Volume 9, Issue 1: Whole Counsel
Why are We So Confused - Part 2
The previous issue's column taunted us with the nagging fact that we Protestants are terribly confused. In key doctrinal areas--sacraments, church government, eschatology, soteriology, spiritual gifts, etc.--Protestants cannot agree. What we do share, to the amusement of outsiders, is our claim that we merely follow the Bible's clear teaching. With persuasive sneers, critics tell us that our view of Scripture lies at the heart of the problem. Modernists claim that Scripture isn't clear, and Rome denies that Scripture is sufficient to settle controversies--we need an infallible church for that. These are ready answers that explain our confusion and disunity. We Protestants who don't like these answers must prepare our own. And to do that, naturally, we must turn to Scripture.
Previously, we saw from 1 Cor. 11:19 and Deut. 13:1-3 that God employs disunity as a patient means to lead His people to greater understanding. As the church wrestles with heresy, a clearer knowledge of the truth emerges. Thus, to the question of why we are so confused, we may answer that disunity is part of God's plan. But we may not end the discussion here. While we profess unyielding commitment to Scripture, too often our practice doesn't follow this profession. Disunity results as God's chastisement for our infidelity.
The prophet Amos foresaw a day of judgment that would come upon God's people. This judgment would take the form of numerous dire circumstances, including a very unique famine: "'Behold, the days are coming,' says the Lord God, `that I will send a famine on the land, not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the Lord. They shall wander from sea to sea, and from north to east; they shall run to and fro, seeking the word of the Lord, but shall not find it'" (Amos 8:11-12). This is a famine of "hearing the words of the Lord." Notice that it not the absence of a clear word from God (as the modernist would say), but of hearing God's clear word. As His people harden themselves to His revelation, God stops their ears. And naturally, their inability to hear God's word brings about doctrinal confusion.
At least two other passages display doctrinal confusion as a most terrifying form of judgment. Zechariah 7:8-14 portrays such judgment as the last in a tragic sequence of events. Verses 8 through 10 tell that God clearly revealed His word to His people. The people's response? "But they refused to heed, shrugged their shoulders, and stopped their ears so that they could not hear." (v. 11). God spoke, His people refused to hear. The consequence: "Thus great wrath came from the Lord of hosts" (v. 12b). In the face of His horrible wrath, God's people realize their error. They cry out for deliverance, but it is too late: "'So they called out and I would not listen,' says the Lord of hosts" (v. 13). This is truly among the most terrifying verses in Scripture; that God would not hear His people when they cry out to Him should make us all shudder. Proverbs 1 presents the same progression we have seen in Zechariah 7. First, wisdom calls aloud, openly raising her voice (vv. 20-23). Then, when fools reject wisdom's open call, calamity and destruction befall them (vv. 24-27). This judgment awakens the desperate fools who call on the Lord for deliverance: "'But,' says the Lord, `I will not answer; they will seek me diligently, but they will not find me '" (v. 28). These passages teach us that our doctrinal confusion may continue long after we realize what we have done wrong.
Both Rome and the modernist misdiagnose the cause of doctrinal controversies among Protestants. They each say that our adherence to Scripture is the problem, for Scripture is inadequate to address disagreements over what it teaches. Thus, Rome abandons sola Scriptura altogether, and modernists paper over controversies, claiming that anyone's doctrine is as legitimate as anyone else's. But Scripture offers a far better teaching on doctrinal controversy: 1) God's word, even Scripture, is clear; 2) God may use controversy to bring His people to a better understanding of His word; 3) to chastise His people, God may withhold the understanding of His word; confusion and controversy will naturally follow.
What distresses us most in today's doctrinal disorder is that learned and godly friends are found on opposite sides of a theological issue. Many of us personally know saints in another theological camp whose reverence for God and His Word is unimpeachable, and whose conduct testifies to God's grace. Moreover, we know brothers in our own camp who are bitter and uncharitable. Yet the two camps remain theologically incompatible. If today's doctrinal disputes consisted of good guys in white hats vs. bad guys in black hats, they would be easy to resolve. But we all know, too painfully, that they are not that way.
In controversies within the faith, all sides should at least agree that God has not removed our obstacles to understanding His Word. For if such obstacles were removed, disagreements would vanish. Moreover, we can look back to times when the church enjoyed far greater unity and understanding than it does today. Sometime between then and now, we squandered the blessings of unity and understanding; our present-day confusions evidence a famine of hearing God's Word. Though we each think that the other guy is the malnourished one, we can all affirm the widespread doctrinal malnutrition of our day--and we deserve no better.
But if we confess our corporate refusal to hear, if we see our present disunity as the just consequence of our own hardness, then perhaps God would remove our corporate inability to hear His word. Perhaps our merciful God would turn today's factions into tomorrow's clarity.