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Defending Orthodoxy

October 2nd, 2017 / By: Malcolm Yarnell | SWBTS / comments

The Reformation began when a preacher-theologian became convicted that his church’s dogma did not align with Scripture. For centuries, there were calls for moral or structural reformation, but Martin Luther knew the problem was more foundational because it was doctrinal. When called upon to recant his writings before the hostile imperial court in Worms, Luther asked for more time to consider. The next day, with great trepidation, he boldly proclaimed in Latin, “I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted, and my conscience is captive to the Word of God.” He concluded in German with the immortal words, “Here I stand. I can do no other.” The Reformation reached a crisis point that day, but Luther steadfastly defended biblical orthodoxy against all opposition.

One great responsibility for every church leader is defending truth against error. Alongside many pastor-theologians who have come before, I know the extraordinary personal weight this entails. I tremble at the prospect of providing an account to the omniscient divine inhabitant of the eternal throne regarding how I cared for each and every one of the people he entrusted to my teaching.

The risen Lord Jesus Christ once assigned to Peter and the apostles (John 21:15-17) and subsequently assigns to pastors the unparalleled role of shepherding his flock, a flock he bought with his own blood (Acts 20:28-29). This is serious business. The language of Paul in Acts 20 evokes violent imagery. “Savage wolves” will “not spare” the flock, so church leaders must “guard” his precious sheep. 

The Old Testament was even more vivid in correlating violence with false prophecy. Moses legislated the death penalty for false prophets (Deut. 13:1-5). Ezekiel warned Israel’s shepherds that God would exact vengeance against their neglect for and abuse of his flock (Ezek. 34). Jeremiah rained declamations and prophesied doom upon false prophets (Jer. 14; 23). Jesus also disclosed the rapacious nature of false preachers (Matt. 7:5-16; Mark 13:22).

During the Middle Ages and the Reformation, Christian leaders subsequently deemed it important to protect the church from evil proclamation. When the leaven of wicked teaching enters the church, it grows into a cancer. Heresy can stick around for centuries. However, the traditional solution of Christendom, which built upon Augustine’s misreading of the parable of wheat and tares (Matt 13:24-30), wrongly employed hasty physical violence rather than patient spiritual means to combat theological error. On the one hand, with our Medieval and Reformation forefathers in the faith, and against Modernity’s disdain for dogma, I agree that the faith is worth dying for. On the other hand, I wholeheartedly condemn the misguided, revolting and immoral use of bodily coercion to defend orthodoxy.

Paul tells us in Ephesians 6 that our ultimate battle is not against humanity but against spiritual forces, who manifest themselves variously (vv. 10-12). In this battle, the weapons a Christian employs are primarily defensive, involving the protection of the soul against demonic attack (vv. 13-16). Indeed, the only offensive weapon in the Christian arsenal is the Word of God, a spiritual sword that is confined to the visible activities of speaking and writing (v. 17). Moreover, and this is so important, Paul did not focus upon his own physical protection or bodily preservation. Rather, he focused upon bold proclamation of God’s Word even at the cost of his personal freedom (vv. 19-20).

I have engaged in polemic on behalf of orthodox doctrine as a pastor, as the president of a local pastor’s conference, as a speaking and writing theologian, and as an active denominational voice. However, I have learned to approach these things as the Lord Jesus and his apostles did. Consider the following three principles for defending orthodoxy.

First, the orthodox should not be concerned to defend themselves personally. My friends sometimes become frustrated when I fail to respond to personal attacks, for they wish to see my reputation or welfare conserved. However, if our Lord amazingly maintained silence when it came to his body’s self-protection (Mark 14:60-61a, 15:1-5), while yet clearly speaking the gospel (vv. 61a-62), then I believe this should be the Christ-follower’s typical practice. Even if he temporarily or even belatedly appeals to the state for shelter (Acts 16:38; 22:25), the orthodox preacher must do so not for the gospeler’s preservation but for the gospel’s proclamation.

Second, defending the faith with dogmatic definition is important. Propositional clarity is provided through properly interpreting the Word of God in the context of the church. Heresies are inevitable, even providential, functioning as a means for positively identifying orthodox teachers through the negative example of false teachers (1 Cor. 11:19). Technically, a “heresy” is a falsehood the church has rebuked but which certain teachers continue to hold stubbornly, in spite of correction, and ultimately removal from regular communion. An “error” is of a lesser nature, involving theological disagreement, even disputation, but without resulting in the separation of heresy. It is particularly important in defining truth as it relates to heresy to privilege not the scholarly theologian’s authority, nor even the creeds of tradition, as important as these are, but the Spirit-led church’s hermeneutical conclusions.

 Third and finally, Paul reminds us that defending orthodoxy is not about enforcing definition. Rather, the defender of the faith must be intent upon personal piety. In his instructions to the Ephesian elders, Paul said they must first act reflexively, “Be on guard for yourselves” (Acts 20:28a). Similarly, he warned Timothy to be doubly reflexive, “Pay close attention to your life and your teaching” (1 Tim. 4:16a). The defender is not an inquisitor setting himself up as a judge of the minds and consciences of others, but he is a constant examiner of his own personal conduct and conversation in order to help bring about the salvation of himself and others (1 Tim. 4:16b). It is in the Spirit-graced effort to align one’s life and lips with the Word of God that the true theologian finds effectiveness.

Over the years, I have been attacked publicly in books and articles, as well as on blogs and in op-ed pieces, and sometimes with oral abuse. Most recently, this occurred after putting forth a resolution to affirm penal substitutionary atonement. Why not enter the comment streams and bang heads? Because orthodoxy’s purpose is not defending self, nor slamming others, but teaching well. And the way to right teaching (“orthodoxy” more woodenly means “right opinion” but also “right teaching”) is for the teacher to be righteous in thought, word and deed before God. Out of that sure relation, and in the act of teaching truth, we defend orthodoxy because it glorifies God. The defender of orthodoxy wishes to hear only one affirmation, and that in the Eschaton, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”