Wednesday, 3 September 2014


 It occurs to me that if there were one surefire way for an impoverished pastor to boost his monthly income it would be by exacting a charge from every person who ever asked him the question, “Who were the Nephilim in Genesis 6?”

 Forget the Prosperity Gospel or the Church Growth Movement. This is undoubtedly the strategy for getting the pastoral cash tills ringing.  

Not that I can ever provide the questioner with any kind of a definitive answer, you understand

In fact, it always appears to me that the person who raises the query is already quite familiar with this rather strange and exotic area of bible knowledge, and probably knows rather more about than I do.

 I conclude this from the way that I am always given a disappointed nod when my reply provides no more than the limited amount of biblical data that they were already familiar with.

 Apparently I was only able to confirm to them that I knew no more on this vital subject than they had already been able to glean for themselves from their many years of absorbing study!

  The persistence of the enquiry would concern me less if I were always satisfied that the questioner could demonstrate that, in addition to his penchant for Antediluvian speculations, he also has shown a firm grasp of the rather more basic issues of Christian theology, but this proves hardly ever to be the case.

 So much so, that I have often thought that on these occasions I should imitate the Lord’s practice in answering a question with a question.

 If they really want to know my views on fallen angels, giants, UFOs et al, I ought to first insist that they are to answer three questions of mine.

These would be:

1)      Provide me with a biblical definition of the Trinity
2)      Tell me what is meant by the term Hypostatic Union
3)      Explain the doctrine of justification

And only if I’m satisfied with the answers received will I then proceed to these other weightier matters.

Rather cruel, do you think?

Actually I don’t think so. We all ought to learn to hold to a high standard when it comes to vital doctrines, but also to be less-absorbed with peripheral and unprofitable matters (1 Tim 1:3-4).

Since we are called believers it is important that we know what precisely it is that we believe on the major articles of the faith, and also why we believe it.  After all, everyone of us (believer or otherwise) is staking our eternity on being right!

With this in mind I offer up the following basic rule of thumb to serve to provide us with the necessary standard when it comes to grasping important doctrines.

 Claim to know no doctrine until you’re satisfied that you can refute the best biblical arguments that have ever been leveled against it.

 Now let me say that this is a high standard for knowing theology, but I believe it is a justifiable one.

But let us deconstruct the statement to ascertain what we mean by this.

Firstly we are to be open to those arguments which contest our present understanding of a biblical doctrine.

 Indeed, might I suggest that until you know the best arguments against a doctrine then you don’t really know the doctrine at all.

Sadly most of us do not approach theology in this way.

 Instead we too often yield to the temptation to read only those books written by men that we already agree with and to never expose ourselves to any opposing position.

 This amounts to living in a kind of doctrinal echo-chamber where  the same theological position is bouncing  perpetually off the walls and coming at us from all angles. Meanwhile all contrary viewpoints are shut out completely.

 The single voice we are hearing from all sides is therefore easily mistaken by us for consensus.   

 This is not actually learning at all but is in fact merely the reinforcing of existing prejudices. It is, incidentally, the way that cults invariably operate.  

 In history God has always tested biblical doctrine in the furnace of controversy, and the great doctrinal statements of the Church arose out of sharp disagreements.

 These disagreements helped to crystallize thinking around the issues and enabled the truth to stand out more prominently against the dark background of the false (1 Cor 11:19).

In this way controversy serves as a crucible for the purification of truth.   

Thus those who seek always to avoid controversy in doctrine are also avoiding the clarity that vigorous but respectful debate can often bring to an issue.

Our understanding of Trinitarian and Christological issues especially would be vastly poorer if not for those early heretics who forced the Church to ever-deeper contemplation of the issues.

 Exposing ourselves to contrary biblical opinions is therefore the way that “iron sharpens iron” in our thinking (Prov 27:17). Testing a hypothesis against the best the other side can offer ensures that all reasonable objections to the position are dealt with, for,  

             The one who states his case first seems right,
                    until the other comes and examines him
.” (Prov 18:17)

Often we do not even know what is wrong with our doctrinal position until it is challenged by a probing counter question.

