Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Book Review: Heresy!

Alister McGrath: Heresy (SPCK, 2009) Paperback, Pp. 288 £12.99

There has always been an interest in heresy, from John Henry Newman's Arians of the Fourth Century to Harold O.J. Brown's Heresies, there has always been a market for books dealing with these false teachings and erroneous beliefs. But in the wider culture, even in some contemporary 'Evangelical' circles, there are people who are interested in heresy as an exciting alternative to traditional Protestant Christianity. In Academia we have Elaine Pagels promoting Gnosticism, in popular culture Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code, containing not a scintilla of truth, sold millions, and left many thinking that Christianity as it exists today was the result of a close vote at the Council of Nicea, where Jesus was proclaimed as Divine for the first time (every part of this statement is actually false). The heretics are the rebels, the heroes, the folk who had a greater insight than other people. In part this attitude has always existed, as witness the Baptist Successionism that claimed the Paulicians, Bogomils and Cathars as true Christians because of their rebellion against the authoritarian approach of the Greek and Latin Churches, though of course in this case the successionists ignored the stubborn fact that these groups held to a heretical theology.

McGrath is a careful historian, and of course he gently but firmly steps on this idea. Heresy, he tells us in this book, in not exciting, radical and libertarian. It is a dead-end in theology that has not been recognised as such. Since the 19th century it has been recognised by theologians and historians of theology that there is a process of development in doctrinal understanding. The Church is 'growing into' the Bible, exploring the fullness of the Biblical message. The heretics are people who have taken a wrong turn in that exploration, and instead of giving us a correct understanding, they have erred from the faith. This is not, McGrath warns us, to say that they were all wicked and designing men. Many of them were simply theologically naive, and ended up tenaciously clinging to a theory that was inadequate to account for the fullness of the Biblical revelation. Orthodoxy, on the other hand, has been based on a full-orbed study of the whole of Scripture.

This is a thoughtful and thought-provoking book that will be welcomed by thoughtful Christians. As McGrath explores heresy and the causes of heresy, he brings us to a deeper appreciation of orthodoxy, and explodes many of the myths of the modern advocates of the old heretics. It simply is not true, he points out, to say that heresy is more liberating than orthodoxy. True, there were some heresies that were libertarian, but others, such an Donatism and Montanism, were extremely authoritarian, and condemned the orthodox as libertarian! Nor was Gnosticism a sort of proto-feminist movement, as is demonstrated by the notorious ending of the so-called Gospel of Thomas, which states "...every woman who will make herself male will enter the kingdom of heaven" (Thomas verse 114).

McGrath is a little too ecumenical in places for my tastes, but this is a small matter. The reader who wants an exhaustive account of the history of heresies should read Harold O.J. Brown. This is more an exploration of the nature of heresy, and as such it is very welcome. It certainly sets the record straight for those who get their ideas about heresy from The Da Vinci Code.

If there is one thing this book could have done without, it is the foreword by Rick Warren. On the other hand, I'd rather Warren was reading this book than many others!

Friday, November 13, 2009

Gail Riplinger (Accidentally) Undermines the Massoretic Text!

One of the greatest complaints about Gail Riplinger's books is that they are in need of an editor. Harzardous Materials, weighing in at over 1200 pages, definitely so. There are just pages and pages of irrelevant material. I have my copy back, and hope to present some of the irrelevant material and blunders to show how it is possible to write a book on the subject of textual criticism without knowing anything to speak of about it!

On Pp. 1051-1058 of the great brick of a book called Hazardous Materials (hereafter HazMat), Gail Riplinger plays advocate for the Shapira Strips. These strips of leather, purporting to be ancient fragments of the Book of Deuteronomy, were discovered in 1883, and immediately announced as genuine ancient manuscripts. The text was written in an ancient style, corresponding to the alphabet found on the Moabite Stone. Moses Shapira, an antiquities dealer, declared that they dated from around the 9th century BC. While the strips were announced with a journalistic fanfare, doubts soon began to emerge about their authenticity. Several scholars, including C.D. Ginsberg, announced their doubts, and finally the strips were declared to be a fraud, written in an ancient script, but in modern times. In other words, the whoe thing bears some resemblance to the case of the "James Ossuary".

Gail Riplinger writes:
“Examination revealed that the strips contained certain dating elements (words and orthography) which would prove that Moses was their author. This evidence could fracture the entire higher critical movement…” (P. 1052). The strips were declared to be fraudulent, and Shapira committed suicide, Riplinger suggests that he could in fact have been murdered (P. 1057).

What Riplinger is apparently unaware of is the character of the Shapira strips and the text they contained. Frederic Kenyon of the British Museum was aware of this, and he writes:

“The contents were striking enough. They purported to be portions of the Book of Deuteronomy, but with many remarkable variations. To the Ten Commandments was added an eleventh, and the language of the others was altered and amplified. In these strips of leather there was enough to cast doubt on the whole of the received text of the Old Testament” Our Bible and the Ancient Manuscripts (London, Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1898), P. 43.

