Friday, 31 July 2009

Heresy hunting!!

Martin Downes' recently published Risking the Truth: Handling Error in the Church (Christian Focus, 2009) has been getting quite a bit of attention of late, so I thought I'd take a peek. As its title suggests its intended to be an examination of how Christians depart from orthodoxy and how churches should handle unorthodox teaching and teachers. Its novelty lies in its approach; a series of twenty interviews with various semi well-known figures within the Reformed world on both sides of the Atlantic (although there is one token chapter by an African baptist pastor!). Unavoidably with a book of this nature the quality of the chapters is a bit patchy, with some interviewees not really engaging all that fully with the questions. Downes tops and tails the book with a couple of short pieces, one introducing the idea of heresy in fairly broad terms, and a final chapter which is a short exposition of the way in which Paul deals with false teaching in 1 Timothy. Some of the interviews are really excellent, although I did find the practice of asking many of the contributors more or less the same questions slightly repetative. Carl Trueman's interview stood-out, particularly his helpful comments on some of the tension facing Christian's working in 'secular' universities, teasing out the distinction between academic integrity and academic respectability (pp. 36-7). Also helpful, if a little alarmist in places, were Ligon Duncan's comments on N. T. Wright and the New Perspective on Paul, and Greg Beale's perceptive interview about biblical inerrancy. The best and most humane chapter, I thought, was the one by Michael Ovey, the principal of the Anglican Oak Hill College in London, with its balanced and pastorally sensitive awareness of the ease with which one call fall into error, and how it should be dealt with I guess a book like this is also a useful barometer of the current state of some aspects of the Reformed world, and particularly the issues that preoccupy them. The current bete noirs are obviously the New Perspective, but also up there is the Federal Vision theology of Norman Shepherd, and of course penal substitutionary atonement. The book is very heavily skewed towards the American Reformed communities, with a strong representation from Presbyterians, drawn from Westminster and Reformed Theological Seminary. Repeatedly the importance of confessionalism is stressed, especially in Michael Horton's chapter unsurprisingly, and there seems to me to be a very real attempt among many from this constituency to distance themselves from the wider currents of American evangelicalism. This is wholly understandable, but a real shame.
I thought the book was also disappointing from a British perspective. Its published by the Scottish Christian Focus press, so I'm guessing that its primarily inteded for a British readership; in that case why not include more interviews with British authors? With the exception of the chapter by Michael Ovey, these seemed much weaker and less well-focussed. Geoffrey Thomas' chapter was bizarre really; a folksy mix of his own personal likes and dislikes, and in too many instances he just didn't answer the questions. His chapter also struck a fairly anti-intellectual tone; the people he preaches to not really being interested in current theological trends, and that in a university town, being just the most glaring example (p. 161). My guess is that there's just not the same level of theological engagement among the British Reformed constituency, at least at an institutional level, as there is in some of the pockets of American reformed evangelicalism. The paucity of chapters with the very different British context in mind, does hamper the usefulness of the book to some extent. So an interesting book, certainly worth looking at closely, especially if you want to get a feel for the current mood of this sector of the Reformed world, the old Calvinists if you like! I couldn't help but draw comparisons with the very different mood of the New Calvinists in the United States, who seem much more confident, up-beat and with their stress on the missional imperative, much more culturally engaged; but then cultural engagement has never really been a priority among British Reformed evangelicals!!!

1 comment:

Martin Downes said...

Hi David,

Thanks for posting about the book. I'm sure you noticed the American spelling throughout the interviews, which should have indicated that it was primarily pitched for the other side of the pond. You are right to note the lack of British contributors (well UK based British contributors as I had Carl Trueman and Sinclair Ferguson), the American appeal was quite deliberate.

You are certainly right about Reformed/Presbyterian slant too. My understanding is that they have wrestled with issues at a church level that, in the UK, are still fairly academic (NPP being the most obvious). I also used what I could get, so some new calvinists who could have appeared in the book chose not to. Not of course that the book would be about cultural engagement anyway.

If you don't mind my saying so I thought that you were harsh on Geoff Thomas.