Denny Burk, Professor of Biblical Studies at Boyce College, the undergraduate school of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, KY. Denny Burk's blog includes commentary on theology, politics, and culture.
A. T. Robertson is without question the greatest scholar of New Testament Greek that the Southern Baptist Convention has ever produced. Indeed, he is one of the greatest scholars of New Testament Greek that has ever lived. In 1906, Robertson wrote a sharp critique of the practice of women preaching in “mixed public assemblies.” His brief remarks appear in the introduction to W. P. Harvey’s booklet Shall Women Preach (Louisville, KY: Baptist Book Concern, 1906). I recently came across this short essay and thought it worth highlighting here. See below.
The gravity of the question of women’s speaking in mixed public assemblies is sufficient apology for the appearance of this pamphlet, by the Rev. W. P. Harvey, D.D. It is justice to say that it has met with the warmest reception wherever it has been delivered. The persistent and aggressive attacks which the advocates of the practice make upon the Bible render every defence of Scriptural authority welcome. Dr. Broadus’ tract on this subject has a wide and growing circulation and should be read by many thousands more. Dr. Hawthorne’s sermon should exert a widespread influence and check the encroachments of this tendency among Baptist churches. The paper of Bro. Harvey has the merit of directness and clearness and handles the subject vigorously. It is none too soon that decided words should be spoken on this line. Baptists are the last people in the world to speak slightingly of the authority of the New Testament on anything or to resort to doubtful and equivocal arguments to defend practices in opposition to the plain meaning of Scripture. This appeal to the Bible has been our boast. With regret be it said that many of the arguments adduced for the defence of “testifying” and public speaking on the part of women in our religious meetings flavor strongly of the dodges and turns made by some good people to evade the plain meaning of the Scriptures as to baptism. One brother recently argued that as “there is no male and female” in Christ, women had as much right to speak as men. He simply ignored the fact that Paul here (Gal. 3:28) is talking about salvation and not preaching. Salvation is free to all without distinction of race, sex, or condition. See what a jumble he made here. Another brother said that he did not care if Paul did forbid women’s speaking, for he was an old bachelor anyhow and not in sympathy with women and that at his Association the best speeches were made by the women. See what flippant irreverence and painful effort to justify a violation of Scripture by the success of the violation! Is success a criterion of right? All kinds of sin are successful, alas! Will the Bible retain its hold upon the hearts and consciences of the churches, if once we begin such light handling of its authority? To say the very least, it is not Baptistic to distort the Bible into justification of any practice. Our glory has been that we twisted our behavior, when it needed it, into conformity with the New Testament. We have always been willing to meet the Bible with open face and heart ready to obey its clear teaching. Let us do so here. The women, as a rule, do not desire this innovation. It is pressed by some freethinking women and sustained by some preachers who imagine they see here a great lever for usefulness. Be it remembered that the power behind every spiritual lever is the Holy Spirit. He will not bless known disobedience to his will. There may come curiosity and revival of interest by such novel means, but loyalty to Scriptural truth and authority is a higher consideration than momentary and sensational excitement.
A. T. Robertson, D.D.,
Southern Baptist Theological Seminary
Candidate denies female reporter access to campaign trip - YouTube
Earlier today, I saw an interview on CNN about a Christian politician who practices the “Billy Graham Rule” (watch above). It is an awkward interview to watch, but it illustrates the cost to men and women who are making a good-faith effort to avoid compromising situations. This is by no means everything that can or should be said about the so-called “Billy Graham Rule.” Nevertheless, I thought I would update something I wrote previously on this topic. I personally believe that the rule is wise and ought to be pursued with rigor by Christians who are serious about holiness and witness. So in that spirit, here are ten brief reflections on this particular discipline:
1. We must take sexual holiness seriously because God takes sexual holiness seriously. To reject God’s purpose of holiness in our lives is to reject God altogether. For this reason, we must be blood-earnest about holiness.
“Without holiness, no one will see the Lord” (Hebrews 12:14).
“For this is the will of God, your sanctification; that is, that you abstain from sexual immorality… Consequently, he who rejects this is not rejecting man but the God who gives His Holy Spirit to you” (1 Thess. 4:3).
“But do not let immorality or any impurity or greed even be named among you, as is proper among saints… For this you know with certainty, that no immoral or impure person or covetous man, who is an idolater, has an inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God” (Eph. 5:3-5).
2. The Bible commands us not only to avoid sexual immorality but to avoid situations in which we know that we are vulnerable to temptation.
“Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil” (Matthew 6:13).
“Flee youthful lusts” (2 Timothy 2:22).
“Make no provision for the flesh in regard to its lusts” (Romans 13:14).
3. Jesus commands us to consider radical (even countercultural) measures in our pursuit of sexual holiness. Failure to do so could lead to judgment.
“And if your right eye makes you stumble, tear it out, and throw it from you; for it is better for you that one of the parts of your body perish, than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand makes you stumble, cut it off, and throw it from you; for it is better for you that one of the parts of your body perish, than for your whole body to go into hell” (Matthew 5:29-30).
4. It is good and wise to adopt habits and behaviors that promote good character and a good reputation.
“A good name is to be more desired than great riches” (Proverbs 22:1).
“A good name is better than fine perfume” (Ecclesiastes 7:1).
This one can be tricky in the aftermath of the #MeToo moment, which in some cases de-emphasizes due process and stresses that every accusation is to be believed. Of course every accusation should be taken seriously, and there are many accusations that end up being substantiated. Nevertheless, there are other accusations that have proven to be false. The gentleman in the video above is concerned about the potential of a false accusation. A part of his motive for observing the “Billy Graham Rule” is to avoid scenarios in which he would have no defense against a false accusation that could ruin his reputation and witness. If he is never alone with a woman not his wife, it greatly diminishes the potential for false accusations. This is a wise approach.
