"I expect to die in bed, my successor will die in prison and his successor will die a martyr in the public square. His successor will pick up the shards of a ruined society and slowly help rebuild civilization, as the church has done so often in human history." -Cardinal Francis George

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Discerning Theological Truth

I came across a sermon given at my former church the other day. The title was Discerning Theological Truth. It was given by Dr. Paul Helseth, who is one of the most mild mannered, nicest guys I have ever met. Dr. Helseth is Associate Professor of Christian Thought at Northwestern College, St Paul, MN. He has a Ph.D. from Marquette University, an M.A. and B.A. from Wheaton College, and has studied at Reformed Theological Seminary. I listened to the sermon on my lunch break yesterday and just have to respond. Here is an excerpt of the last couple minutes of the sermon:
“One of the great things about being a Presbyterian as opposed to being a Reformed Baptist is that Reformed Baptists at the end of the day are more at the mercy of the judgments of an individual person, at least as far as I understand it. Presbyterians on the other hand, can appeal to an authority that is greater than themselves. “ “O.K. we’ve recently had so some folks leave church over the whole question of authority. Well frankly that kind of confused me because it seems to me that Presbyterians DO have an authority to appeal to. We have the authority of our session, we have the authority of our Presbytery, we have the general assembly. So to bring it back to the issue at hand, how do we understand or determine what is true in matters of theology? Well I would suggest that that is not a call that we as individuals should make. When there is a question, we should ask our elders, who in turn will speak about these things among themselves, I assume, and if there are questions there they’ll kick it on up to the next level. Um, what you have in a group of elders, in a Presbytery, in the General Assembly, well at least as far as I understand things, you have people who have been appointed to be overseers who have the capacity to think spiritually. Who have the capacity to see spiritually, who have the capacity to make good, sound theological judgments. And their capacity to make good sound theological judgments exceeds the capacity of any one of the individuals. Again, for whatever it’s worth, it seems to me that at the end of the day for those of us who are Presbyterians when we have questions about what scripture says in relationship to some contemporary truth claim, whether its scientific or sociological or whatever, when we have questions, when it’s not transparently obvious what the answer is based on what the truth claim is and based on what scripture says, when there’s a tough judgment call to make, it seems like we should appeal to those who are in authority over us."
Paul, First off, I wish you and yours the best, please take nothing here personal. You are certainly my better in knowledge of philosophy and theology, so with that in mind I wish to try to point out a very basic error in your thinking. St. Thomas Aquinas said “an error in the beginning is an error in deed.” I will point out the error as I see it. I listened to your sermon and have some challenges for you. First a few questions.
1. The PCA was formed in 1973 because people within the Presbyterian church (PCUSA) saw the “authority” over them teaching things they didn’t like and ignored that authority (their elders, sessions, and general assembly) by leaving to make their own church (PCA). Were they justified in ignoring the authority over them? 2. Assuming you think they were right (which for a member of the PCA should be the case), does it not follow that the authority they originally had invested in their PCUSA sessions and general assembly was shown to be a secondary authority to their own theological judgments? 3. Does it not then follow that any church authority for the men who started the PCA was seen by them (proved by their actions) as being mutable, and able to be disobeyed if they felt necessary? 4. Is such a mutable authority the authority we should see in the church? You said (referring at least in part to myself): “we’ve recently had so some folks leave church over the whole question of authority. Well frankly that kind of confused me because it seems to me that Presbyterians DO have an authority to appeal to.” 5. Did this really confuse you? Really?
Respectfully I don’t believe you sir. You are to obviously smart to be so easily thrown off the trail of a very simple argument. Let me try to relieve your alleged confusion. First lets clear something up. You DO have authority. Yes. That is something I would never deny. And Presbyterian authority is better than the Baptist authority you mention, yes, but for the same reasons that a Republic is often better that a Monarchy. This is beside the point and it is odd that you brought it up. Denominational distinctives are interesting, but it is a straw man to say that this constitutes the “authority issue” people leave Protestantism because of. I think you have missed the point. It is not some generic authority people like me are seeking. If I wanted that then the PCA provides that ‘structure’ (session, presbytery, G.A.) of authority very well for someone already convinced of the Reformed faith. That is all beside the point. My point is that the authority that the church of Jesus Christ provides is a legitimate, divine authority that is guarded from error in certain circumstances. (the PCA does not claim this of its authority) It is an authority that is… well, authoritative. It is true. It must be obeyed by all Christians because it is from the Holy Spirit. There is ONE Faith. ONE baptism. Overlooking differences for the sake of a pretended ‘unity’ is not acceptable to the authority of the Church. This real authority can be seen anathematizing monothelites in the early church. Can you imagine modern Evangelicals anathematizing monothelites? Or even caring one iota what they are? No way. Truth gets flushed for the sake of a pretended unity. I will be blunt, Paul. In the end, you are your own authority as a Protestant. I do not accuse without proof. My evidence will be overwhelming and decisive. Let’s run through a scenario.
The year is 2040 and your PCA session has just approved funding for abortions from the tithes of the people and promoting gay marriage from the pulpits. You “have a question” (understatement!!!) as you put it, so you go to your elders, who “have been appointed to be overseers who have the capacity to think spiritually”. They “think spiritually” for about 10 seconds and shoot your objections down. You appeal up to Presbytery and to the general assembly. You get shot down.
What happens next is what proves that you do not believe a word of what you said from the pulpit in your sermon concerning your respect for church authority. You and I know exactly, precisely, and very specifically what you would do. You would ignore their “authority”, judging it to be false, and leave the PCA to put your family under the “authority” of a session that more closely fit your interpretation of scripture. This is definitive proof that YOU are the final authority.
6. Am I correct that you would leave in this situation?
Sure you can pick a session that already agrees with you (like I did when I chose the PCA) and pretend to submit to their authority, but that is a shell game. By submitting to them based on mutual theological agreement, you submit to yourself. If I only submit when I agree, the one to whom I submit is me. Sure you might be like I was and make a show of deferring some theological opinions to them and submitting to their will. I did this for Paedocommunion for instance and that made me feel good about my “submission.” And in truth, this attitude among the Reformed of a willingness to submit their will in some areas of theology is commendable, and is a better way than the typical Evangelical decides doctrine, but it is in principal the same. And of course it is always only in ‘less important areas’ (as defined by the individual Protestant) that this deferring of personal opinion ever occurs. You say (Bolding mine):
“When we have questions, when it’s not transparently obvious what the answer is based on what the truth claim is and based on what scripture says, when there’s a tough judgment call to make, it seems like we should appeal to those who are in authority over us.”
Forgive me for saying it but this sounds somewhat pompous. To say that you can determine if something is or is not “transparently obvious” in Sacred Scripture without a special charism is just subjective and silly. At the least it is na├»ve. I’m sure the open theism theology of devils like Greg Boyd is “transparently obvious” to them. But the millstone is around his neck. Christ having 2 distinct wills is not at all obvious to my mind from scripture. It is silly when some believers claim it is. But He has 2 wills and it should be a heresy to deny it because the teaching office of the Church declared it a heresy. Not because I agree it should be. The Arian heresy was shown from scripture and was honestly and conscientiously believed by Arius. I’m sure he thought it was “transparently obvious”. What is obvious on the one hand and what is more difficult on the other is the very distinction we need a theological authority to make for us! And if they are just men with a Bible (like you and I), why is their interpretation more valid than ours? Other that being the wisest and most learned men in the building; they are using their judgment just like you or me, and can make bad theological errors just like you or me. (And they will readily admit that fact!) So other than the pragmatism of a group deciding over an individual, why listen to them? Like I said, if it were 1972, you absolutely would not have listened to your session if they told you abortion is not forbidden in the scripture. You would disobey them in an instant, curse them (I hope) and walk out. Asking the advice of those more mature in the faith is always a good idea. NOBODY disagrees with that. But that is a pragmatic reality, not the basis for determining if something is true! The proof is in the pudding. Look around at the myriad branches of the Protestant tree. Now focus on just the Reformed ‘branch’ (‘twig’?). These are the ones with the ‘orthodox’ view of what sola scriptura means. These are the ones with the ‘high view’ of church authority. This is the branch that pounds its chest in obedience to church authority. But it is mere chest pounding because they have chosen the authority for themselves, and will submit if and only if that authority stays within the bounds of orthodoxy as they see it. When it strays out of those bounds, they will instantly disobey, preferring their private opinions, and split, split, split. Again, this is in no way submission. It is the worst kind of false submission because it can lull the believer into actually thinking they are submitting to the church (and Christ) when they are merely submitting to themselves! If the PCA had ever budged on any issues I thought were important to my personal theological understanding such as abortion or gay marriage, or justification, BOOM. I would have been out of there. And you would too. You said:
“how do we understand or determine what is true in matters of theology? Well I would suggest that that is not a call that we as individuals should make.”
This statement is great, and quite true. As individuals we should not determine what is true in matters of theology, the church should. But as I have shown, that individualism is exactly what (in principle) Protestantism is based on, and exactly what Protestants do every day they submit to self appointed church authority. As I have clearly shown, you as an individual ARE making the calls. Just because there are other people that agree with your personal judgment and you “submit” to them makes it no less a personal judgment call. At this point the tu quoque objection might be tempting. It does not apply to a Catholic (there is a way out!) because we submit to bishops in succession from the apostles that have divine authority to define theological truth, but that is a whole other discussion. Listen to this conversion story for an eye opener.
7. The point I have clearly made here is that you are your own theological authority. Another way to say it is that your authority is in practice greater than that of any authority in the PCA. Do you concede this point?
Peace, David


