy Word, then what real practical use is the vision or dream? If such things are intended as a fast track to knowing God’s will or God’s truth, then pouring over the Scriptures for clarity and validation nullifies the speed and ease of the supposed route.

Third, the last two suppositions, which I believe may also be inferred from an honest assessment of the declarations cited from Graham’s staff and Goodwyn, are both linked to personal subjectivity and preference. Any Christian would jump at the opportunity to receive personal divine revelation in this mortal life. Such a thing excites my interest as I consider it, even as I do not believe it is plausible. The sheer pleasure of a personal message from God, regardless of its content, is enough to keep a Christian consumed and pursuing the experience for quite some time. While personal divine revelation is an exciting notion, it is even more desirable when compared with the indirect and ancient revelation that one will find on the pages of Scripture. While I have heard no continuationist argue for pursuing visions or dreams over seeking God’s revelation of Himself in His Word, it does seem inevitable that Christians would eagerly look for the former over the latter.

If Christians adopt the position that prophetic visions and dreams are to be expected from God in the modern day, then a powerful fog of disillusionment may be blown upon Christians everywhere. How will these modern-day prophets be kept in check? Who will tell us what is the Word of God and what is not? If prophets can be wrong about some things, how can we trust anything that they say? If prophecy through visions and dreams is for today, then why is there such an inconsistency between the authority of biblical prophets and those we should expect in our present day? How can something be a ‘word fromGod’ and not the ‘Word ofGod?’ All of these questions and more create a whirlwind of uncertainty, but possibly the greatest usurpation of this charismatic confidence in present-day dreams and visions is that such a confidence presents a thinly-veiled (even if naively unintentional) attack on the sufficiency of Scripture.

The Sufficiency and Authority of God’s Word

Scriptures itself is the ultimate arbiter of truth, and even the continuationists (at least the ones cited above) acknowledge that Christians should turn to the Bible to either affirm or deny the validity of a dream or vision. I believe it would be logical and wise, then, to look to the Scriptures in order to affirm or deny the validity of expecting such dreams or visions in the first place.  After all, if the dream or vision that contradicts Scripture should be jettisoned, then the expectation of dreams and visions may also be pitched overboard if the concept is understood to be divergent from the testimony of Scripture. Let us investigate some aspects of two distinct passages (for the sake of brevity we may only consider two), and then judge whether it is wise to expect any personal contemporary messages from God via dreams and/or visions.

The Apostle Peter wrote to encourage Christians who seem to have been in need of a strong and comforting reminder of the trustworthiness and faithfulness of God. Peter wrote, “[We] have the prophetic word more fully confirmed, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place” (2 Peter 1:19). Peter was referring here to the text of Scripture that was “confirmed” by God in real human history – namely in the person and work of Christ. It seems that Peter was particularly referring to the Old Testament in this passage, but Peter also includes the writing of the Apostle Paul in the category of “Scriptures” just two chapters later in the same letter (2 Peter 3:15-16).

Blum writes, “In view of the Christological fulfillment and the Father’s confirmation of the Old Testament Scriptures, Christians are to study and pay careful attention to the Word of God. It will provide light in the midst of murky darkness for the Christian until the return of Christ…”[11]

This admonition to “pay careful attention to the Word of God” comes in contrast to Peter’s own vision and hearing of personal divine revelation. Just before Peter speaks of the “prophetic word more fully confirmed,” he recalls the pinnacle of his own personal experience with the incarnate Christ. Peter saw Jesus transfigured in glory before him and heard the voice of God from heaven (2 Peter 1:16-18), and yet Peter tells his readers to pay attention to the “prophetic word” (or written Scripture) that is better in some sense.

The sense in which the written Word of God is, in some sense, better than the incarnate Word of God is not within the scope of this brief essay. However, it is spectacularly important that we do note here what Peter has chosen to emphasize. Peter calls his readers to pay attention to the Word of God, which he deems to be better in some sense than the transfigured incarnate Christ and voice from God in heaven! This is no small matter, and we are foolish to skip over the significance of such an exhortation.

Another oft-cited passage regarding the value and function of Scripture is found in one of the Apostle Paul’s letters to his young disciple, Timothy. Paul said, “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17). There are two things that I hope to point out in this passage that will weigh in on our discussion.

First, Scripture is unambiguously affirmed as being “breathed out by God” (theopneustos). Because the Bible is the very words of God as breathed out by Him, then such a reality has massive implications on matters of authority, trustworthiness, and so on. The doctrine of inerrancy, for example, is largely undergirded by the fact that God Himself is true and trustworthy. R.C. Sproul says, “If the Bible is the Word of God, and if God is a God of truth, then the Bible must be inerrant – not merely in some of its parts, as some modern theologians are saying, but totally, as the church for the most part has said down through the ages of its history.”[12]

The reason for bringing up authority, inerrancy, and the “God-breathed” nature of Scripture in a discussion about modern-day prophecy, which may or may not be authoritative or inerrant, is to point out an uncomfortable dichotomy. Mathison, in his book on the doctrine of Sola Scriptura, argues against the Roman Catholic interpretation of 2 Timothy 3:16-17, and his argument has import for this different discussion here. Mathison says, “Any word from God is by definition God-breathed whether communicated in writing or orally.”[13]This statement from Mathison gets to the point and should cause tremendous discomfort for anyone who affirms the possibility of someone receiving a dream or vision from God that is meant to be revelatory without necessarily being inerrant or authoritative.

God only reveals the truth, and the truth He reveals is always authoritative!