5. It is good and wise to devise strategies for avoiding sexual immorality. Biblical wisdom teaches us to identify temptations to sexual sin and to make plans to avoid them.
“Keep your way far from her, And do not go near the door of her house” (Proverbs 5:8).
“Do not let your heart turn aside to her ways, Do not stray into her paths” (Proverbs 7:25).
Please note that these texts from Proverbs are not teaching that all women are temptresses. Obviously, all of them are not (see Proverbs 31). These texts are simply a warning about women who are. Even so, the text is not singling out such temptresses as the sole instigators of sexual immorality in the world. The key thing to remember is that the Proverbs are written from a father to a Son. So the exhortations are the kinds of things that a father would say to a son about sexual purity. And this includes warnings about the kinds of women to avoid. If it were written from a mother to a daughter, it would include warnings about the kinds of men to avoid. By implication, the text does tell women about the kind of men they need to avoid. In that sense, the principles apply to all of us, male or female. All of us—male and female—need to strategize to avoid enticements to sexual immorality.
6. We must never confuse our wise strategies for holiness with actual holiness.
“But in vain do they worship Me, Teaching as doctrines the precepts of men” (Matthew 15:9).
7. Nevertheless, these strategies (such as “The Billy Graham Rule”) are only useful if they are pursued with some amount of consistency and rigor.
“Therefore I run in such a way, as not without aim; I box in such a way, as not beating the air; but I buffet my body and make it my slave, lest possibly, after I have preached to others, I myself should be disqualified” (1 Corinthians 9:26-27).
8. When practicing the “Billy Graham Rule,” strategize arrangements and meetings to avoid awkward demurrals. Perhaps they cannot always be avoided, but it is worth trying. Otherwise, you risk unnecessary offense against well-meaning, unsuspecting friends and colleagues.
“If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all people” (Romans 12:18).
9. Beware of broadcasting your invocation of “The Billy Graham Rule.” If you do broadcast it, you risk the unnecessary offense mentioned above. You may also run afoul of Jesus’ admonition:
“Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 6:1).
Remember that the rigor of your strategies is a reflection mainly of the sinfulness of your own heart, not of the hearts of each and every person affected by your rule. Therefore you should have some humility (and perhaps even some healthy embarrassment) about the measures you have to take to rein your own problems in.
10. Forebear with your brothers and sisters who are making a good-faith effort to pursue holiness and to protect their marriages.
“Forebear one another, and forgive each other, whoever has a complaint against anyone; just as the Lord forgave you, so also should you” (Colossians 3:13).
“Let your forbearing spirit be known to all men. The Lord is near” (Philippians 4:5).
If you are a Christian who doesn’t like the “Billy Graham Rule,” then you need to forbear with those who do. Those outside of the faith will always look on holiness as strange and will sometimes lodge accusations of “sexism.” But such should never be the case among followers of Jesus. Perhaps you don’t agree with the “Billy Graham Rule.” You may not even agree with the rigor with which some Christians pursue their strategies for holiness. We all need to be open to wise correction as we pursue these things. Nevertheless, try to see the best in the good-faith efforts of those who are trying to pursue holiness, and don’t castigate them publicly for trying to be faithful to Jesus in these areas. “Who are you to judge the servant of another? To his own master he stands or falls” (Rom. 14:4).
When Matthew Vines’ book God and the Gay Christian came out in 2014, I could hardly have imagined how much of an impact it would have among evangelicals. Nevertheless, it has had an impact. Some of the high-profile evangelicals (e.g. Jen Hatmaker) who have come out affirming gay marriage have done so on the basis of arguments found in Vines’ book.
Among the ideas from Vines’ book that I still see gaining purchase among evangelicals is a particular hermeneutical oddity that Vines draws from Jesus’ teaching about “trees” and “fruit” in Matthew 7:15-20, where Jesus says,
Every good tree bears good fruit; but the bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot produce bad fruit, nor can a bad tree produce good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. So then, you will know them by their fruits.
Whereas Jesus applies this to false teachers, Vines applies the principle in a way that goes against the way Jesus intended it. Vines writes,
While Scripture tells us not to rely solely on our experience, it also cautions us not to ignore our experience altogether… Jesus’ test is simple: If something bears bad fruit, it cannot be a good tree. And something bears good fruit, it cannot be a bad tree.
The earliest Christians used a similar, experience-based test when making what was one of the most important decisions in church history: whether to include Gentiles in the church without forcing them to be circumcised and to obey the Old Testament law. As Peter declared of early Gentile believers, “God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us…. Now then, why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of Gentiles a yoke that neither we nor our ancestors have been able to bear?” (Acts 15:8, 10). The early church made a profoundly important decision based on Peter’s testimony. Gentiles were included in the church, and the church recognized that the old law was no longer binding…
Neither Peter in his work to include Gentiles in the church nor the abolitionists in their campaign against slavery argued that their experience should take precedence over Scripture. But they both made the case that their experience should cause Christians to reconsider long-held interpretations of Scripture. Today, we are still responsible for testing our beliefs in light of their outcomes—a duty in line with Jesus’ teaching about trees and their fruit (God and the Gay Christian, pp. 14-16).
Vines uses this “test the fruit” hermeneutic to test whether traditional interpretations of biblical texts are harmful or helpful to gay people. He concludes that traditional interpretations of texts like Romans 1:26-28 and 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 are harmful to gay people. So he reinterprets those and other texts of scripture in such a way that affirms committed gay relationships.
