Monday, December 14, 2009

Phil Johnson on confidence in doctine and the idea of humility

In the book Reforming or Conforming? Post-Conservative Evangelicals and the Emerging Church (Wheaton, IL, USA: Crossway Books, 2008), Phil Johnson has written something especially pertinent for our times, in his chapter, of the idea of confidence in God's Word and the idea of humility. In this post-modern world, it is sadly the case that "humility" is defined in the context of a "chastened epistemology" whereby one cannot proclaim anything for sure as being absolutely true. Being confident of the truth of your position in this post-modern age is to be "arrogant", while "humility" is defined as the willingness to accept another's position as being right and one's possibility of being wrong.

It is to this post-modern Zeitgeist that Johnson wrote the following:

In biblical terms it is anything but humble to imply that God's Word is not sufficiently clear — as if we can't possibly know for sure what the Bible means and as if we should never be so "arrogant" as to defend its truths against the enemy's relentless attempts to twist and subvert what God has said. ...

No one would argue that everything in the Bible is crystal clear. ... We're not to imagine, however, that most of the Bible is sheer mystery — so lacking in clarity that every interpretation and every opinion about every doctrine deserves equal (or automatic) respect.

(p. 218)

In a footnote on the following page (p. 219, note 17), Johnson raised the issue of Open Theism (a theory which denies that God is sovereign and knows the future) as an example of how the post-modern mindset and doctrinal indifference works:

After lengthy debates about the issue [Open Theism], the Evangelical Theological Society issued a statement in 2002 disavowing Open Theism. Yet three years later the Society declined to remove [Clark H.] Pinnock and [John] Sanders [both Open Theists] from membership, in effect embracing theologians who deny the foreknowledge of God and who regard inspired prophecy as merely "probabilistic." ... The evangelical movement's leading periodical quickly heralded the development as a triumph for "grace and truth" See David Neff, "Open to Healing: Anxieties and Attack Turn to Grace and Truth at ETS Meting" (Christianity Today, January 2004, 21-22). The title and tenor of that article reflect contemporary evangelicalism's deep-seated discomfort with the thought of any polemical defense of the faith (p. 219, n. 17)

"Humility" and "grace" are sadly terms that the New Evangelical movement and her descendants have taken over and redefined. Biblical humility is defined by submission to God and His Word. If the Bible is clear on a certain topic, then is supremely humble to proclaim that truth with boldness, while pride is to question God's Word and to hold the truths of Scripture lightly.

In interaction with others therefore, we must align ourselves with the biblical standards. To insist somebody is wrong and you are right is not arrogance per se, if you are indeed right according to the Scriptures and the necessary consequences derived from it. As for grace, is it really "gracious" not to prosecute heretics and thus endanger the flock? Is it gracious to assume the salvation of Roman Catholics for example when the official teachings of Rome runs contrary to the Gospel? I think not!


Unknown said...


You write:

"humility" is defined as the willingness to accept another's position as being right and one's possibility of being wrong."

Soooo, you have a problem with THAT? Are you saying that there's absolutely NO chance that you are wrong on anything? If you by chance might say "yes, there a chance, albeit small" it correlates that someone else might be right?

We're talking attitude here. Unless you are God chances are that you are wrong about something, right? :)

Besides, please let me know the name of the theologian or Christian philosopher that has been 100% right in all of their sermons, books and ideas.

It's a mistake to elevate your theology and essentially equate it to the Word of God. You're neither infallible or inerrant and neither am I so maybe a little humility would not be completely out place.


- Leo

Unknown said...

Dear Daniel,

Amen! Let's not obfuscate when the Bible's language is straightforward. Presumably, the authors of Biblical texts intended to communicate with their readers.

OK, so let's do the same with our own consciences. Take, Psalm 137:8-9, for example. It advocates a monstrous crime in the name of "justice." But no, you say, don't listen to your conscience! It's corrupted by sin, blinded by a lack of zeal for God's glory. Or will you resort to some fancy spiritualization, so that the text comes out advocating the conversion of Babylon's children?

The Bible is full of stuff like this. In any other context, advocated by anyone else, we'd be horrified and condemn it out of hand. But let it drop from the mouth of a "prophet" or the pen of an "apostle" and we have to silence our consciences and bow the knee, because they speak the "Word of God."

It is not arrogance but wisdom to approach ANY human being's claim to speak for God with scepticism. You will warn me about blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, about how he is powerfully and convincingly speaking in and with the Scriptures to persuade me that they are the very words of God, and that for me to deny this or raise doubts against it is rebellion worthy of the severest punishments.

Excuse my French, but that's a crock of bull. The Holy Spirit is not telling me that murdering my enemies' children is a holy act. He's not telling it to you, he wasn't telling it to the author of Psalm 137, and he won't be telling it to anybody else at any time in the future. Most people -- most CHRISTIANS -- have to work HARD to silence their consciences when confronted with texts like Psalm 137:8-9. Why is that? Arrogance? Pride? Vanity? If you want to believe that, fine. I say it's the truth working on them. We know it's wrong, but the Bible says it's right. Here's a chance to let honest scepticism do its work: This word is not from God, period, end of discussion. If Christians actually thought like that, a lot of debatable issues would get resolved fast. And our hearts would be a LOT lighter!

And that's how I'd deal with your slimy, evil suggestion to persecute heretics. Man, are you nuts?

Unknown said...

Dear Daniel,

Forgive me for misreading your statement about heretics! "Prosecute" != "persecute" by a longshot. I presume you are speaking about church discipline. Fair enough, provided you aren't advocating appeal to the "secular arm" to finish the job.

Daniel C said...


well, so are you holding your position infallibly also?

Secondly, nobody is saying that we should "elevate our theology and essentially equate it to the Word of God". But if we grant that God is real, and that He is sovereign, and He reveals Himself to Man, then His revelation is indeed infallible. Granted that because of sin, God's revelation is marred but are we saying that God is not sovereign to reveal His message to the world? If not, then when we speak according to Scripture, then it is as if God is speaking, and therefore it is not humble to not say that one is correct.

Daniel C said...


yes, I am referring to church discipline. I am not for the persecution of heretics, unless of course these heretics are also criminals against the State.

As for Ps. 137:8-9, you are not interpreting the text correctly. This is under the genre of poetry, not law. It never was meant to call for "jihad" through the murder of the children of one's enemies.