The second emphatic concept that I would like to point out in the passage from 2 Timothy is that the Scripture itself affirms that it is sufficient in all that a Christian needs in order to be “complete.” The idea presented in this passage is that the Christian who receives and absorbs the biblical text is fully equipped to be and do all that God would have him or her to be and to do. Because Scripture is God’s revealed Word to humanity, and because God is no fool and no deceiver, then all Christians must expect that God has revealed Himself sufficiently in His Word. To look elsewhere for further revelation or clearer revelation or more personal revelation is to cast a disparaging look upon Scripture, which is God’s only inerrant and trustworthy revelation to humanity today.

In my view, there are many well-meaning Christians that speak of dreams or visions (even promptings or intuitions) as vehicles through which Christians may receive divine revelation today. Regardless of their motivation, it seems flat against the teaching of Scripture to regard these notions as helpful or beneficial. At best, one’s openness or expectation for personal revelation through dreams or visions is out of step with God’s revelation in the Bible. At worst, any acceptance or anticipation for such things draws attention away from God’s true revelation and towards foolish error. May God give all Christians an unquenchable thirst for His Word, and may He forgive us for ever searching for Him elsewhere.

 

 

[1]Charismatics are a subcategory of evangelical Christians who emphasize the miraculous and fantastical work of God’s Holy Spirit. A particular distinguishing mark of Charismatics is the expectation of miracles, like those experienced by the early Church, especially the practice of ‘speaking in tongues.’

[2]Grudem, 1050

[3]See Grudem’s explanation of Acts 21:10-11, 1052

[4]See Harwood’s full article, Does God Speak Today Through Visions And Dreams, as cited in the bibliography below.

[5]Grudem, 1054

[6]See Harwood’s full article, Does God Speak Today Through Visions And Dreams, as cited in the bibliography below

[7]Grudem, 1055

[8]Grudem, 1041

[9]See full article at the website listed beside “Does God Reveal Things through Dreams and Visions?

[10]See full article at the website listed beside Goodwyn, “Dreams And Visions: God Uncensored.”

[11]Geisler, 48

[12]Sproul, 121

[13]Mathison, 166

 

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

“Does God Reveal Things through Dreams and Visions?” 2004. Billygraham.Org. Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. June 1. http://billygraham.org/answer/does-god-reveal-things-through-dreams-and-visions/.

Geisler, Norman L., ed. 1980. Inerrancy. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Pub. House.

Goodwyn, Hannah. 2015. “Dreams And Visions: God Uncensored.” Dreams And Visions: God Uncensored. Christian Broadcasting Network. Accessed October 1. http://www.cbn.com/spirituallife/biblestudyandtheology/perspectives/goodwyn_dreams.aspx.

Grudem, Wayne A. 2000. Systematic Theology: an Introduction to Biblical Doctrine. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

Harwood, Adam. 2015. “Does God Speak Today Through Visions And Dreams.” SBC Today. SBC Today. January 7. http://sbctoday.com/does-god-speak-today-through-visions-and-dreams/.

Mathison, Keith A. 2001. The Shape of Sola Scriptura. Moscow, ID: Canon Press.

Sproul, R. C. 2005. Scripture Alone: the Evangelical Doctrine. Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R Pub.

White, James. 2012. Scripture Alone. Bloomington, MN: Bethany House Publishers.

The Inspiration of Scripture

It would not be an overstatement to say that God’s revealed word has been a source of controversy from nearly the beginning of time. The serpent of old asked Eve, “Did God actually say…” (Gen. 3:1), and that question has been an incessant refrain ever since.

One of the central topics of the conversation, especially during the last 150 years, is inspiration. What do we mean when we say that God inspired the Bible? How has God inspired the texts we understand to have been written by various authors over the course of about 1,500 years?

There are many more questions that arise in this kind of conversation, but it is helpful to begin by asking, “Is the Bible the Word of God?” Of course, even this question will require some explanation, but here is a constructive starting point.

Basil Manly has written a fantastic work on exactly this topic (The Bible Doctrine of Inspiration), and I found it to be extremely productive. Surprisingly, it was also food for my soul.

Manly sets the stage by helpfully arranging the stuff of Christianity. He writes,

“Christianity is the Religion of the Book. It is not an external organization, nor a system of ceremonies, nor a philosophy, nor a vague inquiry and aspiration, nor a human invention for man’s own convenience or advantage. It is a definite system divinely given, consisting primarily of Facts, occurring both on earth and in heaven; Doctrines in connection with those facts; Commands growing out of both these; and Promises based upon them.”[1]

The ideas Manly presents here are beneficial for any context, but it seems especially so in the context of contemporary American culture. Remembering that Christianity is about propositional truths concerning real historical events, from which we derive indicatives and imperatives regarding the most important issues of human existence, should keep Christians from attempting to minimize the Christian Faith. But many still try to make it something of lesser substance or merely subjective experience.

There may be greater or lesser doctrines, and there are definitely experiences accompanying the Christian life, but the Bible is essential and foundational. And, critical to our inquiry here, it is highly interested in informing its reader that God has spoken.

Because Christianity is so dependent upon the Bible, the nature of this particular book is of great importance.

If the Bible is simply one good book among many, then it may still be of great value. While it may come as a surprise to some, there could still be a Gospel for sinners – we may still know of the person and work of Jesus Christ – even if God did not inspire the Bible. However, there are some serious problems that would arise if one were to demonstrate that the Bible is not the word of God or inspired by God.

Explaining the deficiencies of an uninspired Bible, Manly says, “It would furnish no infallible standard of truth.” Truth may still be known with an uninspired Bible, but we would have no objective standard or rule as our guide.