The bottom line is this. Vines twists Jesus’ teaching about fruit in Matthew 7:15-20 into a tool for suppressing biblical texts that clearly condemn homosexuality (e.g., Rom. 1:26-27; 1 Cor. 6:9-11; 1 Tim. 1:10). Because opposing homosexuality harms homosexuals (a bad fruit), the Bible’s prohibition on gay relationships are themselves a bad “tree.” Thus traditional texts must be reinterpreted in a way that is no longer harmful to gay people.
There are a number of serious problems with Vines’ “test the fruit” hermeneutic, not the least of which is the fact that it constitutes a complete misunderstanding of Jesus’ teaching about fruit. The “fruit” metaphor appears a number of times in Matthew’s gospel. Contrary to Vines, it does not signify bad outcomes generically. It’s talking about people (trees) and the deeds (fruit) that issue forth from their lives. In Matthew 3:8, “fruit” symbolizes behavior that comes from a repentant heart. In Matthew 12:33, “fruit” stands for blasphemous words which flow from an “evil” heart. In Matthew 13:8, 23, it signifies “a lifestyle which responds to the preaching of the word.”1
Here’s the key point to observe. The good or bad quality of the fruit is determined solely by its conformity to God’s revelation in Christ, not by any particular sinner’s subjective impression of it. Vines’ misuse of Matthew 7:15-20 would create ethical anarchy if applied consistently. For example, it may cause someone personal distress and psychological “harm” to tell them that stealing is wrong. That distress would be a “bad fruit” on Vines’ definition, yet it would be absurd to conclude that the 8th commandment itself is a bad tree. Would Vines justify stealing in order to avoid the “bad fruit” of making a thief feel badly? Vines’ reading is no way to construct an ethical theory, and it is not a faithful application of Jesus’ words in Matthew.
Not only is Vines’ approach a gross misinterpretation of Jesus’ words in Matthew 7, it is also an uncritical use of an ethical theory called consequentialism. Consequentialism bases moral judgments on the consequences that accrue to human actions. On this theory, no human action is inherently good or evil in itself, only its consequences. Thus one must not pronounce judgment on human actions, only on the consequences that flow from those actions.
The problem with this theory is that it elevates our evaluation of consequences above Scripture as the standard for evaluating what is right and wrong. Also, consequentialism provides no objective definition of what defines a good or a bad consequence. A good consequence for one person may be a bad consequence for another.2
Nevertheless, this is exactly how Vines approaches the issue of homosexuality vis a vis Matthew 7:15-20. He alleges a variety of negative consequences that flow from calling homosexuality a sin. We must, therefore, modify/reinterpret the Bible so that people no longer feel badly about the Bible’s sexual ethic. On this basis, Vines sweeps away the entire 2,000-year old consensus of the Christian church. The church’s understanding of scripture causes some people to feel badly, so it must be done away with.
I agree with Richard Hays’ comments on this approach to ethical reasoning: “How strikingly indifferent is the New Testament… to consequentialist ethical reasoning. The New Testament teaches us to approach ethical issues not by asking ‘What will happen if I do x?’ but rather by asking ‘What is the will of God?'” 3
Matthew 7:15-20 does have a warning for us, but not the one that Vines alleges. It warns us to watch out for wolves in sheep’s clothing. In this instance, Vines is concealing the wolf of consequentialism in the clothing of Matthew 7. In doing so, he manipulates readers so that they feel they are doing the right thing when they suppress the message of key biblical texts. Readers would do well not to be taken in by this false teaching.
Jesus says that his commands are not burdensome (Matt. 11:28-30), but Vines says that they are not only burdensome but also harmful to gay people. Who is right? Vines or Jesus? Hopefully disciples of Jesus will find the answer to that question fairly obvious.
The problem we are having today is that some evangelicals have latched onto Vines’ “test the fruit” hermeneutic, and this way of adjudicating doctrines is a poison pill. It removes authority from the word of God and gives the reader the authority to scrutinize the Bible’s truthfulness based on whether or not it hurts people’s feelings. This is no way to read the Bible. And it is no way to determine the truth about one of the most contested ethical questions of our time.
If we are listening to carefully to the Jesus words in Matthew 7:15-20, we would see that they are highlighting for us a wolf in sheep’s clothing. In this case, the false teacher is using Jesus’ own words as sheep’s clothing.4 Let us hope and pray that the real sheep will detect the ruse.
1 R. T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, NICNT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007), 291.
2 Denny Burk, What Is the Meaning of Sex? (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2013), 27-28.
3 Richard B. Hays, The Moral Vision of the New Testament: Community, Cross, New Creation, A Contemporary Introduction to New Testament Ethics (New York: HarperOne, 1996), 455.
4 “Matthew Vines’ Reformation Project, promoting full inclusion of LGBTQ people by reforming church teaching, is founded on this faulty concept of ‘bad fruit.’ If a leader blatantly takes Scripture out of context like this, twisting the Bible to say what it doesn’t say, everything else he teaches should be suspect.” See Christopher Yuan, Holy Sexuality and the Gospel: Sex, Desire, and Relationships Shaped by God’s Grand Story (Colorado Springs, CO: Multnomah, 2018), 155.
Dr. Allan Josephson is a research psychiatrist who led the department at the University of Louisville from 2003 onward. In 2017, Dr. Josephson appeared on a panel about gender dysphoria in which he warned against the rush to diagnose children with gender dysphoria and then to prescribe hormones and surgeries as treatment.
As a result of this, the University of Louisville demoted and then fired him. Why? Not for scientific reasons. His scientific credentials and research are impeccable. They fired him because his research did not support the rush to diagnose and to prescribe mutilating surgeries for children.
