Foundations: No.75 Autumn 2018


Martin Salter

The Westminster divines wrote the following concerning the perspicuity of Scripture:

All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all: yet those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed for salvation, are so clearly propounded and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them.[1]

The genius in their work is in preserving the authority and perspicuity of Scripture, while at the same time making a distinction between what modern theologians have termed primary and secondary issues.

There are some issues pertaining to salvation upon which Scripture is abundantly clear – the divinity of the Son, his bodily resurrection, and his physical return to judge the living and the dead, for example. The person who denies such things must necessarily be denying the inspiration, authority and perspicuity of Scripture. Such a person ought to be called unorthodox and a heretic.

There are other issues however, which do not pertain directly to salvation, which are less clear. Citing Peter’s comments on Paul’s writings (2 Pet 3:16) the Confession acknowledges that some issues are not “alike clear unto all”. Historically such issues have included the proper subjects of baptism and the appropriate form of church government. More recently, most evangelicals have also included among secondary issues the age of the earth and the gifts of the Spirit. Most evangelical Christians are happy to affirm that though we may disagree on such issues we are still within the fold of historic orthodox Christianity.

While secondary differences can be hard to resolve, and often lead to more heat than light, the Confession’s understanding can lead us forward in charity and humility. As Baxter concluded in his Preface to The True and Only Way of Concord: “in the essentials, unity; in the non-essentials, liberty; in all things charity”.[2]

A charitable orthodoxy enables theologians (and journals) to permit hermeneutical exploration. This is not the same as to permit post-modern “free-play” with the text; to the contrary, it takes us back to a place of sola Scriptura. Too often our definitions of orthodoxy owe more to historical confessions than the authority of Scripture. Too often Christians in their uncharitable opposition over secondary issues demonstrate that their ultimate authority is not the word of God, but their own preferred theological confession. Confessions are useful summaries of faith, but are not infallible, and therefore theologians must be given liberty, under the authority of Scripture, to explore what the Scripture says on any given issue.

A charitable orthodoxy also fosters fellowship and respect. I might not agree with my brother or sister on their eschatology, but I recognise that they too are saved by grace, gifted by the Spirit, and enabled to contribute to discussions that seek to honour the name of Jesus and advance his cause. Liberty and charity are about more than a grudging recognition of the other; it is a place from which texts are read and ideas exchanged. It is a posture that respects the infinite worth of another, and their place and purpose in the Kingdom. As Vanhoozer and Treier note in a recent work, this sort of “operational catholicity” requires intentional effort, but is “vital for doing fully evangelical theology, for hearing and mirroring the apostolic Word”.[3] If Jesus is “not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters” (Heb 2:11) then nor should I be.

Finally, a charitable orthodoxy calls us to humility. We must recognise that we are not omniscient and infallible beings. There will be many things we do not know or have got wrong. We are saved by grace, not perfect theology. We are saved despite our erroneous thinking about many things. Praise be to God! Those things about which Scripture is clear we hold with a closed fist, contending for the faith and guarding against the wolves. But the things which are not alike clear unto all we must hold with an open hand, in an awareness that I might just be wrong on this one! I will be charitable toward those with whom I disagree, seeking to understand the best case of their argument in the best terms arising out of the best motives. I will not impugn malice or dishonesty. I will open a Bible with them face-to face, and I will pray with them, and for them, and ask them to do the same for me.

A theological journal should always be a place where brothers and sisters are permitted to contribute regardless of their positions on secondary issues. It should be a safe space for ideas to be offered, without fear of reprisal or unfair and unfounded accusation. Theology is about the glorification of God. It is about exploring more of what it means to know God and be known by God. Proper theology does not simply say “yes and amen” to the infallible reasoning of Christendom past – it says “yes, and but, what about…”. That is not heresy, but the faithful discharge of a call to “search the Scriptures” and to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength, and to love our neighbours as ourselves.

With this is mind the opening article in this edition addresses just some of these issues, as Jim Murkett considers the ecclesiological implications of perspicuity. In his article he argues, “there are numerous significant ways that the perspicuity of Scripture, particularly as it is outlined within the Westminster Confession of Faith, informs how we conceive of the church as one, holy, catholic and apostolic”. His close examination of the doctrine leads him to draw out some important practical conclusions for our conception of church today.

The second article, by James Midwinter, conducts a textual analysis of Jude 5 considering the question “who led the Israelites out of Egypt?” His consideration of the history of interpretation, combined with careful reflection of the evidence of the manuscripts presents a persuasive and compelling case, with important implications for our theology and preaching.

Third, Dr. David Kirk considers the place of the created world within the eschatological purposes of God. In considering Jeremiah’s book of consolation (Jer 30-33), Kirk argues that the creator’s purpose is renewal, not annhilation. The intertwining of covenant and creation demonstrates God’s perpetual commitment to his kosmos. This has significant implications for discipleship and mission today.

In the fourth article Heather Major makes a case for a more robust and considered contextual theology – that is theology that takes seriously location and experience; and theology that is lived not just discussed. She traces the implications for discipleship and mission using her own research as an example.

Fifth, Stephen Kneale considers the question of cultural assumption and urges us to think more carefully about cultural values. He takes as examples things like dress or time-keeping and notes the ways in which different class groups can “baptise” their own culture as biblical and dismiss another, without critically reflecting on the often-mixed nature of our culture-class experience.

In the final article of this edition Ian Shaw conducts a historical analysis of the ministry of George Müller, accessing previously unseen historical materials. Shaw also provides theological reflection on what he terms the “practical theology” of Müller.

It is my hope and prayer that you find these articles stimulating, provocative, and useful to your own ministries.

Martin Salter
November 2018


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