He goes on to say, “it would present no authoritative rule for obedience, and no ground for confident and everlasting hope.” One may still have hope, and one may still find the ‘tips’ or ‘principles’ in the Bible helpful, but there would be a lesser confidence in any promises it contained and it would have no solemn authority that any sinner must obey.

Lastly, he says, “it would offer no suitable means for testing and cultivating the docile spirit, for drawing man’s soul trustfully and lovingly upward to its Heavenly Father.”[2]

Manly touches on the nature of Scripture well here when he conveys the reality that it is precisely because the Bible is the word of God that it cultivates submission in the heart of a sinner and draws him or her near with love and trust.

Manly’s defense of Verbal Plenary Inspiration is excellent throughout this text. He articulates the doctrine well, and affirms both divine and human authorship. Both authors are vital to this doctrine. Manly writes,

“The Word is not of man, as to its source; nor depending on man, as to its authority. It is by and through man as its medium; yet not simply as the channel along which it runs, like water through a lifeless pipe, but through and by man as the agent voluntarily active and intelligent in its communication.”[3]

As with other doctrines, such as providence and the hypostatic union of Christ, there is a paradox here that requires adherents to maintain a tension without a contradiction. Manly argues for a view of inspiration that neither obliterates the human participants nor lessens the divine authority. God is the decisive source and author of the Scriptures, and intentional contributors wrote the Scriptures according to their own education, experiences, and understanding. Indeed, both of these truths are simultaneously affirmed from the Scriptures themselves.

This is neither a contradiction, for God is the author in a distinct sense and men are also authors in another distinct sense, nor is this a denial of any essential participant, for these are both the words of men and the words of God. One is not required to leave his rationality behind when he affirms this doctrine, but he is required to believe something that is ultimately a mystery to him. The mechanics are not explained in such a way so as to be understood easily by humans, but this does not necessarily mean that there is a problem with anything other than human cognitive ability.

Verbal Plenary Inspiration has been the assertion of Christians for millennia, though not necessarily under this title, but a recent question has caused the conversation to take a speculative turn.

After hearing this doctrine articulated and defended, one may still ask the question, “But how has God done this?” This question gets to the heart of many liberal and speculative arguments against Verbal Plenary Inspiration, and it may be the source of intellectual frustration for some sincere Christians. But Manly reminds us well of what we must know and remember when he says, “If we undertake to go beyond, and to explain how this was accomplished, we leave what has been made known to us for the barren and uncertain fields of conjecture.”

This question gets to the heart of many liberal and speculative arguments against Verbal Plenary Inspiration, and it may be the source of intellectual frustration for some sincere Christians. But Manly reminds us well of what we must know and remember when he says, “If we undertake to go beyond, and to explain how this was accomplished, we leave what has been made known to us for the barren and uncertain fields of conjecture.”[4]

God does not tell us how He inspired the biblical writers; He simply told us that He did.

Manly’s text masterfully and passionately defends the doctrine of inspiration. God has spoken, and He has made Himself known through human agency. The individual Christian need only believe what God has said, just as the Christian should believe that God has said it. This is the only way that a sinner may enjoy the right relationship with God that once was experienced by humanity when the question was first asked, “Did God actually say…”

May God help us to answer with confidence, “Yes, as a matter of fact, He did.”

 

 

[1] Manly, Basil (2013-10-04). The Bible Doctrine of Inspiration (Kindle Locations 6-9). Titus Books. Kindle Edition.

[2] Manly, Basil (2013-10-04). The Bible Doctrine of Inspiration (Kindle Location 27). Titus Books. Kindle Edition.

[3] Manly, Basil (2013-10-04). The Bible Doctrine of Inspiration (Kindle Locations 124-126). Titus Books. Kindle Edition.

[4] Manly, Basil (2013-10-04). The Bible Doctrine of Inspiration (Kindle Locations 138-139). Titus Books. Kindle Edition.

Introducing​ Inductive Bible Study

Anyone who reads their Bible knows that it can sometimes be difficult to know how to get from “I think I understand what I am reading…” to “I know what God wants me change about how I live/believe because of what I have just read.”

Many people have found the Inductive Bible Study method as a very helpful way to bridge that gap. This method is not new, and it is not complex. In fact, is a simple way for even the least knowledgable student to get the most out of his or her study of the Bible.

The inductive method follows a progression from observing what is in the text all the way through to implementing the application of the text. Each student may vary the structure slightly, but my own is outlined as follows:

  1. Observation
  2. Interpretation
  3. Generalization
  4. Application
  5. Implementation

The following is a basic outline that anyone can follow to study a passage of Scripture. Please feel free to copy this content and practice the method regularly.

Begin by selecting a passage of Scripture, usually at least a paragraph but not more than a chapter. Read your selection 5-10 times all the way through (I would say that reading it out loud is best). Then, with your Bible open, thoughtfully answer the following questions in the order which they are listed.

May God bless your efforts and the study of His word!

 


 

I. OBSERVATION: WHAT DOES IT SAY?

  • Setting Questions
  • Note: Some of these questions can be answered by reading the first chapter of the book where your passage is found. Some of these will best be answered by consulting the book introduction of a Study Bible or basic commentary.

