Friday, May 31, 2013

"Real needs" and actual needs

Carl Trueman has recently wrote an article offering a few reflections on Any Stanley's book Deep and Wide: Creating Churches Unchurched People Love to Attend. Of particular interest here is Stanley's portrayal of Stanley's view of most Christians, which is the reigning Zeitgeist in Evangelicalism.

Quite some time back, I wrote regarding the confusion of perceived real needs and ordained actual needs. As I had written,

If indeed God is God, He is the determiner of meaning. His archetypal truth is the ground for all (ectypal) truth. We do not therefore see what our "real needs" are, and then see the Scriptures as relevant to meet those real needs. No, Scripture defines what we need. There are felt needs, there are real needs, and there are ordained/ prescribed needs. Just because something may not seem to be a "real need" does not make it any less important! The Scriptures are to govern our experience, our tastes, every aspect of our being.

While Seeker-Sensitivity is driven by meeting felt needs, New Evangelicalism (and the New Calvinism) as a whole has shifted to meeting what they deem "real needs." Thus, they are not "seeker-sensitive," but merely seeker sensible. The problem of this approach is that truth is painted in terms of meeting Man's needs. Man is at the center of the universe, while God's truths are framed to meet the perceived real needs of Man. The teachings of Scripture must be existentially shaped to meet people where they are at, after all.

Adding to the problem of anthropocentricity, Trueman has helpfully pointed out that what constitute "real needs" are shaped very much by the culture. For him, that is middle-class America, and I would certainly add the middle- and upper-middle class society of Singapore. It is extremely interesting as I recall that ancient Greece and Rome have much different societal values, and thus their "real needs" are different from the "real needs" of modern middle class society in the Western and westernized worlds.

I [Trueman] will concede that Stanley is certainly right in his basic contention: people are not on a search for truth. The Apostle Paul articulated that well in Romans 1. Stanley is also correct that truth is irrelevant to people, or at least they think it is irrelevant to them. Compared to Paul, Stanley's statement on this issue is rather bland. Paul goes much further, declaring the truth, the message of the cross, to be intellectual foolishness to some and a moral offense to others. It is not, however, Stanley's blandness which is the real problem; it is the practical conclusion which he draws from this. For Paul, the offensiveness and irrelevance of the message of the cross demonstrate the fact that those who think in such ways are perishing. The problem is with them and with their 'cultures,' not with the cross. For Stanley, by way of contrast, it is the 'culture' which is to set the agenda and to which the church must thus conform or die.

When facing the issue of "real needs," perhaps instead of trying to meet them, we should challenge them. When people claim they don't need to hear more of the Gospel but they want "practical" sermons, perhaps their "needs" are actually wrong. When people are not interested in learning about sound doctrine but are interested in "signs and wonders," perhaps their attitude actually constitutes sin. Perhaps Paul actually knew the difference between "real needs" and what people actually need.

For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. (1 Cor. 1:18)

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Res et Signum, and the Visible/ Invisible Church distinction

Back when what seemed a long time ago, I was criticized for my focus on the invisible church. That criticism was done by a Baptist. After going through seminary, I have come to see why such criticism makes sense in the Baptist scheme of things.

On the nature of visible things and the invisible reality behind those things, there has been theories about how they relate to each other. In the doctrines concerning sacraments for example, the issue is the relation between the physical sign (signum) and the thing signified (res significata). So how does the bread in the Lord's Supper relate to the Body of Christ it signifies? How does the water in baptism signify regeneration, the death and being borned again of the believer in union with Christ? In all these, there is the physical sign, which signifies the spiritual reality behind it.

In traditional Roman Catholic sacramentology, the sign IS the thing signified. Thus, in the Mass, one actually eats the real Body and drinks the real Blood of Christ, as the elements are transubstantiated into the body and blood of Christ. At baptism, the water actually regenerates the person being baptized, because the sign is the reality, so application of the sign ex opere operato accomplish its purpose. In the Zwinglian view, which Baptists (traditionally) and most Christians today hold to, the sign is separated from the thing signified. Therefore, a person can eat the bread and drink the wine, yet not actually eat and drink the Body and Blood of Christ. Baptism can be just washing, a pouring of water on the person, which is why baptism can be re-administered since the previous baptism, for whatever reason, is considered invalid. It is no wonder therefore that the Swiss Anabaptists came out under Zwingli's teaching, for if baptism has no spiritual reality attached but is merely an oath pledge of faith, then certainly babies can't take that oath pledge, and infant baptism is thereby invalidated, thus all persons baptized as infants are to re-baptized (or undergo adult baptism).

