Volume 8, Issue 5: Whole Counsel
Why are We So Confused?(Pt.1)
That does the church stand for? Answers will vary widely depending on which church you ask. Such a variety of answers is just what the modern world wants to hear, giving them cause to ridicule the church and her claims. They see each communion, with its own pet distinctive, attacking others who don't share their zeal for that distinctive. Moreover, these modernists have diagnosed the cancer which lies at the root of all this confusion: since so many disagree on what the Bible teaches, they say, the Bible must not be clear. Accompanying this diagnosis is a rejection of absolute truth and objectivity: as truth is in the eye of the beholder, so is the meaning of Scripture. Though we may not agree with it, the modernist has an answer to the question, "Why are we so confused?"
Roman Catholicism agrees with the skeptical modernist, believing Scripture to be insufficiently clear to settle disputes. Though some Romanists might deny this, their church's official teaching forces this conclusion. According to Rome, in any doctrinal disagreement the church is always right de facto, thus the church's pronouncements are irreformable. The church is above any challenge, even one from Scripture. In choosing the church as the final, infallible arbiter, Scripture's authority is diminished. Why then do doctrinal disputes exist? Rome has a clear answer: because some will not submit their consciences to Rome.
As orthodox Protestants, we desire to uphold the clarity, sufficiency, and unique authority of Scripture. Does adhering to such notions leave us unable to explain our own doctrinal confusions? Both Rome and modernism have explanations. Indeed, their explanations challenge us. Many Protestants have collapsed under the challenge, embracing a "christianized" form of modernism: the Bible is authoritative, but anyone's interpretation is as good as anyone else's; thus the church must tolerate anyone's doctrine. Many who find no refuge in such relativism have instead turned to the Vatican. To withstand the lure of both relativism and Romanism, orthodox Protestants must search the Scriptures to develop a theology of doctrinal controversy. Such a study will account for our experience of doctrinal divisions, yet still honor the Bible's testimony of its own clarity. This article and the next will offer a beginning.
One reason why we are so confused is that doctrinal controversy is included in God's plan for His church. He allows controversies to bring His people to a greater understanding of what Scripture teaches. "There must also be factions among you," says the Apostle, to the shame of his audience. This remark suggests that controversy, opprobrious as it is, is a natural part of the church's life. Why is this so? "That those who are approved may be recognized among you" (1 Cor. 11:19). Here we see that the presence of factions, or literally, heresies, brings the blessing of clearer understanding to God's people. Church history bears this out. For example, the heresy of Arius, and the influence it held in the early church, ultimately prompted the church to study and understand Christ's deity, now plainly articulated in the Nicene Creed. The abuses of medieval Roman Catholic popes led many to reflect more precisely upon the Scripture's teaching of sin, grace, and the nature of the church. The result we know as the Protestant Reformation, one of the greatest movements of doctrinal refinement in church history. In these and numerous other instances, we see the Holy Spirit use factions and heretical teachings within the church as vehicles for doctrinal advance, bringing to God's people a greater maturity in distinguishing truth from error.
The Lord used heresy in the Old Testament church in the same way. Moses warned the children of Israel about false prophets who could attest to their ministry with signs and wonders, yet encouraged them to follow other gods. Why does the Lord permit these false prophets among His people? The answer is similar to Paul's, which we noted earlier. "For the Lord your God is testing you to know whether you love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul" (Deut. 13:1-3). False prophets, dangerous as they may be, have a cleansing effect on God's people: they lead the faithless away to their own destruction. How many in the church today prefer to follow signs and wonders (or their modern counterparts) rather than the truth! The Lord uses false prophets to lead these hypocrites out from among the faithful. In the process, clarity results. Uncovering bad doctrine among the brethren is painful, but so very necessary.
The passages highlighted above lead us to expect that the church will be filled with controversies, some possibly severe, throughout her history. Until the resurrection brings final clarity, we can expect factions to press God's people toward continuing reformation. God's unfailing, patient faithfulness to His people is shown here, as he turns even the most divisive doctrinal disputes into blessing.
Here we must observe a word of caution. While God uses disputes to bring blessing, this does not mean that we should pursue controversies. To the contrary, Scripture requires us to strive for peace with one another. Those who look to create controversy will become the impurity that God purges from among His people. This consideration will be pursued in the next article, where a second reason for our doctrinal confusions will be considered.