Monday, January 07, 2008

Spiritual Warfare against Uncertainty

Over New Year, I read John MacArthur’s (2007) The Truth War: Fighting for Certainty in an Age of Deception. The inclusion of the theme of certainty in the subtitle, as well as the general focus upon truth, makes this book of particular relevance for my literature review of evangelical publications which condemn the notions of truth at work in what I’m now calling the ‘emerging church milieu.’

Revealingly, in his subtitle MacArthur does not contrast certainty with uncertainty, but rather with “deception.” For him, not knowing is a form of unbelief and unbelief among church leaders deceives others. He writes that, “It is unbelief cloaked in a religious disguise and seeking legitimacy as if it were merely a humbler kind of faith” (xvi) and, “Advocating ambiguity, exalting uncertainty, or otherwise deliberately clouding the truth is a sinful way of nurturing unbelief” (xi). MacArthur therefore sets out to show not only the certainty of Christian truth (i.e. that “we can be supremely confident, even in this era of doubt and uncertainty” [51]) but the nature of uncertainty as unbelief.

Though the “Emerging Church Movement” is explicitly mentioned as the target of this book’s unfriendly fire, MacArthur does not engage in a thorough examination of the emerging church milieu. Rather, he limits himself to a few texts, primarily Brian McLaren’s (2004) Generous Orthodoxy, and (2001) A New Kind of Christian, Stanley Grenz and John Franke’s (2001) Beyond Foundationalism, and makes minor references to Andy Crouch’s (2004) ‘The Emergent Mystique,’ Donald Miller’s (2003) Blue Like Jazz, and Rick Warren’s (1995) The Purpose-Driven Church.

While MacArthur states that “Truth never changes with the times, but heresy always does” (100) and is clear that such heresies include Judaizers (85-88), Gnosticism (88-94), Sabellianism (100-102), and Arianism (102-115), the contemporary heresy he identifies in this book is blurred, as both the emerging church and mainstream evangelicalism are criticised.

At the conclusion of the book, contemporary evangelicalism is the clearer target: obsessed with PR and marketing approaches to packaging the gospel, overly concerned with methodology rather than theology in order to present itself as relevant and cutting edge, accommodating of political correctness, and catering to reduced attention spans (146-150, 152-154, 166).

But at the outset, the postmodernist uncertainty of the “Emerging Church Movement” is presented as the threat, where “The remodeling (sic) of our ideas about truth and certainty poses a severe danger to the heart and core of the Christian gospel” (xxiii). MacArthur states (rather than demonstrates – he does not engage any postmodernist theorists) that whilst “Postmodernists despise truth claims” (12), “Uncertainty is the new truth” (16). However, for MacArthur, both the “overconfident rationalism and human conceit” of modernity (10) and the irrationalism of postmodernity (13) are “dead wrong and equally hostile to authentic truth and biblical Christianity… Rationalism needs to be rejected without abandoning rationality” (13). Such an understanding of postmodernism, however, mistakes a desire to rethink human reason in late- or postmodernity for a wholesale rejection of reason and embracing of irrationalism.

For MacArthur, both the emerging church and the state of evangelicalism today require that “faithful Christians” (xxiv) respond through spiritual warfare, as “it is actually a sin not to fight when vital truths are under attack” (xxiv). Whilst MacArthur is not advocating physical war (28-32) – contrasting Christian spiritual warfare with Islamic (lesser) jihad and in the process ignoring Islam’s greater jihad which is spiritual in nature – he describes this warfare as “cosmic,… engaging the armies of hell, which are arrayed against Christ. Their weapons consist of lies of all kinds – elaborate lies, massive philosophical lies, evil lies that appeal to humanity’s fallen sinfulness, lies that inflate human pride, and lies that closely resemble the truth. Our one weapon is the simple truth of Christ as revealed in His Word” (49). For MacArthur, then, this war is a “Truth War” in the sense that it is a war fought against the untruth of others and a war fought with the weapons of truth.

Whilst this war is waged against evil ideas rather than against the people who believe them (180), such believers are explicitly and implicitly regarded by MacArthur as:

  • “trendy thinkers” (1)
  • “grossest hypocrite[s]” (37)
  • “false teachers” (42)
  • apostates (43-44)
  • “wolves in sheep’s clothing” (44)
  • “shallow and insincere people” (45)
  • “those who are immature, weak, ignorant, or cowardly” (48)
  • “satanic missionaries” (62)
  • “spiritual terrorists and saboteurs” (82)
  • “truth vandals” (97)
  • “ungodly” (136)
  • even lewd (120)
  • power hungry (143)
  • “proud” (143)
  • celebrities (169)
  • “confused” (178)
  • soiled underwear” (181)
  • “evil” (181)
  • and “no true friends of Christ” (184).

