Tag Archives: Steve Lawson

The Challies Chronicles: The Puritan Commitment to Sola Scriptura

The Westminster DivinesThe final session on day two of the Strange Fire conference was led by Steven Lawson who spoke on “The Puritan Commitment to Sola Scriptura.” This was another historical message meant to demonstrate how our forebears were committed to the doctrine of Scripture alone.

Tonight the focus of our study will be another historical theology overview of a critical issue that ties in wonderfully with this entire conference.

-Pastor Tim Challies liveblogging
Strange Fire Conference: Scripture Alone,” October 18, 2013

I have a strange relationship with Sola Scriptura (scripture alone) having written about it on a few occasions. My general understanding is when a Christian says “sola scriptura,” they mean “only scripture” in the sense that any contextual cues that the original audience may have had available to them that would have modified their understanding of scripture beyond the plain meaning of the text are never allowed for us in the 21st century. It would interfere with too much of our Protestant tradition if we had to read the various sections of the Bible in a manner consistent with the original authors and readers, that is to say, with a Jewish perspective.

So you can imagine as I approached this next “strange” and “fiery” presentation, I was a little hesitant. Nevertheless, I said I would see this project through to its end and so I shall.

Rome said “We accept Scripture, but also Church tradition, ecclesiastical hierarchies, etc.” But the Reformers said “No, it’s sola scriptura. If anything else is added to the foundation of the church, the foundation will be split and unable to hold the rest of the doctrines of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

If I’d been in the room when Lawson made that statement, I’d have had a terrifically difficult time keeping a straight face. Is Lawson actually suggesting that the Catholics view scripture through the lens of Church tradition but the Protestant Church in the modern age (inheritors of the “Reformers”) does not?

Upon the foundation of sola scripture are three massive pillars which frame and uphold the gospel in its most basic formulation—by grace alone, through faith alone, and in Christ alone. And when this foundation and these pillars are in place, the crown can be erected across which is written soli Deo gloria.

And you don’t call that artificial structure a “tradition?” Where does it say such a thing in the Bible directly and how much inference and interpretation through the lens of tradition does it take to create this structure of pillars?

What are the distinguishing marks out of the Bible itself regarding sola scriptura?

Lawson then goes through a list of the “distinguishing marks” of sola scriptura as defined by the Westminster Divines, which according to Wikipedia, are “a synod composed of theologians (or “divines”) and members of Parliament appointed to restructure the Church of England…The Assembly met for ten years (1643–53), and in the process produced a new Form of Government, a Confession of Faith, two catechisms (Shorter and Larger), and a liturgical manual for the Churches of England and Scotland.”

bet_midrash_temaniI don’t suppose they consulted a more ancient Hebraic lens in looking at scripture before making such decisions. Probably not.

In that case, I have to believe they missed a step or two (or three or four).

You can read the Challies blog post to get the full list of “distinguishing marks,” but I think Lawson must have been building up to point number nine:

Ninth, and finally, sola scriptura implies the finality of Scripture. That there is no new revelation to be given to man after the close of the canon of Scripture, the faith once and for all delivered to the saints (Jude 3).

There is no adding to the Bible once canon is closed. I think most people can believe in that. We don’t see radically different versions of the Bible circling around different streams of Christianity and Judaism (keeping in mind Christianity has a whole section of the Bible that Judaism discounts).

Whenever God opens the heavens to bless his people, the devil opens his mouth to blast them. At the exact same time as the Westminster Divines were writing the Confession, the Quakers were forming. They claimed to be receiving new revelations and prophecies. They were lead by a man named George Fox. At the heart of their theology was this message, that one can be saved apart from the Scripture, that there is an inner light in all man, and this inner revelation makes salvation for all humanity possible. They called this light within the “indwelling spirit” which they claimed was even in unbelievers.

As they gathered together, the Quakers claimed that they had the Holy Spirit within them. Their worship services had no ordained pastors. They would all sit in a building like we’re sitting here and would be encouraged to meditate, and as you would feel prompted, you were encouraged to stand up and speak your thoughts to others. This commitment to be open and uncautious led them into all kinds of bizarre behaviors and beliefs, including going naked as a sign of judgment to others.

I’m telling you, if you take one step off of sola scriptura you have put your foot on a theological banana peel that will send you down till you hit bottom.

OK, I see where Lawson is going with this. The Puritans were giants for establishing sola scriptura but the Quakers undermined that principle by claiming direct (and new) revelation from the Holy Spirit detaching themselves from scripture entirely, thus Lawson draws a comparison between Christian Evangelicals (MacArthur, et al) and Pentecostals/Charismatics.

I like the banana peel analogy. I think it’s cute.

But let’s take a look at what else the “Divines” believed in:

While the issue of biblical inerrancy, the belief that there are no errors in the Bible, did not arise until the eighteenth century, the divines clearly did not believe the Bible to contain any errors. Many of the divines held a rather mechanical view of biblical inspiration, believing that not only the words but the letters and vowel points of the Hebrew text were inspired by God, while often acknowledging that the text was at the same time written by humans in their own styles. They did not make any distinction between essential and incidental matters with respect to biblical inspiration.