    • Who is the author or speaker?
    • Why was this book written? What was the occasion of the book?
    • What historic events surround this book? What was happening in the world at the time this was written?
    • Where was it written? Who were the original recipients? What do we know about them?
  • Context Questions
    • What literary form is being employed in this passage?
    • What is the overall message of this book, and how does this passage fit into that message?
    • What precedes this passage? What follows? How does this passage fit the immediate context?
  • Structural Questions
    • Are there any repeated words? Repeated phrases?
    • Does the author make any comparisons? Draw any conclusions?
    • Does the author raise any questions? Provide any answers?
    • Does the author point out any cause and effect relationships?
    • Is there any progression to the passage? In time? Actions? Geography?
    • Does the passage have a climax?
    • Does the author use any figures of speech?
    • Is there a pivotal statement or word?
    • What linking words are used? What ideas do they link?
    • What verbs are used to describe the action in the passage? What is significant about these verbs?
  • Structural Model
  • Note: Outlining the structure of your passage may be one of the most frustrating aspects of this method. However, most of the frustration arises from the student’s expectations. There is not just one way to outline the passage, so don’t beat yourself up because you don’t feel that you have perfectly outlined the text. The goal is to simply outline the logical flow of thought, which you see from the text itself. For an example of this, see my own Inductive Study of Romans 8:28-31.

 

 

 

II. INTERPRETATION: WHAT DOES IT MEAN?

Note: This section will require careful thought and diligent study. Your approach to interpretation will dramatically affect what you get out of it. Take time to cross reference, think critically, and strive to let the text speak for itself (rather than merely impose onto the text what you already thought before you began your study). The marvelous joy of Bible study is that interpretation will get easier and become more vivid with practice. Dig in, and keep at it!

  • Continuity of the Message
    • In general, what does the Bible as a whole teach on the subject addressed in this passage?
    • Is this passage clear on this subject? Is there another passage that more directly addresses this subject? Are there other passages by this author that address this subject? What do they teach?
    • Is this passage intended to teach a truth or simply record an event?
  • Context of the Material
    • As you review your observations of the context of the passage, how do those observations help interpret this passage? What conclusions can you draw from the passage that are informed by its context?
  • Customary Meaning
    • In a paragraph or two summarize the teaching of the passage giving the passage it most natural, normal meaning.
    • What issues, questions, terms, or teachings in this passage are difficult to understand? Read commentaries to help with these and then summarize your findings.

 

III. GENERALIZATION: WHAT IS THE BIG IDEA?

Note: This section is designed as a place to bring all of your observations and interpretations together in summary form. Take time to be familiar with all that you have done so far, and this section will be much more fuitful.

  • Subject: What is the author talking about?
  • Complement: What is the author saying about what he is talking about?
  • Generalization: In a sentence, what is the exegetical idea (big idea)?

 

IV. APPLICATION: WHAT DIFFERENCE DOES IT MAKE? (2 TIM. 3:16-17)

Note: Application can be specific to an individual, but I am calling that kind of application “implementation” in the section below. This section is designed as a more thoughtful generalization of the broad application from what we have learned so far. It is helpful to think about the application especially of the big ideas noted above.

  • Teaching: Is there a teaching to here to be learned or followed?
  • Rebuke: Does this passage communicate a rebuke to be heard and heeded?
  • Correction: Is there a correction to be noted?
  • Training: In what way does this passage train us to be righteous?

 

V. IMPLEMENTATION: WHAT MUST I CHANGE?

Note: Here is where the rubber really meets the road. What specific things is God calling you do change about your beliefs, words, and/or deeds from the basis of what you have learned from the passage? Prayerfully consider and seek to implement the changes God is calling for and working towards in you.

  • What must I change about my beliefs?
  • What must I change about my speech?
  • What must I change about my actions?

 

I’d be glad to hear about your use of this method. If this has been a help to you, please comment about it below.

Also, share this with others who will benefit from its use.

An Inductive Study of Romans 8:28-39

Romans 8:28–39

28 And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. 29 For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. 30 And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified. 31 What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? 32 He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? 33 Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. 34 Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. 35 Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? 36 As it is written, “For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.” 37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38 For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