In contrast, the Reformed understanding is that the sign and the thing signified are related to each other. They are not equated, neither are they separated. Distinct but not separate. Thus, the bread is bread, but there is a relation with the Body of Christ so that all who eat of the bread partake of the Body of Christ, either unto blessing or unto condemnation. Thus, the water is related to regeneration, so that all who partake of baptism have the sign of regeneration, and thus show forth their regeneration in time, or suffer the curse of covenant breaking. In the Reformed system, there is always a relation between the sign and the thing signified, a relation which is rejected by Baptists in general.

So what does this have to do with the Visible/ Invisible Church distinction? Like the relation between sign and thing signified, the Visible Church and the Invisible Church are distinct but not separate. They are not equated to each other, neither are they separated to the extent that one can discount the Visible Church while claiming to be a member of the Invisible Church.

We see this dynamic at work in Baptist and broad Evangelical circles. On the one hand, we have those who are so focus on the "Invisible Church" that they reject the Visible Church altogether, or downplays it. Here we have people like John Nelson Darby and the Plymouth Brethren, and here we could put Frank Viola as well. The Visible Church disappears altogether, for what God is focused on is the Invisible Church. On the other hand, we have those who move towards the equating of the two. In reaction against the focus on the Invisible Church we have those who focus on the Visible Church. Thus, we have people like Frank Turk, whom I have debated in the past. Such baptists react against the low view of the Visible Church for its other extreme. In the case of Frank Turk, that means separation from any professing church is out of the question, presumably as long as it is called a church. For such people, separation equals the horrors of J.N. Darby, C.I. Scofield, and all the problems that attend them. Ironically, because their paradigm is unreflective and reactionary, they have replaced a separation of res et signum for an almost equation of res et signum, such that the Visible Church IS the Invisible Church in all but form.

That is why there is nothing wrong to focus on the invisible church, when it is done right in the Reformed paradigm. In fact, focusing on the invisible church should be the case, for that is what the Visible Church strives to be. In such a paradigm, there is no question about being a member in a Visible Church. The visible Church is not seen as an organization we join in obedience to God's command, something believers do after salvation. NO! The visible Church is the mother of believers. We are birthed through her and in her. She nourishes the souls of believers through her offices. The Church is NOT a place for one to go to "do ministry" and "serve God." The Church is just there to nourish the saints for works of service to others. Normally, a believer is a member in a visible church, and that is it!

It is no surprise that Baptists generally can't get their ecclesiology right, for they start with a wrong view of the relation between sign and thing signified, which influence their view of the relation between the Visible and the Invisible Church. With this wrong view, those who react against the separatists just swing to the opposite extreme, and thus almost equate the two. In both of these extremes, God's people lose out. In the former, they separate themselves from Christ's church, supposing themselves to be the "true invisible church." In the latter, they let themselves be unequally yoked with false churches, being spiritually malnourished and told they must continue in their sorry state because Christ told them to. Unfortunately, beliefs HAVE consequences, and none seen more practical than in ecclesiology.

The Visible/ Invisible Church distinction is a distinction, not a separation. We should not equate them, nor separate them. Only when we hold that they relate to each other can we do justice to what Scripture instructs us concerning the church.

Paper: The Special Office in the Church - A Defence against the views of Radical Restorationist and Organic Church proponent Frank Viola

I have written a paper concerning Frank Viola's ecclesiology and the issue of special office in the church, which he rejects. Viola is well known for promoting the house church phenomenon, specifically his "Organic Church" model. The issue with Viola has never been about meeting in homes, but about Viola's attack of all elements of church governance and liturgy as being "pagan." If anything is pagan, it is Viola's radical egalitarianism in his radizalization of "every-member ministry," as it will have been proven. Without further to do, here is the paper, entitled The Special Office in the Church: A Defence against the Views of Radical Restorationist and Organic Church proponent Frank Viola.

The desire to be biblical in all things is very much to be lauded, since Scripture is to be the rule for our faith. This desire to be biblical is worked out also in the way we do church. The accretions of superstitions and unbiblical rituals in the medieval era were largely removed during the time of the Reformation. The Anabaptists were of the opinion however that the Reformers did not go far enough in their reform. Since then, various restorationist movements like the Stone-Campbell movement have attempted to reform and return the church back to what they suppose the first century church looks like. Pentecostalism and its variants are another incarnation of the restorationist impulse, an impulse which is different from the Reformed impulse in desiring to jettison tradition altogether instead of critically engaging it.