  1. Well written, what has this Greg Boyd Fellow written to draw your ire though?

  2. Google open theism. Boyd is a proponent of it. It is a doctrine that sees God as mutable and changeable, not knowing the future.

    I have a personal animosity towards him as well. When I came back to Christianity 10 years ago, I heard him on the "christian" radio here in the Twin Cities. (his church is in St. Paul, MN) So my wife and I went. Luckily the same station had RC Sproul on and we decided on Reformed theology instead of Boyd. At least Sproul has the basic doctrines of God (theology proper) down. I have zero patience for Boyd or anyone who calls him a Christian. His ilk need to be squarely put in their place with the Mormons and Jehovas Witnesses by the rest of mainstream Protestantism. But no, they put him on the radio and say his ideas are merely "controversial".
    I mentioned him here because Dr. Paul Helseth has had experience debating with him and co-wrote a book about open theism.

  3. I recently heard a Catholic speaker say " I can tell you with certainty in 500 years exactly what the Catholic position on abortion will be." (and birth control, euthanasia, etc.) What a profound and challenging statement. What other church can you state with certainty will hold the same positions it does now in 500 years? Authority cannot be separated from consistency!

  4. Just an update: Paul has responded by email very graciously but would rather not reply here. He pointed out it was not a sermon, which I had thought it was. It was a Sunday night study.

  5. Excellent point Wendy. I love the fact that infallibility is actually a limitation on the power of the Papacy in that the magisterium is stuck with their past decisions! It is comforting.