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50 challenging years

September 2017 | by Geoffrey Thomas

Over 1967-2017, confessional evangelical Christianity in Britain has faced some significant challenges. Here are six of them:

1) The so-called ‘New Perspective’ on the teaching of the apostle Paul.

In a book entitled Paul and Palestinian Judaism by Ed Sanders, which appeared 40 years ago, the thesis was promoted that the Jews of Pauline times were not a legalistic, works-oriented community; they were men who considered themselves saved by being God’s chosen, covenant community, the children of Abraham; and their remaining in the covenant depended on their keeping the law. Law-keeping was the badge of covenant membership.

James Dunn and N. T. Wright were among the leaders who developed, modified and popularised this idea for ministers and theologians — not that it has ever become either a simple teaching affecting the praying of the midweek meeting or being turned into hymnology.

The New Perspective claimed that the apostle had nothing negative to say about human effort and works. It claimed that, when Paul writes of being justified by faith, he did not mean flying from our sins and our works to trust in Christ’s life and death, but rather our being declared righteous by our faithfulness to God’s covenant requirements, and that the day of judgment would be a day of vindication for those who have been faithful.

The focus of the preacher then moves from exhortations to trust in Christ’s blood and righteousness for salvation, to exhortations to go on living faithfully just as Christ did. This approach is commonly linked with infant baptism as an ordinance, putting the child into the family of God and thenceforth instructed to keep being faithful to Him.

This emphasis on being saved by faithfulness has brought the movement into common ground with Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox teaching on justification. It is an emphasis on a linear process of life-long justification, rather than an act of entrusting oneself to Christ in punctiliar justification.

Teachers who have propounded this view in American Presbyterian seminaries have gained a following amongst some students, but have been dismissed from their callings.

2. The teaching of Karl Barth.

This is really the same thing as dialectical theology or neo-orthodoxy. Barth was a prodigious writer, with a fine turn of phrase and some remarkable observations.

He rejected the moralistic conclusions of German rationalistic theology — Christianity was far more than exhortations to live a bourgeois lifestyle. Good, but Barth didn’t accept most of Scripture as a historical record; rather, the majority of it was ‘saga’. He did not believe in the resurrection as a fact.

He also regarded Scripture as the exclusive way God reveals his Word existentially to us. In other words, he had no place for God’s general revelation in creation and conscience. Barth seems to have been universalist in his theology: all men are in Adam, but all men are also in Christ.

When I once heard him lecture in Princeton in 1963, that was what I gleaned. He was not easy to understand. That must be the case if you are at the most cool, as he was, to such basics as the law/gospel distinction, and if you reject covenant theology.

We must ask this, that if the theology of Karl Barth and his followers is what it claims to be — the 20th century rediscovery of the Word and God’s gift to those who stand in the pulpit — then where are the Barthian evangelists and preachers who have adopted this theology and thus renewed dying churches and powerfully evangelised England and Wales, let alone Germany and Switzerland?

3. The rejection of substitutionary atonement.

The Baptist, Steve Chalke, infamously described the preaching of the cross as ‘cosmic child abuse’. The Church of Scotland minister, Scott McKenna, posted on his web a video of a sermon he preached, in which he says, ‘I was asked if Jesus died for my sins. I replied, “No, no, no, no. That’s ghastly theology. You don’t want to go there”.’

What for us evangelical Christians is the very heart of the gospel: that Christ the Son of God became the Lamb of God, who died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he rose again from the dead according to the Scriptures — the preaching of the cross — is, for those men, some dreadful teaching that should not be heard in any pulpit. It is in fact for them anti-Christian. And they claim to be evangelicals!

4. The ‘openness’ of God.

This teaching is also known as ‘open theism’, ‘free will theism’ or ‘openness theology’. It is the belief that God does not exercise meticulous control of the universe, but leaves it ‘open’ for humans to make their own independent, significant choices by their free will.

Such decisions then impact their relationships with God and their neighbours. Open theism is the belief that God has not predetermined the future; he does not know the future exhaustively. Openness theology acknowledges that God is omniscient, but rejects the inference that this means that God knows everything that will happen.