One of the latest incarnations of the restorationist impulse is the movement promoted primarily by Frank Viola, the “Organic Church” movement, which claims that most of what is found in modern Christianity is actually pagan in its roots. Viola rejects almost all aspects of the Institutional Church, in favor of a particular house church model without liturgy or any hint of clergy. Together with George Barna, he advocates for spontaneity in every meeting and every-member ministry, in which every believer will join in contributing to church gatherings through the use of song, skit, “short teachings, revelations, and prophetic words” among others, as the Holy Spirit supposedly leads each member during church meetings.

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Paper: The Marriage Bond and Covenant

This paper has been returned. Here is my paper on the issue of divorce and remarriage, dealing particularly with the views of the PRCA as seen in their theologian David Engelsma, entitled The Marriage Bond and Covenant. An excerpt:

Marriage is an ordinance instituted by God at creation (Gen. 2:24). In this ordinance, a man is to leave his father and mother and cling to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh. It is also a covenant which is supposed to reflect the covenant relation Christ has with His Church (Mal. 2:14; Eph. 5: 22-33). Ordained by God from the beginning, reflecting Christ’s relation with the Church, the marriage bond is ideally to be permanent, reflecting Christ’s eternal and unchanging love for His Bride.

Problems however arise because of our human sin, in which husbands and wives hurt each other and sin against each other, sometimes grievously. The question then becomes what do the Scriptures say concerning the actions of divorce and remarriage that attend the real life realities of marital breakdowns. Just because the ideal is a lifelong union of husband and wife, does it necessarily mean that divorce and subsequent remarriage is off-limits for Christians? Are there any circumstances in which a Christian may legitimately seek to divorce or be divorced, and then remarry, without sinning?

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A New NAR "translation" of the Bible

If you can't get around what the Scriptures say, it seems the next best way is to change what the Scriptures says. NAR (New Apostolic 'Reformation') "apostle" Brian Simmons has produced his own Bible "translation," the Passion Translation, which is exposed as altering the actual words of Scripture (See here, here, here and here).

The advertising blurb advertises it as "A dynamic-equivalent translation of the Holy Scriptures — From the ancient Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek into modern English." Notice that it advertises itself as a dynamic-equivalent translation. In other words, it is supposed to translate the meaning from the original language to the target language. Therefore, a D-E (or F-E "functional equivalent") translation only has to preserve the meaning of the Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek texts, and can disregard the actual original words.

I have been against the Dynamic Equivalence methodology ever since I dealt with Rick Warren's Scripture twisting through the use of multiple translations. This "translation" of the Bible is the perfect example for my objections, even better than the Message translation paraphrase. While one can blame NavPress for hyping up the Message while Eugene Peterson actually intended it to be a paraphrase, one cannot do the same for the Passion "translation," which is both intended and marketed as a Bible version.

The D-E/ F-E methodology is flawed because meanings are taken to have no real relations with words. In their attack against the Formal-Equivalent methodology, which looks day by day more like a strawman based upon positivism (aka the early Wittgenstein), F-E advocates emphasize the importance of meaning over form, and claim that Formal Equivalence leads to wooden translations. The problem is that no one who actually knows more than one language (as languages, not code) does "wooden" translation. No one who translates languages like languages actually prioritize form over meaning. Rather, we reject the Platonic idea that one can divorce meaning from form, and then do translation as if form is totally irrelevant to meaning. When one divorces meaning from form, you get "translations" such as the Passion Translation. Upon what basis can a D-E/ F-E advocate dispute that the Passion Translation is not a legitimate translation, since Simmons will just claim that, although the words are not the same, yet the meaning is there? With the endorsement of Che Ann and James W Goll, this "translation" will go places within the Charismatic circles.

Do not be deceived! Instead of getting around what the Scriptures teach, it seems the new trend is to just produce one's own translation, and then claim that one is actually translating the true meaning of the text of Scripture. Most Christians don't read the original languages anyway, so claiming that the teachings in one's Bible 'translation' is actually found in the original text will confuse many of these Christians.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

The "organic church" movement as apostasy

The round of paper writing is over. For my last academic semester, I had to write a few papers on issues that I did not have a position on just a few months back, neither did I know too much about, which means much more thought was needed than was normally necessary. One paper that I did not have to think as much however is a paper for Doctrine of the Church, which I have decided to write concerning Frank Viola's denigration of the institutional church.