Madeleine Kearns has an interview with Dr. Josephson that explains the whole shameful ordeal. Dr. Josephson explains why he has chosen to speak up about what mental health professionals are doing to gender confused children with these treatments:
I saw parents and children being hurt by this. These kids are, for the most part, very vulnerable people. You can see that when you spend time with them. Certainly, the teenagers have multiple problems. Most of the time, 60 or 70 percent of the time, depression, anxiety, substance abuse, they’re hurting people. And parents are confused because they’re basically getting one message from medical and mental-health professionals and that is “Affirm people.” And so I have encouraged people to explore before prescribing treatment, specifically to consider other developmental factors, family factors, that have gone into the insecurities that are associated with this…
I spoke up because I’m at the end of my career. I have accomplished a lot professionally and had an established reputation. If someone like me can be demoted, harassed, and then effectively fired for expressing my views, think of what an intimidating effect this has on younger professionals, who are not yet established in their careers. And that should not be how academics proceeds or how science proceeds. We think together, we reason together, we talk together. My colleagues couldn’t do that. And I think we see that nationally as well.
So Dr. Josephson is now paying a price for actually speaking up for the children—that it’s actually harmful for medical professionals to suppress children’s puberty and then destroy their sexual organs through body-deforming surgeries. How did these “treatments” come to be so common today? Dr. Josephson explains:
There are now over 50 gender clinics in the United States. These were unheard of seven or eight years ago. And they’re set up real, almost like — if I may use a crude analogy — a restaurant where a person comes in and orders a treatment. Doctors have always said — you give me the symptoms, and I’ll help you with what I think is going on for the diagnosis. But that basic process is being short-circuited by a “this is my diagnosis; this is what I have” approach. And literally they’re asking for hormones. And amazingly, doctors are going along with it in many cases. I think it’s a travesty of our profession.
This is what is happening to children right now, and it’s all being driven not by science but by propaganda. Any doctor who dares speak up against this anti-science propaganda risks losing his job and livelihood. This is how LGBT activists win. They silence and intimidate all opposition to their ideology. That is what they have done to Dr. Josesphson, and that is what they are doing everywhere they can.
The anti-science propaganda of transgender activists is now driving medical professionals, and it is doing so at the expense of the welfare of troubled children. It’s hard to believe that this is where we are, but it’s true.
“Unless a man be a believer,–that is, one that is truly ingrafted into Christ,–he can never mortify any one sin… Seneca, Tully, Epictetus; what affectionate discourses they have of contempt of the world and self, of regulating and conquering all exorbitant affections and passions! The lives of most of them manifested that their maxims differed as much from true mortification as the sun painted on a sign-post from the the sun nin the firmament; they had neither light nor heat… There is no death of sin without the death of Christ.”
“Some brethren get up in our prayer meetings, and say some very good things; but what they really ask for, I am sure I do not know. I have heard prayers of which I have said, when they were over, ‘Well, if God answers that prayer, I have not the least idea of what he will give us.’ It was a very beautiful prayer, and there was a great deal of explanation of doctrine and experience in it; but I do not think that God needs to have doctrine or experience explained to him. The fault about the prayer was, that there was not anything asked for in it. I like, when brethren are praying, that they should be as business-like as a good carpenter at his work. It is of no use to have a hammer with an ivory handle, unless you aim it at the nail you intend to drive in up to the head; and if that is your object, an ordinary hammer will do just as well as a fine one, perhaps better…
“When I pray, I like to go to God just as I go to a banker when I have a cheque to be cashed. I walk in, put the cheque down on the counter, the clerk gives me my money, I take it up, and go about my business. I do not know that I ever stopped in a bank five minutes to talk with the clerks; when I have received my change, I go away and attend to other matters. That is how I like to pray; but there is a way of praying that seems like lounging near the mercy-seat, as though one had no particular reason for being found there. Let it not be so with you, brethren. Plead the promise, believe it, receive the blessing God is ready to give, and go about your business.”
-Charles Haddon Spurgeon, “The Two Guards, Praying and Watching” in The Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit Sermons, vol. 38 (London: Passmore & Alabaster), 206-207.
I really wish I had not waited as long as I did to read James Dolezal’s 2017 book All That Is in God: Evangelical Theology and the Challenge of Classical Christian Theism (Reformation Heritage, 2017). As it is, I only picked it up a month or so ago, but I would have picked it up much sooner if I had realized what an important book this is. It’s only 137 pages, but it is without question one of the most significant books that I have ever read. I don’t agree with everything in this book. In fact, there are parts of it that I found quite frustrating. Nevertheless, the main thesis of this book is one that needs to seep down into every nook and cranny of evangelical theology.
Why This Book Is Important
Dolezal’s basic contention is that classical Christian theism has practically disappeared from many quarters of evangelical theology. For Dolezal, classical Christian theism is “marked by a strong commitment to the doctrines of divine aseity, immutability, impassibility, simplicity, eternity, and the substantial unity of the divine persons” (p. 1). These are doctrines that are the bedrock of the Great Tradition and even of the older Protestant confessions (e.g., Belgic Confession, Thirty Nine-Articles of Religion, Westminster Confession of Faith, and Second London Confession of Faith).
Dolezal argues that current evangelical theology is often bereft of the doctrine of God reflected in this tradition. Modernity has eaten through it like a universal acid with the result that many evangelical theologians look askance at basic doctrines that were once considered the foundation for every major tradition of Christian theology. Instead evangelicals have embraced a perspective that Dolezal labels as “theistic mutualism.” Theistic mutualism teaches that God exists in a give-and-take relationship with his creatures in such a way that involves God’s very essence. Dolezal argues that theistic mutualism isn’t merely the perspective of process theologians but also of many evangelical Calvinists. He writes,
“Many [evangelical Calvinists] share with open and process theists the theistic mutualism belief that God’s being is such that He is capable of being moved by His creatures… Confessional Calvinists who uphold any aspect of theistic mutualism are faced with the peculiar and perhaps insurmountable challenge of reconciling their mutualist understanding of the God-world relation with the language and intent of the classical Reformed creeds” (p. 3).