Source: Letham, Robert (2009). The Westminster Assembly: Reading Its Theology in Historical Context. The Westminster Assembly and the Reformed Faith. Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing. ISBN 978-0-87552-612-6.

This doesn’t torpedo the “Divines” as a valid information source for Lawson’s presentation, but it does add an interesting bit of color to this assembly, or at least some of their members, since according to Jewish Virtual Library:

Because of this system of assigning numerical values to letters, every word has a numerical value. There is an entire discipline of Jewish mysticism known as Gematria that is devoted to finding hidden meanings in the numerical values of words. For example, the number 18 is very significant, because it is the numerical value of the word Chai, meaning life. Donations to Jewish charities are routinely made in denominations of 18 for that reason.

oral-tradition-talmudThe point I’m trying to make is that you can’t hand-pick the little bits and pieces of history that support an argument without dragging along the rest of the historical, cultural, and theological context to which those bits are attached. I seriously doubt that Lawson would take on board a belief that each letter and vowel point, or for that matter, the numerical value of each Hebrew letter, were particularly significant let alone inspired by God.

One “slippery slope” I think Lawson failed to take into account in his presentation was how difficult it would be to apply a “good guys” and “bad guys” paradigm to the current Evangelicalism vs. Pentecostalism debate using a historical precedence. While I certainly don’t support the historical Quaker’s method of worship and how they conceptualized theology (from what little I know about it), I can’t say that it directly speaks to the current debate, anymore than “the Divines” (and their views on the significance of the letters and vowel points of the Hebrew in the Bible) could be considered directly applicable to Lawson’s and MacArthur’s side of the conversation.

My conclusion is that, while Lawson’s presentation may have carried with it some interesting historical information, it contributed little if anything to the overall presentation of “Strange Fire” and their case against the Pentecostals/Charismatics. I know where he was going with this, but Church history has many strange and even cruel (and even murderous) aspects. One must take great care in summoning history into the present as if they are indistinguishable. They’re not, as I’m sure the apostle Paul could attest.

The Challies Chronicles: Steve Lawson and the Charismatic Calvinists

steve_lawsonJohn MacArthur opened the conference with broad statements about the purpose of the conference and what he perceives as the main challenges of the charismatic movement. Joni Eareckson Tada offered her unique testimony and this was followed by R.C. Sproul’s theological perspective. And now added to the mix is Steve Lawson and his perspective from church history.

With the recent resurgence of Calvinism there has been a strange merging of historic, biblical Calvinism with charismatic experiences and worship styles. It has pulled in an entire generation of young, restless, reformed people who believe in miracles, healings, words of knowledge, prophecies, tongues, and so on. They see no reason in the New Testament for why these gifts of the Spirit have ended since the first century.

-Pastor Tim Challies
“Strange Fire Conference: Steve Lawson,” October 16, 2013

This is a continuation of my Challies Chronicles series, an analysis of Pastor John MacArthur’s Strange Fire conference as “live blogged” by Pastor Challies. I guess I should just resign myself to the fact that I’m not going to know anything about the presenters at this conference, including Steve Lawson. I guess I’m just out of the loop as far as who is a popular Fundamentalist Pastor in modern Christianity.

Anyway, church history is a weak area of mine, so I can’t say this presentation was a complete waste. I learned a few things and even agreed with some of what Lawson said.

With the recent resurgence of Calvinism there has been a strange merging of historic, biblical Calvinism with charismatic experiences and worship styles. It has pulled in an entire generation of young, restless, reformed people who believe in miracles, healings, words of knowledge, prophecies, tongues, and so on. They see no reason in the New Testament for why these gifts of the Spirit have ended since the first century.

This merging has gone virtually unaddressed within the reformed community. I believe there is no one better to address these charismatic Calvinists than Calvin himself.

Calvin faced a charismatic crisis of his own in his own day. I want to look at how he addressed them. As the leading reformer in that day, whatever faced the church faced John Calvin. He had the dominant voice and people looked to him to address issues.

john-calvinI have real issues with Calvin (Calvinism is resurging? Oy!) and suspect there is a significant “dark side” to the Reformation, even though there were also obvious benefits (something I’ll have to explore in more detail at a later time). I didn’t even know you could be a “charismatic Calvinist” (or that you’d want to be), but as I said, church history isn’t something I know much (or anything) about.

Then there were the Libertines who were one of the subgroups under the Anabaptists. They were antinomians. They abused Christian liberty and proved themselves to be, most likely, unconverted. Calvin called them a sect one hundred times more dangerous than the Roman Catholic church itself. They were lead by fleshly impulses and believed the Holy Spirit was adding new revelation to the Bible. They set aside the Scripture and wanted to follow the inner impulses that they thought were the Spirit. They lived in open licentiousness. They wanted an easy moral path without having to fight sin or temptation.