Please note this fact. If the Shapira strips were indeed “The world’s oldest Scriptures” (HazMat P. 1051), then they differ significantly from the text we have today. Far from showing that the Hebrew text has been wonderfully preserved, they would give the impression that it had been significantly altered in the course of the two millennia between the purported date of the Shapira Strips and the date of what, at the time of their discovery, was the oldest known manuscript of Deuteronomy. Gail Riplinger claims to uphold the “received text of the Old Testament”, does she really want to lend her support to a disputed text that casts doubt on “the whole” of that text? I think not. So we have another 7 pages of HazMat that are completely irrelevant.

I have sent this information to Riplinger via AV Publications, because I am sure that she was unaware of the actual character of the text of the strips. So chalk this one up to bad research by Mrs. Riplinger, not malice.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The Generation that HAS Passed Away

This year has seen the deaths of the last British veterans of the First World War. There are none left who can recall first hand the mud and the death of the Western Front. Remembrance Day remains, as it ought to. We need a day on which the horrors of war, and the heroism, can be remembered. We also need to remember that war still goes on, and the idea that human progress can put an end to war is a horrible delusion.

But the death of the last veterans of the Great War reminds us of something else, and that is the false prophecy of the Watchtower Society. They confidently declared that “the generation that saw the events of 1914 shall not pass away.” They wrote in 1984: "…Yes, you may live to see this promised New Order, along with survivors of the generation of 1914—the generation that will not pass away" (The Watchtower, May 15, 1984, pages 6-7, as quoted here). Again: “Thus before the 1914 generation completely dies out, God’s judgment must be executed” (The Watchtower May 1, 1985, page 4)

It is now officially a fact that that generation has passed away, and that fact has been marked at Remembrance Day services in Britain. No doubt the Watchtower has its own explanation of its false prophecy, but the fact remains that they have been exposed once again. 1914, 1920, 1925, 1975 and 2000 have passed without the prophesied Armageddon.

This is not the first time, of course. The Watchtower Organisation claims to speak for God, it claims that its interpretations of prophecy are infallible. Yet not one of these interpretations has proved to be true. They have predicted the end of the world many times, and each time they have been proved wrong. The idea that the Watchtower speaks directly for God is surely laughable by now! Yet the leaders have not repented or acknowledged that they were mistaken. This is a sign of a morally bankrupt religious leadership. They have been supported by false prophecy, and the failure of a prophecy that has been repeated for decades should be a warning to all that they do not possess the truth.

Jesus says: “I am the way, the truth and the life, no man comes to the Father except through me.” God has not given an organisation, whether the Watchtower Society, the Roman Catholic Church, or the FIEC (the grouping my Church is connected with), as the only conduit of salvation, He has sent His Son so that all who believe in Him shall not perish but have everlasting life. No organisation can save you, but:

Jesus ready stands to save you,
Filled with mercy, love and power;
He is able,
He is willing, doubt no more.

Gems from R.W Dale - 4

“The power of the cross is the power of the love of Christ. And yet, not the love of Christ only. For the sufferings of Christ were not a mere dramatic display of love. ‘I delivered unto you first of all,’ said St. Paul, writing to the Corinthians, ‘that which I also received, how that Christ died for our sins.’ This truth, according to the greatest evangelist among the apostles, was one of the chief things, the fundamental things, that he made known to those heathen people when he preached the Gospel to them. It is not enough to tell men that Christ died because He loved them; the gospel of the death of Christ includes the fact that He died for their sins. Until men know what sin is – sin as distinguished from mere natural defects and infirmities, which they may attribute to their temperament and to the physical constitution which they have inherited from their parents; - sin as distinguished from mere deformity which offends their ideal of moral grace and beauty; - sin as distinguished from mere vice, which conscience condemns, and which, in the absence of any belief in the authority or even the existence of the Living God, conscience would continue to condemn; - until, I say, men know what sin is they can see no meaning in a large part of St. Paul’s gospel of the death of Christ. Until they are troubled, ashamed, and alarmed by the consciousness of sin, they will listen to a large part of this gospel with moral indifference, or even with moral resentment.” –P. 210