The heart of the problem traces back in many ways to the loss of the doctrine of God’s simplicity—the belief that God is not composed of parts but is one divine, ineffable unity of being. The doctrine of God’s simplicity is reflected in scripture, but it is mainly the necessary implication of God being the prime mover. He is the uncaused cause and therefore can have no essential qualities that are the consequence of some reality outside of himself. God’s simplicity means that all that is in God is God.
“If God is simple, there can be no real distinction between his essence (or substantial form) and attributes… Properly speaking, God is good by virtue of God, not goodness. He is wise by virtue of God, not wisdom. He is powerful by virtue of God, not power. He is love by virtue of God, not love. And when we say that God is goodness itself, wisdom itself, power itself, and love itself, we do not mean that these are so many really distinct parts or forms in God, but simply that He is all that is involved in these terms by virtue of His own divine essence as such… There is nothing in God that is not identical with His divinity, nothing that is not just God Himself” (pp. 42, 43).
There are so many errors that flow downstream from the failure to comprehend this basic point about God’s nature and being. And it is for this reason that this book and its thesis are so important. Personally, I can see this lacuna not only in the current evangelical landscape. I also see it in my own formal theological training. Much of it simply did not lay this basic groundwork of the faith. I am not blaming anyone for this or saying that my experience was uniquely egregious. I think Dolezal is correct that this is a pervasive problem across the spectrum of evangelical theology, and it needs correcting. Even the 2016 trinity debate is understood more clearly as a consequence, in many ways, of the problems that Dolezal outlines in this book.
Dolezal’s Treatment of Those He Disagrees With
Even though I have high praise for this book, there are at least two items that I found problematic with it. The first one is this. Dolezal sometimes fails to deal accurately with certain evangelical theologians. He singles out a long list of heavyweights including John Frame, Kevin Vanhoozer, D. A. Carson, Charles Hodge, J. I. Packer, Alvin Plantinga, Bruce Ware, Wayne Grudem, and many others. According to Dolezal, all these theologians display tendencies to theistic mutualism.
Sometimes, however, Dolezal treats diverse theologians as if they are the same. For example, Vanhoozer says things in a way that is unique to Vanhoozer, but his Remythologizing Theology represents a very classic view of God. Dolezal simply reads Vanhoozer in a way that distorts what he is saying. Perhaps one could argue that Frame could be more careful with his language, but Frame is hardly in the same camp as Alvin Plantinga or process thought. Those whom Dolezal labels as theistic mutualists are actually a diverse lot, but sometimes that fact gets lost in this analysis.
I’m not saying that Dolezal’s critiques are all off-base. Nevertheless, sometimes Dolezal describes other theologians’ views in ways they themselves would not recognize. For example, Dolezal argues that Bruce Ware has denied the doctrine of God’s simplicity, not in so many words but as a necessary consequence of Ware’s description of how God’s emotions appear to change. Dolezal writes,
“We might rightly conclude, then, that for Ware the reality of God’s so-called dispositions or attitudes is an actuality of being in Him that is not identical with His divine essence or nature as such. They cannot be aspects of His nature since Ware insists that these realities change, while the divine nature cannot” (pp. 65-66).
The problem with this sentence is that Dolezal accuses Ware of an implication that Ware explicitly denies, and Dolezal makes the claim even after quoting Ware’s denial of the alleged implication. As Ware himself says, “no such change affects in the slightest the unchangeable supremacy of his intrinsic nature” (quoting Ware on p. 65). In an extended footnote, Dolezal concedes, “Ware affirms the ontological immutability of the divine nature” (p. 66, n.7). Given Ware’s own qualifications, Dolezal would have done better to allege an inconsistency rather than an outright rejection of God’s impassibility. Dolezal’s critique in this regard might have been read as ordinary theological polemics except that he has raised the stakes really high in this book. He writes, “No less than true religion is at stake in the contest between theistic mutualism and classical Christian theism” (p. 104).
My complaint is not that Dolezal probes what he perceives to be inconsistencies in other theologians’ views. My complaint is that Dolezal sometimes suggests that a theologian has embraced an implication that the theologian has explicitly denied. Dolezal is guilty of this not only with Ware but also with John Frame (p. 72), Rob Lister (p. 92), and others. I think some of the problem here has to do with Dolezal’s ungenerous reading of “God-talk” in the writings of other theologians. Dolezal acknowledges that our language about God is not univocal, but then he often accuses other theologians of only speaking univocally about God. I don’t know why he makes this ungracious assumption over and over again in this book (e.g, pp. 77-78). It is not necessary to the very important work of recovery that he is pursuing in this work. And it overlooks the fact that many of the theologians he critiques are well aware that our language about God is not univocal.
Frame, for example, wishes to speak as the Bible speaks even as he understands the Bible’s language analogically. Yet Dolezal seems to “literalize” Frame’s “God-talk” in a way that Frame himself would not accept. We all wrestle with the limitations of creaturely language, especially when the subject matter is God. And yet we know that God has revealed Himself to us in creaturely language. To use the words of Calvin, God lisps for us (Institutes 1.13.1).
Is Human Language Adequate?