These were the things Calvin faced in his day. So the charismatic chaos we see now, in our day, is nothing new. It was prevalent in Calvin’s day, as it has been in other eras as well. So Calvin was not silent about it.

Here’s the part I agree with (odd, that I should agree with Calvin on anything). I don’t think you can choose to set aside the Bible and pretend that all your emotional experiences are the Holy Spirit. I certainly don’t think your emotions should tell you how to live and what is Holy, especially in contradiction to what we read in scripture. I don’t think it’s just the Libertines of Calvin’s day who live like this, and I don’t think it has to involve “dramatic” behaviors we see in Charismatic churches today. Plenty of liberal denominations are following the emotional leading of what we call “progressive” or “politically correct” in telling themselves what is right and wrong. If your church looks, acts, and believes exactly the way we’re being told to look, act, and believe by CNN, MSNBC, and the New York Times, then you have no doubt set the Bible aside and are listening to another “spirit,” the “spirit” of the popular, mainstream news media.

But I digress.

In Calvin’s commentary on Matthew 10:1, he states that the office of apostleship was a temporary office. The apostles were the foundation of the church, and you only lay a foundation only once. They were given miracles to authenticate their authority as messengers of the revelation of God in Christ.

I’ll agree that, as far as I know, miracles from God are pretty rare in our day and age relative to what we see in the New Testament, but I’m not willing to draw a hard and fast line and say they’re impossible, either. Nor do miracles only have to exist to validate the original apostles. After all, there are miracles all through the Tanakh (Old Testament) and ultimately, when you take their “purpose” down to its core, all manifestations of the power of God in our world are for the glory of God. You don’t have to write a bunch of rules around them and try to put God in a box. In this case, Calvin (and probably Lawson) is drawing a conclusion he can’t possibly prove.

Institutes 1.9.3 – Word and Spirit belong inseparably together. If you take anything away from Calvin, take this. “For by a kind of mutual bond the Lord has joined together the certainty of his Word and of his Spirit so that the perfect religion of the Word may abide in our minds when the Spirit, who causes us to contemplate God’s face, shines; and that we may in turn embrace the Spirit with no fear of being deceived when we recognize him in his own image, namely, in the Word.”

Institutes 2.15.2 – “This, however, remains certain: the perfect doctrine he has brought has made an end to all prophecies. All those, then, who, not content with the gospel, patch it with something extraneous to it, detract from Christ’s authority.”

nadab-abihu-fireI don’t think we should fall into the trap of believing the Calvin was always right just because he was Calvin or because we (or some people) hold the Reformation in such high esteem. I think Calvin, at least from what I’m reading here, didn’t have a particularly “Judaic” view of the Bible and thus probably missed a lot of meaning and depth in the Gospel message because he didn’t try to tune in to the intent of the original writers of the New Testament or their first century Jewish and Greek audiences. I can agree that Word and Spirit must be in agreement, but I believe that the Tanakh and Apostolic Scriptures must also be in agreement without a lot of theological gymnastics being necessary. I’m not sure Calvin would agree with me on that.

A charismatic Calvinist is, to Calvin, an oxymoron. It can’t exist.

I almost don’t care about this statement (almost, but not quite), because I think that all manifestations of the church in our era or any other (apart from the first century Jewish stream of “the Way”) have “missed the mark” in some manner or fashion. We have the Bible, the record of God’s interaction with human beings, primarily Jewish human beings. Then we have all of the systems we’ve built around that document, and we use those systems to tell us what the Bible means. Those systems aren’t perfect and objective because people aren’t perfect and objective. The numerous variations of Christianity aren’t perfect. Only God is perfect. I don’t think we always understand God.

We are all aiming at achieving high fidelity to the original and probably aren’t doing a very good job at it. I agree with some of the things Lawson had to say, mirroring some of the things Calvin had to say. You can’t pretend your emotions are really the Holy Spirit and then do anything you want, especially in contradiction to the Bible. But let’s be clear, no one of us and no one religious group has the inside track on exactly what the Bible is saying all of the time.

So far, I get the feeling that “Strange Fire” is trying to say that Pentecostalism is wrong and Fundamentalism is right. However, even if MacArthur and Company can reasonably convince me that Pentecostalism is essentially flawed and non-Biblical, that does not automatically grant Fundamentalism a rating of being perfect and always correct. On a math test, two students can get two different answers for the same problem but just because one student is wrong, doesn’t mean the other student is right. They could both be wrong, but in different ways.

Glasses on Open BibleThat’s why we always study. That’s why we’re still trying to learn. That’s why we struggle. That’s why we try to understand but in the end, we keep “understanding” differently from one another.

One question remains from Lawson’s presentation. Is he making a direct comparison between the Libertines of Calvin’s day and the modern Pentecostal/Charismatic movement? If he is, then he’s saying Pentecostals are letting their emotions not only re-write the Bible, but that they’re disregarding the Bible in favor of their emotive states.

Is that a fair comparison?