The Southgate Fellowship Affirmations and Denials

While our Reformed churches haven’t been lax in doing mission, we certainly haven’t been prolific in writing about it.  Our work in the area of missiology (the study of mission) has been notoriously miniscule.  This is a shame for two reasons.  First, Reformed theology has a lot to offer the field of missiology in general.  Second, in the last half-century there have been some deeply concerning developments in this field which Reformed theology is well-equipped to address.  These developments are not just theoretical, but have an immense practical bearing.  Not only would our churches and their missionary activities benefit from more Reformed missiological reflection, so would many other Christians.

To that end, I’d like to introduce you to a document developed by The Southgate Fellowship (TSF).  As they describe themselves,

TSF is a fellowship of theologians, missiologists, and reflective practitioners fully committed to the visible church and her Christ-appointed mission.  In obedience to Christ and his Word, TSF exists to advance biblical thinking and practice in world mission, as captured in the solas of reformational theology.

TSF started meeting in 2016 and participants hailed from Canada, the United States, and Europe.  The TSF Council consists of several men, three of whom are affiliated with the Presbyterian Church of America, two are (Reformed) Baptists, one is an Anglican, and one is from the Christian Reformed Church in North America.

This year, TSF published its “Affirmations and Denials Concerning World Mission.”  This document was published in the journal ThemeliosIt’s also readily available on the TSF website.  This document (hereafter AD) contains 100 sets of affirmations and denials on a host of contemporary missiological issues.  Some of those issues include:  the authority and nature of the Bible as revelation from God, extra-biblical revelation (such as dreams), contextualization, whether salvation is possible apart from Jesus Christ, and the relationship between word and deed ministry.

I have great appreciation and approval for almost all of AD.  What I appreciate most is that it begins with a high view of the authority of Scripture:

We affirm that Scripture authoritatively and uniquely reveals and explains the meaning of the redemptive work of God in history, centering in and accomplished by Jesus Christ, and provides authoritative and sufficient instruction for faith and obedience, including authoritative and sufficient instruction for faithful dissemination of that unique message. (1e)

AD presents a view of Scripture which every Reformed believer ought to affirm – one which is in full agreement with what we confess in the Belgic Confession.  This is solid rock on which to build the rest of the affirmations and denials.

For example, the word “uniquely” implies that no other “sacred text” is in the same category:

We deny that one can pick aspects of the non-biblical sacred texts and declare them in any way to be Holy Spirit-inspired.  (12d)

Furthermore, the Bible alone is God’s ordinary means of salvation.  Then what about dreams or visions?

We affirm that if God were to use extraordinary means today (e.g. miraculous events, dreams or visions), that these occurrences should be interpreted providentially either as pre-evangelistic praeparatio [preparation], uncommon tools in God’s hand for sovereignly drawing people to himself, or as divinely purposed tools for hardening unbelievers in their unbelief.  (15a)

I appreciate how AD seeks to do justice both to the unique nature of the Bible as well as the reports one sometimes reads of how people are drawn in through unusual means.

There are many more positive points I could mention, but I want this brief overview to give you a taste so you’ll go and check it out for yourself.

I also want to highlight a couple of areas that could be problematic.  Even though AD is long, it still lacks a lot of context.  There are points where I wish there was further explanation.  This is especially in the section on ecclesiology (the doctrine of the church).  For example, I put a question mark behind this statement:

We affirm the value of working across denominational boundaries (within or without mission agencies), according to biblical principles of ecumenism.  (77a)

My question would be:  what are “biblical principles of ecumenism”?  How are those defined?

Similarly, in the same section, there are affirmations and denials regarding the relationship of churches to mission agencies and parachurch organizations.  Two worth noting:

We affirm that visible churches bear the primary responsibility for the theological, moral, and ministry-method oversight of missionaries. (75a)

We affirm that the visible church has the primary responsibility to recruit, mobilise and send individual church members into mission. (75b)

The qualifier “primary” is what grabs my attention here.  Why not “exclusive” responsibility?  If we’re working from a biblical perspective, isn’t it the church (and only the church) which sends out, supervises, and supports missionaries?  Also, I’m perplexed about the use of the plural ‘churches’ in 75a and the use of the singular ‘church’ in 75b – I’m not sure if there’s a fine theological point being made there.