And that leads me to my second complaint about this book. Dolezal makes statements that make real problems not only for our talk about God but also for the doctrine of Scripture itself, and they are problems that he leaves unresolved. Dolezal argues that one of the leading motives for theistic mutualist departures from divine simplicity is the limitations of creaturely language about God (p. 60). Human language is generally a reliable guide to the nature of created reality (p. 59), but it is not a reliable guide in our talk about God (p. 60). Dolezal writes,
“We cannot discover the manner of God’s being by attempting to read it off the surface grammar of our propositions about Him. The shape of our propositional statements is only suited to correspond in a one-to-one manner to multipart and composite beings” (p. 60).
This statement is uncontroversial in my view, and it is precisely why we all acknowledge that our language about God cannot be univocal. As Dolezal writes, “A simple God is not composed of parts; thus, His being cannot be directly mapped onto any multipart statements we make about Him” (p. 60). The key qualifying term here is “directly.” But sometimes Dolezal seems to lose this qualification.
Dolezal sometimes comes across as despairing of language altogether as a reliable guide to understanding God’s essence. He writes, “Our ordinary creaturely patterns of speech (e.g., subject + predicate) do not quite fit God in the way that they fit creatures” (p. 59). I think this observation is why Dolezal is quick to criticize other theologians. He sees them writing sentences that use subjects and predicates to describe God, and He quickly alleges that they are using language univocally to describe God’s being. But what if that is not what they are doing? What if they are simply making propositions about God that are similar to what we find in scripture?
And this is the big problem that Dolezal leaves unresolved in my view. It is not just that he has a low view of language. He sometimes writes as if our language is not adequate to communicate accurately to us about God’s being. For example,
“If we are to faithfully preserve the infinite and unsurpassable glory of God’s being, we will have to recover the older commitment to divine simplicity and the incomprehensibility of God and forsake the misguided path of thinking that our thought or language adequately computes the mysterious manner of God’s existence” (p. 78).
I do not deny that God’s being surpasses our ability to describe or comprehend completely, but I think it is a big problem to suggest that our language is not adequate to communicate true things to us about God. Dolezal criticizes John Frame on these grounds, “Frame has great confidence in the ability of human thought and language to adequately represent the being of God” (p. 72). Does Dolezal disagree with Frame on this? If he does, does he see how this implies an indictment of the propositions of scripture itself? I am certain that Dolezal would object to such an implication, but he would have done well to explain how such an implication does not necessarily follow from his argument.
And this is the problem that I felt was left unresolved at the end of this book. Dolezal is correct to deny that our language about God is univocal. I think he is incorrect to deny that our language is adequate to describe true things about God. We should not blush about the manner of God’s revelation to us in the Scriptures. Likewise, we should not blush to speak about God in the way that scripture does. But Dolezal seems to censure such speech as evidence of theistic mutualism. I think this is problematic and often prejudicial. Dolezal tends to privilege theological discourse at the expense of biblical discourse, but our real task is to bring both together.
I’ve gone on at length about two problems that I found with this book, but I do not wish for that to undermine what I said at the outset. The strengths of this work far outweigh any shortcomings that I may have identified here. This is a really important book that needs to be widely read and considered. We do need a recovery of classical Christian theism in evangelical theology, and this book is a great resource spurring us on to that end.
I am a Christian. I hold to what Christians have always believed about sexuality—that the only legitimate context for sexual activity is between one man and one woman in the covenant of marriage. Any other kind of sexual activity—including the homosexual kind—is against God’s design for His creation and is prohibited by scripture. I also believe that we are all sexual sinners of some sort.
Nevetheless, I affirm that the grace of God in Christ gives both merciful pardon and transforming power, and that this pardon and power enable a follower of Jesus to put to death sinful desires and to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord. I deny that the grace of God in Christ is insufficient to forgive all sexual sins and to give power for holiness to every believer who feels drawn into sexual sin.
This is all standard fare Christian doctrine. It is the unbroken testimony of the Christian church for its entire 2,000-year history. And I think—if I understand this news story correctly—it is a perspective that Amazon has banned (or is about to ban) from the books that it sells on its site. Let me explain.
NBC News reports that Amazon has banned books written by Joseph Nicolosi, the founder of so-called “conversion therapy.” From the report:
Amazon has removed English-language books by a man largely considered “the father of conversion therapy” from its site following mounting pressure from LGBTQ activists.
Dr. Joseph Nicolosi, founder of the now-shuttered Thomas Aquinas Psychological Clinic, as well as the National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH), authored several how-to guides directed to parents of LGBTQ youth, including “A Parent’s Guide to Preventing Homosexuality.” His books are some of the most well-known works about conversion therapy, the pseudoscientific practice of trying to change a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity.
“I would say many survivors of conversion therapy could trace their trauma to Nicolosi,” Sam Brinton, head of advocacy and government affairs at The Trevor Project and a survivor of conversion therapy, told NBC News. “His work lent credibility under the guise of ‘science’ to conversion therapy, even though the practice has been disputed and discredited as dangerous and harmful by medical experts.”
Let me stipulate up front that I am no fan of Nicolosi or of conversion therapy. It’s a secular theory that has nothing to do with Christianity. I have written and spoken in opposition to it for years (if you want to understand why, read here). Having said that, the reason that Amazon is banning Nicolosi’s books is not because he taught Christianity (he didn’t) but because he taught that it is possible to change someone’s sexual orientation. According to the article, teaching such a thing causes people to die. From the report:
“…while the removal of Nicolosi’s books won’t stop conversion therapy, it will help the public better understand the dangers of the practice.
“These books will still be accessible and will still be a risk for youth,” Brinton, the co-founder of 50 Bills 50 States, the largest campaign to protect LGBTQ youths from conversion therapy in the U.S., said. “But you can compare removing them to the surgeon general announcing smoking is dangerous: People now know the side effects of the practice.”
