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Doctrine and Reality – The Need for Balance

In a recent post Dave Warnock looks through the preface by John Piper to Pierced for Our Trangressions, and quotes the following:

This is how I feel today about teachers of Christ’s people who deny and even belittle precious, life-saving, biblical truth.When a person says that God’s ‘punishing his Son for an offence he has not even committed’ would be as evil as child abuse, I am angered and grieved. For if God did not punish his Son in my place, I am not saved from my greatest peril, the wrath of God.

(The whole post by Dave is worthwhile reading, but this post is just a tangent from that.)

The more I read about this the more I realize that I will be reading this book eventually. But right now I’m not trying to review the book, or even directly to argue with John Piper. He has written and said much that I value, and also much with which I disagree. Often I even value the disagreement more than the agreement.

But I want to respond to this point of doctrine. It is clear from scripture that good teaching is a good thing. In other words, it does matter what we teach. At the same time it’s very easy to make our doctrine, especially detailed doctrinal issues into something that stands instead of God. If Christ did not die for me, I am still in my sins, but if I fail to understand in a detailed way just why Christ died for me and how the atonement was accomplished, that does not diminish the fact that Christ died for me.

This is where I am troubled by the teaching about Penal Substituionary Atonement (PSA). It is not that I think the teaching in and of itself is wrong, it is that it seems to be taking the place of the reality in some people’s theology. PSA is a metaphor, a limited human expression of the meaning of the atonement. As with most metaphors, it conveys some of the meaning of the atonement, but it can easily obscure other parts of that meaning.

But in conversation with many advocates of PSA I can’t simply affirm my acceptance of PSA as a single metaphor among many for the atonement. I am asked to affirm that PSA is the central meaning of the cross, essentially making it the reality, rather than a metaphor. That I will not do, because I believe that is not worthy of the cross. That reduces the cross to a sense of human retribution and punishment, and reduces God to a human judge. It does not adequately express the trinitarian view of God himself becoming one of us and dying for our sins. It does not adequately express the depth and breadth of God’s love and forgiveness. Seeing it in that light, for me–and I reemphasize for me–it would be idolatry to put a lesser thing in place of the reality that is God, in Christ, reconciling the world to himself (2 Corinthians 5:19).

There is no language to adequately express the incarnation and atonement. No matter how well we express it, we run up against the difficulty of describing and encompassing infinite God with finite human expressions. Our doctrines on this and every other topic will always contain some taint of the traditions of men.

For that reason, we need to allow our doctrines and our perceptions to constantly come up against the scriptural presentation and against our experience of God’s presence. This is true whether those doctrines be modern, liberal, post-modern, conservative, or any other label we might put on them. It is true even if we believe our doctrines are scriptural.

I read a report by a committee in the PCA, examining the New Perspective on Paul and another movement to see if they are in accord with the Westminster Standards. In explaining how they do this, and also elevate scripture above the standards, they wrote the following tortured paragraph:

In addition, we are a confessional church. The PCA has affirmed that “the Confession of Faith and the Larger and Shorter Catechisms of the Westminster Assembly, together with the formularies of government, discipline, and worship are accepted by the Presbyterian Church in America as standard expositions of the teachings of Scripture in relation to both faith and practice” (BCO 29-1; cf. 21-5.2; 26-1; 39-3). The church has historically understood that this claim does not elevate the Standards over Scripture itself; and yet, our Constitution does recognize the Standards as our “standard expositions of the teachings of Scripture.” Because this is the case, the main focus of our study will be to determine whether the views of the NPP and AAT/FV are in conformity with our Westminster Standards.

It’s not my intention here to criticize the PCA any more than specifically John Piper. The question I have is whether you can say that a certain set of standards is not elevated above scripture, and at the same time make the assumption that those standards define what scripture says. The NPP scholars believe they have found good, new interpretations of Paul, and they think their interpretations are closer to Paul’s intention than were earlier studies. Would not the correct question be this: Are these new interpretations more accurate? If you ask instead whether those interpretations are in accordance with the standards, does that not place the standards in the superior position?

I grew up as a Seventh-day Adventist, and the writings of Ellen G. White were frequently placed in that position. In seminary I began to forcefully reject the claim that Ellen White was not above scripture, and yet when I went to interpret scripture, what Ellen White said was supposed to be definitive. If the Bible was superior, then I could test Ellen White by scripture, not the scripture by her.

I feel the same way about doctrinal statements and confessions. Confessions are good for denominational unity, but if I am ever studying a proposed new interpretation my question will not be whether it is consistent with a particular confession, but whether it is more accurate. The confession can be adjusted.

I think that all metaphors and all doctrines (as a subcategory of metaphor) need to be subject to revision at any time. Many have been and will be reaffirmed over and over, but the examination is still good. I think God will be grieved if we don’t allow his presence to shatter our limited understandings.

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  1. John says:

    It is clear from scripture that good teaching is a good thing. In other words, it does matter what we teach. At the same time it’s very easy to make our doctrine, especially detailed doctrinal issues into something that stands instead of God.


    The priest in the movie Rudy says at one point that he has come up with two incontrovertible truths: “There is a God. And I’m not Him.”

    Truth number three: Our words and images are not God either.

  2. Terri Tippins says:

    We must always remember that (all) authority has been given to Jesus. A person with a healthy intelligence and the abilty to reason most often will question things. This is not a defect or a flaw but is actually a survival tactic. I have been in the postition where I have questioned a teacher’s interpretation……..it was’nt pretty. Most people in positions of leadership will never admit to error or of the possibilty that they could be wrong in thier interpretation and most hearers expect perfection from those that are called to lead them. What I am saying is they give men to much authority and then impose God like expectations from them. Most leaders are willing to step into this position but trying to maintain it is another thing altogether. We represent Jesus, we are to be a reflection of Him to others. But, we must always remember we have only a partial knowledge at best, we don’t know it all. We see through a glass dimly, we don’t see everything clearly either. We don’t know everything, so let’s not pretend that we always do. Honesty is still the policy.

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