I. OBSERVATION: WHAT DOES IT SAY?

  • Setting Questions
    • Who is the author or speaker?
      • Paul, the Apostle. Evangelist and church planter extraordinary (1:1)
    • Why was this book written? What was the occasion of the book?
      • The purpose of this letter to the saints in Rome seems to be manifold. Paul was finished with his eastern missionary efforts, and he intended on moving westward, where Christ was not yet known (15:17-23). Paul wanted the Roman Christians to materially support his efforts (15:24), but to do that they would need to know him and know that the message he preached was indeed the Gospel of Jesus Christ. This seems to be the reason for Paul’s phrase “my Gospel” (2:16 and 15:25) and the reason for such a masterfully theological communication (1:16).
      • Additional emphasis was given to the union of Jew and Gentile believers, and this seems to have been necessary for at least a couple of reasons. Gentiles appear to have been the more numerous group in the Roman church (hence the admonition against pride in 11:13-24) and the Jewish believers were disillusioned by the widespread rejection of the Gospel by their Jewish compatriots (11:1-10). Paul, therefore, placed great stress upon union in Christ and belonging to one another (15:1-13).
    • What historic events surround this book? What was happening in the world at the time this was written?
      • It is hard to overstate the political and military influence or Rome during that time in the world. The church in Rome did not enjoy the same worldly influence, but it did have a great influence upon the spread and growth of the Gospel.  Jews (including Jewish believers) were expelled from Rome by Claudius in 49 AD, who unwitting caused a missional surge in other lands. However, the Jewish and Gentile Christians in Rome had an already well established reputation for fidelity to Christ (1:8), and the predominately Gentile church left in Rome during the time of this letter seems to have continued the trajectory.
      • In short, the Gospel was spreading, congregations were budding, and the Christians in Rome were well-placed for further missionary efforts and support.
    • Where was it written? Who were the original recipients? What do we know about them?
      • Paul was on his missionary journey, and it seems he was a resident of Corinth at the time of writing this letter. Paul mentions a few names of known Corinthian believers (Phoebe in 16:1-2; and Gaius and Erastus in 16:23), and this indicates Paul’s likely location.
      • The original recipients of the letter were the Jewish and Gentile Christians in Rome. As mentioned above, the Jews were exiled from Rome about 4-8 years before this letter was written, so the remaining congregation was mostly Gentile. The centuries-old division between Jew and Gentile was broken down by Christ, but the residue of disunion was still apparent. And yet, the Roman church does not seem to have the same level of segmentation and factions as other congregations (1 Cor. 11:18).
      • The saints in Rome appear to be quite healthy (1:8), even to the degree that Paul would anticipate mutual encouragement during his upcoming visit with them (1:12).
  • Context Questions
    • What literary form is being employed in this passage?
      • Romans is a letter from the Apostle Paul to the saints in Rome (1:1, 7). The epistolary form was common in the first-century Greco-Roman world, and the New Testament provides a number of examples of this same form (even many from the same author).
    • What is the overall message of this book, and how does this passage fit into that message?
      • The message is emphatically and highly technically the Gospel of Jesus Christ. This Gospel is simple and profound, and here Paul dives to the depths of its profundity. There are many results of believing the Gospel, but one major effect is hope. The passage I have selected (8:28-39) is an extensive basis for and call to hope in the life of the Christian.
    • What precedes this passage? What follows? How does this passage fit the immediate context?
      • The preceding context is an enumeration of some of the promises included in the Gospel, namely adoption into God’s family (8:14-17), union with Christ (8:17), God’s immanent presence by His Spirit and His aid to the believer (8:26-27), resurrection and renewal of all things (8:19-23), and the final hope of glory (8:18, 24-25, 29-30).
      • The following context is a defense of assurance despite the apparent failure of some to enjoy the benefits of the Gospel promises. Many Jews rejected the Gospel and became excluded from the promises (9:1-3), but God’s promises are still steadfast and trustworthy (9:6-7). God is free to do what He will with His creation, and He has adopted a people according to His purposes and not according to ethnicity or pedigree (9:8, 18, 22-24).
  • Structural Questions
    • Are there any repeated words? Repeated phrases?
      • Words:
        • God (28, 31, 33, 34, 39)
        • Son/Christ (29, 32, 34, 35, 39)
        • Love (28, 35, 37, 39)
        • Separate (35, 39)
        • Predestined (29, 30)
        • Justify (30, 33)
      • Phrases:
        • Love of God/Christ (35, 37, 39)
        • He/God with decisive action
          • God works according to His purpose (28)
          • God predestined conformation of some to Christ (29)
          • God predestined, called, justified, and glorified (30)
          • God gave His Son (32)
          • God justifies (33)
          • God loved “us” (37)
        • He/Christ with purposeful action
          • Christ died (34)
          • Christ intercedes (34)
    • Does the author make any comparisons? Draw any conclusions?
      • There is a comparison (more a contrast) between the sufferings of this present life and the glory of the life to come.
      • This life is full of tribulation, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, danger, and swords. Furthermore, there is opposition from angels, rulers, powers, and creation generally.
      • The life to come is glorious, brotherly union with Christ, full of all blessings from God, victory over all those sufferings of this life, and loving relationship with God through Christ.
      • The distinct conclusion is certainty that nothing will be able to separate those God loves from His love.
    • Does the author raise any questions? Provide any answers?
      • Questions:
        1. What shall we say?
        2. Will God not give all that He has promised?
        3. Who shall charge the elect of God?
        4. Who will condemn the elect of God?
        5. Who shall separate the elect of God from the love of God/Christ?
      • Answers:
        1. We should rejoice that God is for us!
        2. Of course, God will deliver fully! He has already given His Son!
        3. No one can charge the elect of God; God justifies them!
        4. No one can condemn the elect of God; Christ died in their place and intercedes for them at the right hand of God even now!
        5. Nothing… nothing at all can separate the elect of God from His love in/through Christ Jesus.
    • Does the author point out any cause and effect relationships?
      • The causes and effects are presented in the answers above.
        • God gave His Son; therefore, we may know that God will give all He has promised.
        • God justifies His elect; therefore, no one can charge them with guilt.
        • The implication of all of this is incredibly certain hope.
    • Is there any progression to the passage? In time? Actions? Geography?
      • This passage is didactic, rather than narrative, so it does not progress in time, action, or geography. However, it does progress in logical thought.
        1. God works good, defined as conformation to the image of Christ and ultimate glorification, in the lives of all those He has eternally loved.
        2. God brings this about in the lives of sinners by calling and justifying them in real time.
        3. If a sinner understands himself/herself to be justified by God, through the work of Christ, then he/she can expect all of God’s promises in the Gospel to appear in due time.
        4. Since God has decisively loved all those He has justified, and since all those who are justified enjoy the eternal mediatorial work of Christ, then there is every reason for a sure hope.
    • Does the passage have a climax?
      • In my view, the climax is found in verse 37, “No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.”
      • An expanded way of saying this could be, “No, nothing can separate us from the love of Christ, which makes us share in His glory. Even in the height of earthly misery, facing mortal demise, we are enjoying complete victory through our Savior who eternally and purposefully loves us!”
    • Does the author use any figures of speech?
      • “Separate us from God’s/Christ’s love”
        • This figure of speech metaphorically speaks of love in geographical or tangible terms. Obviously, love is transcendent, but the metaphor helps to convey the idea that God’s/Christ’s love is both given and received. The question the passage seeks to answer is, “If God’s/Christ’s love is ever given, can it ever be withdrawn?” Of course, the answer is an emphatic “NO!”
    • Is there a pivotal statement or word?
      • The passage begins with the declarative concept of God’s work in the life of the Christian to bring about the desired end. The remaining portion is given to arguing for certainty regarding God’s promised destination. In the explanatory portion, the decisive turning point is found in verse 37. One might even place the full weight of the pivot on the single word, “No…”
    • What linking words are used? What ideas do they link?
      • The linking words in this passage are “and” and “for.”
        • “And” links the ‘what’ in verses 28-29 to the ‘how’ in verse 30.
          • What: God works in all things to bring about the ultimate good for all those He eternally loves, namely to shape them into the image of Christ.
          • How: God predestines those He eternally loves, He effectively calls them into new life, He once-and-for-all justifies them before His bar of justice, and He brings them full circle into sharing in Christ’s glory.
        • “For” links the climax statement and pivotal word in verse 37 with the emphatic comfort and hope statement in verses 38-39
          • Climax and pivot: No, nothing can separate us from the love of Christ. Even in the height of earthly misery, facing mortal demise, we are enjoying complete victory through our Savior who eternally and purposefully loves us!
          • Comfort and hope: Not death, life, angels, rulers, things present, things future, or anything in all creation can separate us from the love of God in Christ.
    • What verbs are used to describe action in the passage? What is significant about these verbs?
      • These verbs are significant because they focus on what God/Christ does and did in the full work of salvation. This salvation is from the Lord!
        • God acts with decisive action
          • God works according to His purpose (28)
          • God predestined conformation of some to Christ (29)
          • God predestined, called, justified, and glorified (30)
          • God gave His Son (32)
          • God justifies (33)
          • God loved “us” (37)
        • Christ acts with purposeful action
          • Christ died (34)
          • Christ intercedes (34)
  • Structural Model