While the paper has just been submitted, I would like to discuss the implications of what I have written. My basic thesis in my paper is that the special office is commanded in Scripture for a church. The "organic" church movement by Frank Viola, with its vitriol against the institutional church (c.f. the title of his book Pagan Christianity) not only does not have any special offices in the church, but denounces any church that does as being "pagan." For Viola and company, "elders" are merely advisers in the church with no power at all except for that of persuasion. If that strikes you as ludicrous, it is. One does not have to be a genius to know that is a recipe for anarchy, for any Tom, Dick or Harry can go into an "organic church," gain some followers, and dispute with the "elders." Since those "elders" have no real authority, the only resolution is a split. While Christians should deplore the division in the Church, the "organic church" model splits "organic churches" so fast that, if that speed was normative for all churches, there probably wouldn't be any church at all in a few decades.

The main error of Frank Viola is that he is a radical Anabaptist and Restorationist. Viola holds to a dualism between nature and grace, and sees anything that smacks of culture (especially Greco-Roman culture) as "pagan." Viola holds to all manners of false dichotomies (e.g. between "organism" and "organization," between "head" and "heart"), and his radical egalitarianism results in anti-intellectualism. The problem is that there is such a thing as God's law, and thus Nature. Viola can redefine everything all he wants, but his theories have to deal with real life consequences. The "organic church" model cannot work, because God is not in it. In fact, the "organic church" is rebellion against the LORD, for attacking His representatives in the visible (institutional) church and trying to "be" the church outside His will. Is it any wonder that those who join such movement tend towards greater and greater apostasy?

Quite some time back, I had been contacted via email by someone from those circles. From my interaction, I have seen in some measure the type of bad fruit the "organic church" model has bore. There is nothing worse than conversing with people who have absolutely no respect for authority of any sort (including the words of Scripture, but excluding the teachings of Frank Viola), yet think that somehow their words command me to submit to their dictates. My refusal to do so of course causes him to say that that he will "pray for me," a symptom of false humility masquerading as spiritual pride. For if you refuse to interact with Scripture, what does "praying for me" means except a retort basically that "although I have no idea how to refute your arguments from Scripture, yet I still think I am right (and you wrong) and I will ask God to change your mind about it (contrary to the teachings of Scripture)"?

If Christ instituted the church (no pun intended), then the Church belongs to Christ. People like Frank Viola therefore who call on people to leave the institutional church to form their own bodies are preaching rebellion against the Church, and thus rebellion against Christ. It is noted that Viola is NOT asking people to leave false (institutional) churches to join the true (institutional) churches — that is always valid. No, Viola is asking people to leave the institutional church altogether as it being false! "Organic churches," being birthed out of rebellion and rejecting the marks of the church (i.e. they eschew preaching, they do not rightly administer the sacraments, and they certainly don't practice discipline) are not true churches at all! And since Christ saves His people into His Body the Church, all those in "organic churches" are not in the visible Body of Christ. At the very least, such is grievous sin. At the worst, this indicates that they were not saved in the first place. Here is why Viola's description of a so-called "conversion" by someone who visited an "organic church" is so sad. People are not saved by a "conversion experience," however you want to define that. People are saved by objectively confessing Christ in faith with repentance from sin, and baptism as the visible profession of faith, baptism indicating membership in a visible (institutional) church! That guy, whatever "conversion experience" he might have, has no true indications that he has true faith in Christ, at least none that can be considered as true according to the Scriptures. If the guy continues in his "conversion" experience in the "organic church," he is lost. He is one of those who will be receive a false counterfeit of the Gospel and thus may be immunized to the true Gospel when it is preached. Just like the cults, including the prosperity heresy, immunize people from the true Gospel, so likewise the "organic church" movement immunizes anyone, who was formerly an unbeliever but has now become a professing "believer" who joins an "organic church," from the true Gospel. Such a tragedy!

If one desires God's name to be glorified and people to turn to Him, one has to hate the "organic church." The "organic church" model is a tool in the Devil's toolkit for the destroying of souls. The Lord could indeed save people in it and by it, but such people are saved despite it. Such people are saved just like how Roman Catholics are saved, in spite of the false teaching they hear from their priests.

May the Lord open the eyes of those in the "organic churches" to the error of their ways.

Extra Ecclesiam Nulla Salus (Est) — Outside the Church there is no salvation -Cyprian