MacArthur writes, “Speaking plainly: if you are one of those who questions whether truth is really important, please don’t call your belief system ‘Christianity,’ because that is not what it is.” (xx) However, this is to misunderstand those within the emerging church milieu, who do not question the importance of truth, but rather question its nature.

MacArthur’s understanding of truth is stated as biblical in its content, its effects, and its nature. Thus, truth is “what God decrees (183), including “the doctrine of justification by faith, the principle of substitutionary atonement, and the absolute authority and perfect sufficiency of Scripture” (47). Secondly, truth is salvific: “Truth (the simple truth of the gospel, to be specific) is necessary for salvation” (119), and salvation is understood as personal – “truth is the only thing that can liberate people from the bondage of sin and give them eternal life” (119). Thirdly, truth is an objective reality. “Truth exists outside of us and remains the same regardless of how we may perceive it. Truth by definition is as fixed and constant as God is immutable. That is because real truth (what Francis Shaeffer called ‘true truth’) is the unchanged expression of who God is; it is not our own personal and arbitrary interpretation of reality… Such a self-willed approach to the truth is tantamount to usurping God” (xx-xxi). Truth is “the way things really are” (2) and “cannot be adequately explained, recognized, understood, or defined without God as the source” (4).

But MacArthur doesn’t actually prove this latter point, he just states it. He gives a very brief history of secular philosophy: Socrates, Plato and Aristotle (truth through nature), “DesCartes” (sic) (truth through reason), Locke (truth through the senses), Kant (truth through a combination of rationalism and empiricism), and Hegel (truth as progressive evolutions), whence the irrationalism of Kierkegaard, “Nietzche” (sic), Marx and Henry James flows (6-7). He then states that, “Elaborate epistemologies have thus been proposed and methodically debunked one after another… After thousands of years, the very best of human philosophers have all utterly failed to account for truth and the origin of human knowledge apart from God.” (7). However, there is no critical engagement with these philosophers in order to demonstrate their utter failure.

On the back cover, it is claimed that this book “reveals:

  • The pitfalls of postmodern thinking
  • Why the Emerging Church Movement is inherently flawed
  • Past skirmishes in the Truth War and their effect on the Church
  • The importance of truth and certainty in a postmodern society
  • How to identify and address the errors and false teachings smuggled into churches.”

I’m not sure The Truth War does these things to the degree hoped for by MacArthur – or even by myself, as there is not much here to get my teeth into in terms of an academic response.

MacArthur does not engage with postmodern thinking to a sufficient level to reveal its pitfalls, and does not even reference other scholars and theologians who have endeavoured to do so. His presentation of ideas within the emerging church milieu (restricted to roughly three texts, and conducted across relatively few pages) is likewise insufficient to provide a base understanding from which to demonstrate any flaws. While I agree MacArthur introduces the reader to four heresies (Judaizers, Gnosticism, Sabellianism, and Arianism) with a clarity that comes from their introductory nature, the effect of these heresies on the church is not treated with any historical or theological depth.

MacArthur signals the fervour among fundamentalists for truth and certainty in late- or postmodernity, and observes the apathy of many others concerning religious truth. He likewise paints broad brush strokes of postmodern approaches to truth. While the back cover claims MacArthur reveals the importance of truth and certainty in a postmodern society, MacArthur himself seeks to show the importance of his understanding of truth and certainty for a postmodern society. The ways in which he attempts to demonstrate this importance require the threat of damnation (133).

Finally, his advice for identifying false teachings and wolves in sheep’s clothing emphasises biblical discernment: “The only way to develop the discernment necessary for detecting such subtle error and correctly assessing its danger is by applying oneself conscientiously to the task of rightly dividing the Word of God” (133-134). I’m not completely sure what “dividing the Word of God” is, and MacArthur doesn’t feel the need to explain. Maybe it’s one of the many references to evangelical culture I don’t get. But elsewhere MacArthur is clearer: “God’s Word is plain enough” (157), “far more issues are black and white than most people realise” (195), there are “universally self-evident truths” (3), and “The true meaning of Scripture – or anything else, for that matter – has already been determined and fixed by the mind of God. The task of an interpreter is to discern that meaning’ (xxi). Whilst humanity cannot know God’s mind exhaustively, we can know it sufficiently to identify it’s opposite (183), as “Most of the truths of God’s Word are explicitly contrasted with opposing ideas” (195). Nowhere does he address contemporary literary theory in order to debunk the death of the author thesis.

MacArthur’s correspondence theory of truth and realist approach to language are signalled by this and other examples of his stance on biblical interpretation. These theories rest on ‘sure’ foundations, the construction of which as ‘true’ and ‘certain’ necessitate MacArthur’s association of uncertainty with untruth and unbelief, and therefore deception. He does not, however, critically examine any of these assumptions, and this is the main flaw of his work.