28 And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good,

for those who are called according to his purpose.

29 For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son,

in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.

30 And those whom he predestined he also called,

and those whom he called he also justified,

and those whom he justified he also glorified.

31 What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us?

32 He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all,

how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?

33 Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect?

It is God who justifies. 34 Who is to condemn?

Christ Jesus is the one who died—

more than that, who was raised—

who is at the right hand of God,

who indeed is interceding for us.

35 Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?

Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword?

36 As it is written, “For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.”

37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.

38 For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

II. INTERPRETATION: WHAT DOES IT MEAN?

  • Continuity of the Message – The Law of Non-Contradiction
    • In general, what does the Bible as a whole teach on the subject addressed in this passage?
      • This passage explicitly teaches us that salvation is entirely a work of God. This is in perfect harmony with the rest of Scripture, but some people might see a possible contradiction in this clear teaching and the reality that the Bible elsewhere calls for sinners to do something. If sinners (one might say) must respond to the Gospel call, then it is the response to the Gospel call that distinguishes the saved from the unsaved.
      • However, this passage doesn’t mention a response to the Gospel at all. One could possibly stretch “those who love God” (v28) to fit this description, but the entirety of the message here is that God does everything.
      • It has been said that this passage is a view of salvation from above. While there is an “on the ground” view of salvation (which we might understand as the universal call to hear, believe, and repent), this view from above is quite different. From this view, we can see God sovereignly at work to bring about the ends which He has purposed from the beginning. This, of course, is the grand narrative of Scripture.
    • Is this passage clear on this subject? Is there another passage that more directly addresses this subject? Are there other passages by this author that address this subject? What do they teach?
      • I believe this passage is quite clear on the subject of God’s predestining purposes, His sovereign work in human history, and the great confidence the sinner may enjoy because of God’s intentional love. However, there are many other passages one might cite in order to further demonstrate this idea.
      • One passage is Ephesians 2:1-10. In this passage, we are given a picture of the hopelessness of all mankind and the necessity of divine intervention (v1-3). We are also able to see God as the divine initiator and the sufficient Savior of all those He grants the gift of faith (v4-9). Lastly, we may understand that God has done all this to show His glory (v7) and to bring saved sinners into a life of holiness and union with Christ (v10).
    • Is this passage intended to teach a truth or simply record an event?
      • This passage intends to teach truth. It is a lofty truth with immediately practical applications. The urgent call to the reader is to humility, hope, and gratitude.
  • Context of the Material
    • As you review your observations of the context of the passage, how do those observations help interpret this passage? What conclusions can you draw about the passage that are informed by the context?
      • My observations help me to see that this passage is talking about the salvation of sinners, particularly how God brings about salvation in the life of each sinner. While western, American, evangelical Christians view salvation as a personal and individualistic experience, this passage (and many others like it) remind us that sinners are brought into God’s story and not the other way around.
      • We may conclude that God is an intentional creator and savior.
      • We may also conclude that God’s love is a decisive and steadfast love.
      • We may also conclude that God’s actions in human history, especially in the person and work of Christ, are part of His over-arching plan for the renewal of all things in eternal glory.
      • We may also, therefore, conclude that our participation in this great salvation is not haphazard or precarious. Furthermore, our experiences in this life, as difficult as they may be, are moving us closer to our final end of glory and victory with the One who has eternally loved us.
  • Customary Meaning
    • In a paragraph or two summarize the teaching of the passage giving the passage it most natural, normal meaning.
      • God works good, defined as conformation to the image of Christ and ultimate glorification, in the lives of all those He has eternally loved. God brings this about in the lives of sinners by calling and justifying them in real time, through the person and work of Christ.
      • If a sinner understands himself/herself to be justified by God, through the work of Christ, then he/she can expect all of God’s promises in the Gospel to appear in due time. Since God has decisively loved all those He has justified, and since all those who are justified enjoy the eternal mediatorial work of Christ, then there is every reason for a sure hope.
    • What issues, questions, terms, or teachings in this passage are difficult to understand? Read commentaries to help with these and then summarize your findings.
      • I was quite familiar with this passage before I began this assignment, and the difficulties in this passage are not difficult because of their lack of clarity. What people find difficult about this passage is its bitter flavor in the mouth of a prideful sinner. I know, because that’s how it tasted to me when I first began to chew on its rich flavor. By God’s grace, over time I have come to cherish this passage and the truth it conveys.