“The best way to save lives is to pass legislation,” Brinton added, noting that in the last 30 months, 13 laws have been passed protecting minors against conversion therapy. Currently 18 states, along with the District of Columbia, ban the practice on minors.
Did you catch that? The Amazon ban and the suggested legislation to ban conversion therapy isn’t limited to Joseph Nicolosi’s teachings. This ban defines any attempt to change one’s sexual desires as “conversion therapy.” Well guess what? That means that every single Christian who believes that that God’s grace changes sexual sinners would be implicated by this ban and by such legislation.
What Amazon has done is really chilling. They have now set the precedent for banning Christian teaching about sexuality from the books that they sell on their platform. Just to be clear again. I am not saying that Nicolosi’s books are in any way “Christian teaching.” I’m saying that orthodox Christianity has always taught that Jesus both saves and sanctifies sinners—meaning that the gospel helps us to change, even in our wayward sexual desires. To the outside world, that may sound like “conversation therapy.” To those of us who are orthodox Christians, it sounds like the faith once for all delivered to the saints (Jude 3).
What that means is that Christianity long been on a collision course with the new secular orthodoxy on sexuality. It means that we may have our books banned from Amazon. I myself have two that would have to be excluded if Amazon were to apply its content guidelines to my books as they have to Nicolosi’s. And I wouldn’t be alone.
The sexual revolutionaries used to ask us, “How does my gay marriage harm you?” Well, this is how. They have gone from “live and let live” to “affirm our sexual immorality, or we will tar and feather you as causing the deaths of gay people.” It is a calumny and a lie, but that is where we are.
I love G. K. Chesterton’s reflections on what it means to be a Christian patriot. If you have never read it, I encourage you to read “The Flag of the World” in his classic work Orthodoxy. Chesterton contends that love of one’s homeland is not like house-hunting—an experience in which you weigh the pros and cons of a place and choose accordingly. He writes:
A man belongs to this world before he begins to ask if it is nice to belong to it. He has fought for the flag, and often won heroic victories for the flag long before he has ever enlisted. To put shortly what seems the essential matter, he has a loyalty long before he has any admiration.
We do not choose our homeland. It is something that we are born into. Thus our acceptance of our home is not like a house that we can leave when we tire of it. It is like the love we have for our family:
It is the fortress of our family, with the flag flying on the turret, and the more miserable it is the less we should leave it. The point is not that this world is too sad to love or too glad not to love; the point is that when you do love a thing, its gladness is a reason for loving it, and its sadness a reason for loving it more.
Love for family is not based on what is deserved. It is a loyalty that precedes any prior condition. Because love of country is not based on pros and cons—because it is unconditional love—true patriotism means that we must seek the nation’s good and flourishing no matter its condition. This love therefore becomes transformative.
True patriotism motivates reform and improvement because it is realistic about the nation’s shortcomings. A man may love his mother unconditionally, but that love does not mean that he is indifferent to her if she is a drunk. His love moves him to seek her welfare and improvement. His love does not simply affirm her sad condition. In the same way, the patriot loves his home not because she is perfect. He knows that she isn’t. The patriot’s love moves him to work for her welfare and improvement.
If Christian patriots love America as mothers love children, arbitrarily, because it is theirs, America may yet become fairer than Florence. Why? Because that kind of love seeks the nation’s perfection. In Chesterton’s words:
People first paid honour to a spot and afterwards gained glory for it. Men did not love Rome because she was great. She was great because they had loved her.
This kind of patriotism does not close its eyes to the sins that bedevil the nation. One cannot excuse evil simply because it is being committed by the nation that we love and are loyal to. Chesterton says that it is evil to “defend the indefensible.” Such is the anti-patriot, and “he will not wash the world, but whitewash the world.”
The real challenge for the patriot is the same challenge that the Christian faces in his relationship to the world writ large:
One must somehow find a way of loving the world without trusting it; somehow one must love the world without being worldly.
This analogy is instructive, and it reveals an irony that may lead us toward the best kind of patriotism. After all, the Bible tells us that God loves the world while telling us not to.
“For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have eternal life” (John 3:16).
“Do not love the world, nor the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him” (1 John 2:15).
How can these two expressions be reconciled? They reveal a love for the world that is good and a love for the world that is bad. The evil love is the kind that loves the world for its vices. The good love is that kind that seeks the world’s welfare and transformation.
Likewise, the good love of the world produces the best kind of patriotism—a love for the nation that works for its good and welfare. It’s a love that seeks the nation’s good and transformation even when the nation is wayward—in fact, precisely because she is wayward.
I think patriotism for the Christian will become more difficult in the days ahead. Our nation is wayward in so many ways. In many ways it is becoming more hostile to Christians. For that reason, our calling will be to love a nation that may very well not love us back. Our children may be called to love a nation that makes itself an enemy to the true faith. Nevertheless, the call to love the nation and not its vices endures for us and our children.
This is what Chesterton calls the “mystic patriotism”—the love for nation that is undeserved. It requires a love that is supernatural. Who is adequate for these things?
“Not that we are adequate in ourselves to consider anything as coming from ourselves, but our adequacy is from God, who also made us adequate as servants of a new covenant, not of the letter, but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life” (2 Cor. 3:5-6).
This is the love that has been shed abroad in the hearts of God’s people, and we have been called for such a time as this.
Overture 4 is remarkable not only because it affirms the Nashville Statement, but also because it calls on the PCA to use the Nashville Statement in discipleship materials produced by the denomination. Here are the relevant lines from the overture:
Therefore be it resolved that the Calvary Presbytery hereby overture the 47th General Assembly and asks it to declare the Council on Biblical Manhood & Womanhood’s “Nashville Statement” on biblical sexuality as a biblically faithful declaration and refer the “Nashville Statement” to the Committee on Discipleship Ministries for inclusion and promotion among its denominational teaching materials.