Open Theists like Clark Pinnock argue that people are created to be in meaningful relationships with God and their fellow men, and, as moral beings, they must have the ability to make real, responsible choices in their lives. This, they claim, cannot be accomplished as long as God is believed to be exercising exhaustive control of the universe; or that he predetermines the future, because this would remove man’s free will.

However, we have to ask if open theism is actually, truly reflecting the full teaching of the Bible. Is this what you learn from the life of Joseph or the death of the Lord Jesus?

If God is not exercising meticulous control of the universe, reaching to the fall of sparrows or numbering the hairs on our heads, and if he does not exhaustively know the future, then surely Jehovah cannot be said to be in total control, and we’re not able to completely trust in God’s loving omnipotence in the hundred little things that happen to us hour by hour? How much hangs on little things!

The big question remains: will the God of open theism actually triumph over evil? Open Theists answer these critiques lamely and inconsistently by noting that, while God doesn’t exercise meticulous control, he is somehow ‘ultimately’ in control.

5. Feminism.

There are terrible ways in much of the world today in which women as the ‘weaker vessels’ — who are half the human race — are treated from the time they are infants and mutilated, on to the time they are taken as child-brides, and then on into being abandoned when they are worn out with work and a new younger woman is taken into the home. The plight of a billion women on this planet is outrageous and we evangelicals are to address that sin on every kind of mission field.

My concern with feminism is where it clashes with divine revelation, and so I remind myself and you all that the church is the body of Christ; it is not the body of the Enlightenment or the body of the world. It has to register and assert its Head’s personal convictions. For us Jesus can say no wrong.

We are to teach that woman was made in the image of God, by a separate act of creation from man, and after man, and for man to be his helper. She is equal to man in creative honour, native depravity and redemptive privilege.

Marriage is the union of a man and a woman, with their becoming the heads of any children God gives to them, man being the head of the woman, Christ being the head of the man, and God being the head of Christ. The church has to reflect that headship-reality in its structures and services.

God does not gift one single man, so that he can bear a child in his womb or nurse a child at his breast. God gives that privilege exclusively to the woman. God also discriminates by giving to man alone the privilege of preaching the Word at designated services.

When that is denied by a woman, who is actually leading and governing the congregation as the pastor-preacher, then, for that time, in that activity, in that congregation, it is not being the body of Christ. Christ’s body on earth is ruled by male elders. Our resistance to British feminism is also due to its intimate link with lesbianism.

6. The dumbing down of worship.

God has prescribed for us how he is to be worshipped. Your taste might be to things Gregorian, or to things contemporary, or Celtic, or cowboy. But your taste is not the issue; rather, what does God require of us?

He has made it plain. There is to be prayer, and the singing of psalms, hymns and spiritual songs (of which, incidentally, there is little example and not much emphasis in the New Testament), the preaching of the apostolic Word (of which there is much emphasis in the New Testament), the enjoying of apostolic fellowship, the receiving of our offerings, the Lord’s Supper, baptism, and being in the Spirit on the Lord’s day.

There may be all sorts of minor variations and combinations of these elements, but there may not be an abandonment of any of these things, nor an absolutising of any one of them, to distort what gives pleasure and glory to God. A larger crowd may be gathered if certain things are done differently, but that is a great price to pay for grieving and quenching God the Holy Spirit.

Such hymn books as Christian Hymns have put the church into their debt, by gathering the best hymns from 3,000 years of Christian doxology and making this praise available and attractive to our generation. We can sing on Sundays a psalm of Moses written 3,400 years ago, or a hymn written recently by Vernon Higham.

Geoff Thomas is a well-known author and conference speaker. He served for over 50 years as pastor of Alfred Place Baptist Church, Aberystwyth. He is a trustee of the Banner of Truth Trust and visiting professor of historical theology at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary, Michigan. This article is an extract taken from his Westminster Conference 2016 paper, ‘Evangelicalism in England and Wales 1945-2015’. It is used here by kind permission.