III. GENERALIZATION: WHAT IS THE BIG IDEA?

  • Subject: What is the author talking about?
    • Salvation, hope, and assurance.
  • Complement: What is the author saying about what he is talking about?
    • Salvation is from God, because of His decisive love, and this should provide profound assurance in the heart of the sinner.
  • Generalization: In a sentence, what is the exegetical idea (big idea)?
    • God sovereignly works in all things toward the good end of conforming all those He has eternally loved to the image of Christ.

IV. APPLICATION: WHAT DIFFERENCE DOES IT MAKE? (2 TIM. 3:16-17)

  • Teaching: Is there a teaching to here to be learned or followed?
    • We are taught that God is loving; He is sovereign; He is active; and He is faithful.
    • We are also taught that saved sinners are objects of God’s loving intention, His formative discipline, His gracious redeeming, and His glorious renewal.
  • Rebuke: Does this passage communicate a rebuke to be heard and heeded?
    • We are rebuked for any pride or selfish conceit.
  • Correction: Is there a correction to be noted?
    • There are many, but here are some corrections:
    • Worldly comforts are not God’s aim for His beloved children.
    • Victory may not be enjoyed by Christians in this mortal life.
    • None of God’s blessings or affections are disjoined from Christ.
    • God’s love did not begin because of anything in the sinner.
    • God’s love does not continue because of anything in the sinner.
    • Nothing in all of life is outside of God’s sovereignty.
    • All the experiences of this life are purposeful to shape beloved sinners into glorious children of God.
  • Training: In what way does this passage train us to be righteous?
    • We know that righteousness is the goal towards which God is moving us, and we know that this is for our good, therefore, we are fools to resist or neglect this goal in our personal efforts.

V. IMPLEMENTATION: WHAT MUST I CHANGE?

  • I must change my view of God: He is bigger and grander than I ever imagined Him to be.
  • I must change my view of myself: I am unworthy, but beloved of God, justified by Christ, and on my way to eternal glory.
  • I must change my view of this mortal life: I exist to glorify God, and He is forming me into the image of Christ. All of life is meant to bring about this transformation, and it is my privilege to join my Savior in this effort.
  • I must change my view of hope: This world can never be the home to which I am bound. No political, social, economic, or physical solution will conform me to the image of Christ or renew this fallen world. My victory, and that of all who will be ultimately victorious, is through Christ alone. God loves me, and I love Him, and I shall be with Him in glory.

The Gospel in a Muslim Culture

Contextualization has become a buzzword in Christian mission discussions for some time now.  There are proponents who extol the value of building bridges for people groups unfamiliar with biblical concepts and terminology, and there are others who accuse ‘contextualizers’ of syncretism[1].

Referring to terms like contextualization and syncretism, one author commented,

“As commonly used, [these terms] function on the boundary line between heresy and orthodoxy, with a strong suspicion that syncretists have crossed the line into heresy while contextualists have enabled people to experience new creativity and depth in their faith” (emphasis added).[2]

Many have understood this as a reality and have thus attempted to distinguish where the “boundary line” should be drawn.  Drawing this line has proven a difficult task indeed.

Defining our primary term of interest, one author wrote,

Contextualization is ‘taking the unchanging truth of the gospel and making it understandable in a given context.’”[3]

This essay has adopted this definition for its usefulness and clarity.  If one understands contextualization in these terms, then one can hardly accuse such of syncretism.  After all, making the Gospel understandable is the goal of any person engaged in evangelism.

The muddying of today’s contextualization water seems to have come from a particular interest in applying this principle to Muslim or Islamic people groups.  In such a context, one may rightly understand that the “goal is not to make Scripture as Islamic as possible; rather, it is to communicate the unchanging truth in a particular Islamic context so it makes sense.”[4]  Again, this seems fairly straight forward thinking for the purpose of evangelism.

In addition to the social and religious context that is the makeup of the Islamic or Muslim worldview, one question that arises is the use of non-Christian sacred texts in evangelism.  Miles explains the use of these texts in relationship with the Bible or Scripture in the following terms.

“The search for truth must begin with Scripture, must be submitted to scripture, and must honor the one to whom Scripture points.  Where non-Christian sacred texts corroborate the truth of Scripture they may be used apologetically or evangelistically.”[5]

From this view, any perceived sacred text may be used (to one degree or another) as it aligns with the biblical truth, but only as a secondary and complimentary source at best.  Representing a different view, Dutch says, “The gospel is… initially perceived as harmonious with – and to some extent supported by – Islamic scripture.”[6]  In this view, the Islamic sacred text is in some way ‘harmonious’ with the Gospel itself.

Miles, however, goes on to say, “Any non-biblical sacred text that is quoted should be ‘lifted out of its original setting and clearly reoriented within a new Christocentric setting.’”[7]  Non-biblical texts do not present themselves as “disoriented truths about the Almighty,” but they intentionally claim an entire worldview.  Therefore, contrary to the claims of Dutch, the Gospel may not be perceived as harmonious with the Islamic text; rather, the Gospel would stand in stark contrast to the whole of the Islamic text.