Anonymous said...

Hello Katherine,

You picked a very extreme fundamentalist writer to read which reflects a very American audience !!

I would imagine he would say that Gods disclosure of His truth is via revelation through the Holy Spirit not reason and it is the arrogance of man to reject His will. He does not need critical reason to examine this foundation or to engage in philosphical discussion.


Anonymous said...

PS there are specific warnings in the NT not to fall prey to vain philosphy.....

James Diggs said...

Thanks for the review of this book which is not something I think I could stomach to read myself. I have a few people in my life who often come at me armed with MacArthur, or Piper to try and correct my “heretical thinking”.

It seems to be that know matter how much MacArthur and others try to defend the “truth” they claim is God’s all they end up defending is the modern and western mindset at which they look at truth.

Postmodernity is not a perfect lens either, but until guys like MacArthur become self aware enough to recognize their own lenses they will never be able to distinguish their own subjective interpretation of “truth” from the so called objective truth they claim they have cornered the market on.

Thanks for the in depth review,



Katharine Moody said...

Skeptic, yeah, I agree that MacArthur's foundationalism is based upon revelation, and that this brackets out the need for critical reason.

Have you read Nancey Murphy's Beyond Liberalism and Fundamentalism: How Modern and Postmodern Philosophy Set the Theological Agenda?

She sets out quite clearly the different paths available to modern theology based on its modern philosophy - with conservative theological foundationalism based upon revelation, and liberal theological foundationalism based upon experience.

Although I haven't got to this part of the book yet, she also tackles the various options for conservative and liberal theology in postmodernity.

Katharine Moody said...

Hi James, do you know of any Piper texts I could look at to explore more conservative evangelical positions on truth in late- or postmodernity? I've not come across his name before. Maybe my friends don't consider me to be heretical enough?!? ;-)

James Diggs said...

Piper has not printed anything that I know of that takes on the emergent church or post modernity. He has made several comments at conferences and such against it; mostly propping up MacArthur’s work on the subject.

Piper was very put off about Steve Chalke’s book “the lost message of Jesus” because it rejected penal substitution. There used to be clip on Youtube about it but it’s not there anymore.

Overall while I don’t know of any definitive work by Piper about how he views truth apposed to a post modern world, his world view and lens are evident in all that he talks about. I don’t think you would find anything different in that regard than what you have found in MacArthur; his approach to truth is the same.

I haven’t read Nancey Murphy's Beyond Liberalism, it does sound interesting though. I do think that post modernity has also changed the way it looks at Christianity through liberalism as well. Some are calling this post-liberalism, but I have not read much about it- is this something Murphy's book explores? It sounds like a good read either way, I’ll have to check it out.



Katharine Moody said...

Do you think that Steve Chalke's rejection of penal substitution is why so many emerging church detractors talk about it, but I've yet to hear someone involved with emerging churches actually talk about Steve Chalke in the same way that evangelical critics such as D.A. Carson do.

Carson calls him 'influential' in the UK emerging church, and refers to him as a kind of correlative to Brian McLaren in the US. I don't think this is the case at all. So I was wondering if Chalke's rejection of penal substitution might be why so many emerging church critics talk about him. What do you think?

Anonymous said...

hello Katherine and James,

Piper I think is closely aligned with the probably the number one villian in the EC - 0'Driscoll.

Most people in the EC would reject penal substitution so Steve Chalke is not a contentious issue.

For those who view the reality of God as a work of fiction/fairytale any view of substition will do as all are irrelevant.

for the evangelical church penal substitution is a non-negotiable faith issue with major pastoral issues - when a major leader like Chalke uses the emotive term 'child abuse' to describe it it is bound to cause controvesy.


Anonymous said...

- church and pomo ae doing a series on caputo wwjd (first post is useless)

- a phrase called 'deep church' is starting to be mentioned more and more in EC blogs

- kester blogs about the demise of the word 'emerging church'

- a blog called kaleev hinrich has posted a review of wwjd

a few musings...

S (bored at work)

Katharine Moody said...

(bored at home) Just had a quick look at Adam Miller's post at church and pomo. The most food for thought comes from Clark West's comments about the monstrous.

Does Kester talk about the demise of the term 'emerging church' in a recent post? I couldn't find it. Can you cut and past me a URL?

James Diggs said...

I agree with Anonymous that “Piper is closely aligned with the probably the number one villain in the EC - 0'Driscoll”; and that “Most people in the EC would reject penal substitution so Steve Chalke is not a contentious issue.”

Also I think Kalev Hinrich is a real smart guy and I enjoy his blog and I am always honored when he comes around ours.

Also thanks for the heads up about the growing popularity of “Deep Church”