Monday, November 9, 2009

Gems From R.W. Dale - 3

“The line from an ancient poet is not quoted to show that the Greeks had already anticipated a large part of the revelation which it was St. Paul’s commission to make known to mankind; it was quoted with the express object of attacking the whole system of idolatry: “Forasmuch, then, as we are the offspring of God, we ought not to think that the Godhead is like unto gold or silver or stone, graven by art and man’s device.” This was St. Paul’s method of meeting unbelievers on their own ground. He found his way into their fortifications to turn their own guns upon them. He exploded their whole system from within. He quoted the inscription on one of their own altars in order to suggest that neither their philosophy nor the traditions of their ancestors had given them any knowledge of the true God. He quoted Aratus or Kleanthes in order to expose the ignorance of the Divine greatness which was illustrated by the temples and statues which they had erected in honour of their divinities.
“Nor – though this was the first discourse that he delivered to them – did he keep within the limits of philosophical discussion about the nature of God, and the true method of worshipping Him. He went on at once to speak about judgment to come, and about Christ’s resurrection from the dead. He might, had he chosen, have said many things to which the Epicureans and Stoics would have listened with interest, and even with respect. He might have discussed questions of morals. He might have compared or contrasted the ethical teachings of Christ with their own. But all this would have been to no purpose. The resurrection of Christ might provoke their mockery, but to have been silent about it would have given them a false conception of the gospel. It was more important that the Athenians should know the truth – whether they received it or not – than that St. Paul should conciliate their respect.
“The principle on which I am insisting is a very simple one: whether true or false, it is intelligible. We shall never make men Christians by suppressing and throwing into the shade those parts of the Christian revelation which especially provoke their hostility. Truth which men regard as incredible, truth which men resent – we must be sure, first of all, that it is truth, and truth of an important kind – is precisely the truth which men most need to hear , and which is most likely to produce the deepest moral impression.”

Pp. 200-1

Friday, November 6, 2009

Gems from R.W. Dale - 2

Our second Dale gem from Nine Lectures on Preaching concerns the question of controversial preaching. And, I might add, all engaging in controversies.

“If you touch controversies… you ought to be quite certain that you understand the theories which you are attacking, and that you have mastered the grounds on which they rest. You ought, also, to be quite sure that you can reply – not to the weakest – but to the strongest argument by which they are supported. The serious beliefs of men ought to be discussed seriously and fairly. It is perfectly legitimate to illustrate the grotesque absurdity of a false speculation when we can prove it to be false; it is perfectly legitimate to kindle a generous indignation against an intellectual imposture if we have the knowledge and skill to unmask it; but to attempt to laugh it out of court without meeting their case, and to make passion take the place of reason, are shameful offences against the laws of intellectual honour and equity. I trust that the ethics of theological controversy are better understood by us than they were by our fathers; but theological controversialists, like controversialists of other kinds, are always under a strong temptation to seek fair ends by foul means. We have no right to secure the condemnation of the basest criminals by menacing the jury and bribing the judge. I do not believe in Lynch law, even for the worst crimes. It is dangerous to try to cast out devils in the name of Beelzebub the prince of the devils. We shall never fight the battles of Heaven to any purpose with arms forged in hell. To attempt to destroy even the most pernicious error by reckless misrepresentation, by appeals to ignorance and blind passion, by weapons poisoned with slander, is to repeat the crime of the Jesuits, who are credited with sanctioning the assassination of heretical princes. If you touch controversy, be just, be generous, to your opponents.”

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Gems from R.W. Dale - 1

The latter part of the 19th century was an age of great preachers. The names of Spurgeon, Maclaren, Parker and Dale are chief among the greats of the English pulpit in that era. R.W. Dale of Birmingham was one of the greats of the Congregationalists. He is best known for his able defence of the atonement. Spurgeon wrote of Dale: “Among modern divines, few rank as highly as Mr. Dale. Daring and bold in thought, and yet for the most part warmly on the side of orthodoxy, his works command the appreciation of cultured minds.” Thus Dale comes with Spurgeon’s commendation. Dale was a great preacher, and his book Nine Lectures on Preaching (Hodder and Stoughton, 1878) is worth its weight in gold. Dale’s prose style is excellent, and the lessons of this book are lessons that the 21st century needs as much as the 19th. If I had my way, every theological student would have to read this book. If it were widely read, it would vastly improve modern preaching. I intend to give a few select portions from this valuable work to encourage its reading. Dale was an Arminian, but that ought not to keep the Reformed theologian from reading him.
Our first quotation is a rather humorous story with a serious point.

“When you take a text be sure that it is in the Bible. A friends of mine now dead – a very eminent preacher – once made what has been described to me as a very fine sermon on some words which he imagined were in the Book of Proverbs. On Sunday morning, before starting for Church, he thought that it would be as well if he looked up the chapter in which he supposed the words occurred. To his dismay the words were not to be found. He turned to his ‘Cruden,’ but Cruden failed him. He was still confident that the words were in the Book of Proverbs, and when the critical moment came for beginning to preach, he began by saying something to this effect: ‘You will remember, my friends, the words of the wisest of kings’ – then he quoted his text and glided into his sermon as if he had innocently forgotten to say where the words of the wisest of kings occurred. Many a child in the congregation that afternoon hunted in vain through the Book of Proverbs and the Book of Ecclesiastes to discover the text of the morning. I think my friend would have done better if he had warned the people that though he thought the words were Solomon’s, he had not been able to find them, even with the help of a concordance. He discovered afterwards, I think, that the words were in one of the collects or prayers of the Anglican Prayer-book.” – P. 125