Another concern for those engaging Muslims for the sake of the Gospel is that of cultural and religious identification.  Some Christians have gone as far as calling themselves Muslims in order to gain acceptance by the Muslim community, but Leffel points out,

“identifying one’s self as a Muslim in only the cultural sense or in a radically reinterpreted religious sense is grossly misleading.”

He also reminds us, “Evangelicals have long deplored the semantic mysticism of liberal theologians as they import deceptive meanings to biblical terms that are utterly foreign to their context.”[8]  It does not seem honest or beneficial for Christians to attempt such a covert operation in the name of evangelism.

However, labeling Christians who evangelize Muslims does not seem to be nearly as difficult as categorizing Muslims who have converted to faith in Christ.  Dutch rightly notes,

“We should remember that the term ‘Christian’ does not come as a God-ordained label for followers of Jesus.  The name arose as a local – and probably derisive – name for Jesus disciples in Antioch (Acts 11:26).”[9]

In addition, the term “Christian” has been perceived through faulty lenses in the Muslim culture for a very long time.  It simply does not carry an accurate meaning in the mind of a Muslim.

However, it is not only the label “Christian” that seems to bother some of those attempting to evangelize Muslims.  There is also an allergy for many of the biblical distinctives and an aversion to separating from many or all Islamic religious routines and structures.  Just how much does a Muslim have to look like a Christian in order to be considered a follower of Christ?

In order to measure the progression from the look and feel of Western Christianity to what has been called Muslim-background believers, a spectrum or scale was devised known as the “C-scale.”

The C-scale begins with C1, described as “a church foreign to the community in both culture and language,” and ends with C6, described as “secret believers, may or may not be active members in the religious life of the Muslim community.”[10]

This scale is helpful in organizing the categories of Muslims who have been evangelized based on their various responses to the Gospel.  Of particular interest is the significance of a Muslim’s new identification with Jesus or Isa (the Arabic name for ‘Jesus’), and the significance of his remaining identification with Islam.

In an attempt to extract the C-scale from its primary focus (namely ‘how Muslim can a former-Muslim remain while he professes to have a new identity in Isa or Jesus Christ’), Mark Williams provides a loose analogy in the form of “Christian Music.”  Measuring his selections and placing them along the C-scale, he names hymns as C1 level “Christian Music” and changes only the instrumentality for the C2 category (still singing hymns, but using a wider variety of instruments).

For the C3 level he names “Maranatha Music” (a very eclectic and modern style of music with much less content) and for C4 he lists a wide-ranging musical style that fits under the heading of “Contemporary Christian Music.”  This style is even less substantial in content than the aforementioned hymns.  Lastly, Williams recognizes that the “music [listed under the headings of C5 and C6] might not even be considered Christian by any of the [other] four ‘C’ types;” then he proceeds to list the band “Evanescence” as an analogous the C5 level of “Christian Music” and the singer “Lenny Kravitz” as an example of C6.[11]

Unless one is personally involved with either Lenny Kravitz or any of those associated with the band Evanescence, one cannot know their personal worldview or theological positions, but I think it safe to say that none of the music put out by Evanescence or Lenny Kravitz has any distinctly Christian themes whatever.  In fact, it seems hard to imagine someone referring to either of these as “Christian” music or “Christian” artists with any real sincerity.

If Williams’ analogy is accurate, then there is no reason whatever to consider C5 and C6 as remaining under the umbrella of Christianity at all, and there should be serious reservations about what is included as such under the C4 heading.

Much of the debate over contextualization seems to stem from some disagreement about identity and obstacles that may hinder a person or group from finding their identity in Christ. 

While there is certainly value in removing obstacles, and such a goal is worthy of further conversation, it should not be overlooked or quickly dismissed that the Gospel message itself is an obstacle.  The Apostle Paul says that the Gospel of Christ is “a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles” (1 Cor. 1:23).  In other words, it is a barrier to the Jews and foolishness (another kind of obstruction) to everyone else.

While evangelism demands that we present the Gospel in understandable terms, the Gospel itself – when contextually understood – will still remain intolerable to some.

It seems that the chief goal of evangelism should not be to make the Gospel more palatable but to make it understandable

If one understands the Gospel, then he may find it wonderful or offensive, but we may not adjust the call to abandon all else for the sake of Christ simply because it is an offensive call.

 

Reference List

Dutch, Bernard. “Should Muslims Become “Christians”?” International Journal of Frontier Missions 17, no. 1 (Spring 2000).

Heideman, E. S. “Syncretism, Contextualization, Orthodoxy, and Heresy.” Missiology: An International Review Missiology: An International Review 25, no. 1 (1997): 37-49. WorldCat.

Leffel, Jim. “Contextualization: Building Bridges to the Muslim Community.” Xenos Online Journal. Accessed June 20, 2014. http://www.xenos.org/ministries/crossroads/OnlineJournal/issue1/contextu.htm.

Miles, Todd L. A God of Many Understandings? : The Gospel and a Theology of Religions. Nashville, Tenn.: B & H Academic, 2010. WorldCat.

Oksnevad, Roy. “Contextualization in the Islamic Context.” Lausanne World Pulse, April 2007, 16-19.

Williams, M. S. “Revisiting the C1-C6 Spectrum in Muslim Contextualization.” Missiology: An International Review Missiology: An International Review 39, no. 3 (2011): 335-51. Accessed June 20, 2014. WorldCat.

 

 

[1] Syncretism carries the idea of mixing Christianity with non-Christian ideas without regard for the purity of the Christian Faith.

[2] Heideman

[3] Oksnevad

[4] Oksnevad

[5] Miles

[6] Dutch

[7] Miles

[8] Leffel

[9] Dutch

[10] Williams

[11] Williams