 That is why every apologist worth his salt knows that the best way to assess contending theological issues is through the medium of formal moderated debate where ample time is allowed for the vital business of cross-examination

 Any belief that cannot withstand this skilful and vigorous cross-examination is not worth subscribing to.

 Secondly it is only biblical arguments that we entertain in the re-shaping of our theology.

We do not need to belabour this point.

We continually exhort one another (rightly) to be good Bereans (Acts 17:11), but in my experience this is a verse that is quoted far more often than it is implemented.

 Non-biblical assertions such as moral, philosophical or emotional arguments made without serious submission to the authority of scripture are not even to be up for consideration.

 The doctrine is to be established using Sola Scriptura as the principle or it is not established at all.   

Thirdly the term “ever been leveled against it” provides us with an historical context.

It requires our knowing a little Church history.

 For instance, in the case of the first two of those questions I framed relating to the Trinity and the Hypostatic Union this will be of the early centuries of the Church. This is an indispensable area of historical study for anyone seeking a grasp of Christian theology.

 When dealing with soteriological issues we would greatly benefit from some familiarity with the 5th Century dispute between Augustine and Pelagius in the first instance, and then with the great debates of the Reformation beginning with Luther’s clash with Erasmus on the issue of free will.

 Many are those who have come to a bold but erroneous doctrinal conclusion based upon their own reading of the scriptures; which error could have been easily avoided had they been aware that their theory had been decisively hit out of the park by some great theologian centuries before.  

 Finally the threshold for acceptance of the doctrine is that we personally are satisfied with the doctrinal conclusion finally arrived at.

 It is not necessary that I have to convince others in the local Church in order to be satisfied with the conclusion myself.  But equally I should see the matter clearly for myself and not just blindly accept another man’s interpretation. 

 I have observed that we are too fond of appointing unofficial “gurus” to serve as our final spiritual authority simply because we trust their judgement and can’t be bothered to think through the issues for ourselves.  

Now when we speak of being personally satisfied with a doctrine there are of course  obvious dangers that do present themselves at this point.

 The right of  private interpretation of the scriptures was one of the key rallying calls of the Reformation.

 But the Reformers were also clear that the right of private interpretation did not mean a right to private mis-interpretation of them. The right is not ever to become a licence for wild and wholly unjustifiable speculations.    

 This means that I am not entitled to come to a conclusion that no one else has ever come to before in Church history.

 The Church is “the pillar and foundation of the truth” (1 Tim 3:15).

 This means that we accept as an article of faith that all theological enlightenment in history has been mediated through the Body of Christ. We must therefore expect to find our doctrinal position represented in Church history.  

 This does not mean that the position has to have been universally accepted by all of the Church through all of the centuries, but it does mean that the view you have come to ought to be well-represented amongst respectable church theologians of the past.  

The Church corporately is the foundation of truth, and not you personally.  For this reason alone, we can say that if your doctrinal position is completely novel then you can be certain that it is completely wrong.

 In conclusion let us say that it will be obvious in reading all of this that the standard we have set here is far too high a standard to apply to a new, or even a relatively new Christian.
 As new believers we will for a good while be largely dependent upon information furnished from others much more senior in the faith than ourselves.

Babies need milk. Then they move on to rusks. T-bone steak is a way down the line.

 But every parent knows that in the fulness of time one of their tasks is to teach their child how to use a knife and fork so that he can eventually fend for himself at the dinner table.

No one has a problem with spoon-feeding a baby.  But if you are still spoon-feeding a teenager then we know that something has gone tragically wrong.

Sadly, these days we do not often apply this principle to the process of spiritual maturation.   

 If we did, we might have less Christians of many years standing turning up every Sunday morning with their bibs still fastened firmly around their necks to guard against doctrinal spillage.   

 As we grow in the study of God’s Word we have a duty to gain an ever-firmer grasp over time of those theological areas that are most vital to spiritual growth. We ought to know what we believe and why we believe it.  

Nephilim studies needless to say do not qualify as being vital to growth!   

But if you really are that interested in the matter then a fairly comprehensive analysis of the available data can be found here.

 However please do not bother to ask me about it, unless you are ready to first be grilled on the Hypostatic Union…