Melton Duncan introduced Overture 4 to the assembly, read the entire text of Nashville, and then spoke in favor of its adoption. What followed was a debate that lasted for over an hour. Greg Johnson and Scott Sauls were among those who spoke against the overture. Lig Duncan, Kevin DeYoung, Rick Phillips, and Harry Reeder were among those who spoke in favor of it. The debate was lively but charitable.
Opponents of Overture 4 attempted a parliamentary procedure to derail Overture 4, but that attempt failed as nearly 70% of the assembly voted against it. In the end, 67 percent of the Assembly voted to affirm the Nashville Statement.
I think it is really important to put last night’s events into a larger context. The PCA has been facing a great deal of internal controversy over the last year because of the Revoice Conference which was hosted by a PCA church in St. Louis. In fact, Greg Johnson, the pastor of the church that hosted Revoice, rose to speak against Overture 4 in the debate last night. Revoice was mentioned during the debate, and it certainly formed a part of the backdrop for the introduction of Overture 4 in the first place.
This is significant because the founder of Revoice has said that he started Revoice as a response to The Nashville Statement. The founder and other Revoice supporters often identify as “gay Christians,” and they took particular offense at Article 7 of The Nashville Statement, which says “We deny that adopting a homosexual or transgender self-conception is consistent with God’s holy purposes in creation and redemption.” That is why it was no surprise that Greg Johnson spoke against Article 7 in particular during the debate.
Nevertheless, nearly 70 percent of the PCA General Assembly went on record to affirm the very statement that Revoice was founded to oppose. What makes this even more remarkable is that this happened right on the heals of the Southern Baptist Convention’s adoption of a similar measure earlier this month—a resolution that relies on the Nashville Statement as a response to the Revoice controversy. Thus two major evangelical denominations have weighed-in in a single month, and both have affirmed the theological perspective of Nashville.
It is remarkable that some of the people who spoke against Overture 4 last night began their remarks by affirming Nashville. In other words, some of the people who opposed the overture were open about the fact that they couldn’t find anything wrong with what the Nashville Statement actually says. Their problems were ancillary to the theological substance of the debate. In fact, almost no one raised any issues with the substance of the Nashville Statement, which I think is telling.
As I mentioned above, Greg Johnson was a notable exception to this. He came the closest to actually engaging the substance of Nashville when he criticized Article 7 of the Nashville Statement. Johnson claimed that Article 7 precludes “gay Christians” from acknowledging their own sin struggles. But this is a distortion of Article 7. Several same-sex attracted Christians were instrumental in the drafting of Article 7. Neither them nor any of the other drafters ever intended what Johnson alleges. Look again at the language of Article 7:
“We deny that adopting a homosexual or transgender self-conception is consistent with God’s holy purposes in creation and redemption.”
Adopt means to embrace or endorse. The point of the article is simply to say that it is out of bounds to embrace an understanding of oneself or one’s sin that is at odds with God’s design in creation and redemption. This is not a controversial point, or at least it should not be among Christians.
Other opponents of Overture 4 claimed that the Nashville Statement has the wrong tone or isn’t “pastoral” enough in its language and can’t be used in actual ministry to gay people. But I think this objection fundamentally misunderstands how confessions function as pastoral documents. When someone asks me, “What must I do to be saved?” I don’t throw a copy of The Baptist Faith & Message at them and tell them to go sort themselves out. That is not how confessions come to bear in tender pastoral moments.
Our confessions give expression to our fundamental beliefs and mark out biblical boundaries so that we can both listen and speak with clarity in tender pastoral moments. That is what the Nashville Statement does. It gives theological guidance. It is not a script for evangelism or pastoral counseling. We don’t use any of our confessions as such a script, and it would be wrong to criticize the Nashville Statement on those grounds. Anyone who does criticize the Nashville Statement on those grounds needs to understand that all confessions would fail by that standard.
Having said that, I think the “tone” criticisms of the Nashville Statement are misplaced. To prove my point, I would simply encourage you to read the Nashville Statement. As far as confessions go, it actually is unusually pastorally friendly. There are lines in there that I actually would use in an evangelistic encounter or in pastoral counseling. For example:
“The grace of God in Christ gives both merciful pardon and transforming power, and… this pardon and power enable a follower of Jesus to put to death sinful desires and to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord” (Article 12).
“We affirm that Christ Jesus has come into the world to save sinners and that through Christ’s death and resurrection forgiveness of sins and eternal life are available to every person who repents of sin and trusts in Christ alone as Savior, Lord, and supreme treasure. We deny that the Lord’s arm is too short to save or that any sinner is beyond his reach” (Article 14).
These are precious gospel truths that we hold out to ALL sinners, including those struggling with same-sex attraction or identity issues. That is the good news that the Nashville Statement communicates to all sinners.
One last observation about last night’s debate. Greg Johnson spoke powerfully of his own experience, and I was genuinely moved by what he said. I have dear friends and brothers in Christ who have shared with me the exact same kind of suffering that Johnson described last night. I think it is good for all of us to understand this suffering, to be able to enter into such suffering with friends and neighbors, and to bring the mercy of God in Christ to bear in those situations. I would argue, however, that theological clarity is not at odds with ministering well in those moments. On the contrary, such clarity is essential to such ministry.
The PCA General Assembly brought theological clarity last night. They will do so in the days ahead as a study committee continues to work on these issues. And that is something we can give thanks for.