While I’m generally appreciative of the section on culture, there seems to be an overstatement of its relationship to religion.  Affirmation 87a reads:

We affirm that the word ‘culture’ is used generally to describe the shared set of artefacts, characteristics, meanings, and values that give shape to the total corporate life of a group of people.

That’s a fairly conventional definition for our day.  I would note the mention of “artefacts” – this is referring to things like eating utensils, cooking implements, and musical instruments.  Older definitions of culture by Reformed theologians like Klaas Schilder often ignored this aspect of culture, so I’m glad it’s included here.  But these statements then raise questions:

We affirm that culture and religion are interrelated, interdependent and inseparable, the latter informing the former.  (90a)

We deny that any facet of human culture may truly be a-moral, a-theological, or a-religious. (90b)

I wonder: if chopsticks are a facet of human culture, how are they, in themselves as material artefacts, related to religion?  It seems to me that their use is what ties them to religion, i.e. whether you use them to eat to the glory of the true God.  This could use some clarification.

As mentioned, it’s a long document and it’s easy to identify under-explained statements.  There are also things barely mentioned or not at all.  I would like to see more about the historic creeds and confessions.  They’re mentioned in the section on the Trinity (22a), as well as in 71a’s affirmation about how local theologians should be accountable to “formulations of the Christian faith.”  This is good, but I wish there was more.  I also wish that AD had statements regarding worship and the place of women in mission.

Overall, AD is as faithful and comprehensive statement on mission as I’ve seen from a biblical perspective.  In 1999, the World Evangelical Fellowship Missions Commission released its Iguassu Affirmation.  While that statement had some biblical content, it doesn’t measure up to what the Southgate Fellowship has produced.  Any Reformed believer interested in mission (which should be all of us!) ought to read and study these Affirmations and Denials.  Perhaps it will stimulate the further development and expression of Reformed missiology in our circles and beyond.

Book Review: Understanding Scientific Theories of Origins (Part 1)

Creation Without Compromise

Understanding Scientific Theories of Origins: Cosmology, Geology, and Biology in Christian Perspective, Robert C. Bishop, Larry L. Funck, Raymond J. Lewis, Stephen O. Mosher, John H. Walton.  Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2018.  Hardcover, 659 pages.

This massive volume attempts to make a theological and scientific case for theistic evolution.  It might be appropriate to describe it as the theistic evolution “Bible.”  All the authors are Wheaton College faculty and the material in the book is drawn from a Wheaton general-education science course, SCI 311 Theories of Origins.  Of the five authors, only one (John Walton) is a theologian; the others are scientists.

I am not a scientist and therefore not really qualified to interact meaningfully with many of the scientific claims made in Understanding Scientific Theories of Origins (USTO).  I am going to limit myself to evaluating and interacting with the biblical and theological claims.  While reading, I did…

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One of a Kind

I met Jason in my second year of university.  He was in one of my English classes, often arriving early to talk with me about his religious questions.  One day, Jason was waiting with a common objection:  “Hey, aren’t all religions pretty much the same?  You’ve all got a god, you’ve got a holy book, you’ve got priests and stuff.  To me it all looks the same.  It probably wouldn’t make any difference if I was a Sikh or a Christian.  Seems to me you all worship the same god.”  When we encounter such an objection, we might be caught off-guard.  After all, many Christians aren’t that familiar with other religions.  So how do we go about giving an answer to people like Jason?

Christianity is Unique

Knowledge about other religions is often minimal among Christians.  We might know something about Judaism from the Bible, perhaps something about the major cults from our high school Bible classes, and maybe a few things about Islam because of its connection to world events of the last two decades.  But other than that, how much do you really know about Hinduism, Sikhism, or Buddhism?

Furthermore, how do we show that all these religions are false and that only Christianity is the true religion?  You might do that by showing that the major religions contradict one another.  For example, Islam says that Jesus was merely a prophet, whereas Christianity teaches that Jesus was God come in the flesh for the rescue of sinners.  In certain circumstances, that method could have value, but it does require a bit of knowledge of all the individual religions.

There’s a better way.  This way doesn’t require as much study.  We can emphasize the positive point that Christianity is unique – unique in its central message and unique in how it explains the world in which we live.  Other religions, on the other hand, are actually all quite similar to each other in these respects.

The Message of Islam

Take Islam for example.  Faithful Muslims must adhere to the five pillars in order to be taken into paradise with Allah.  The five pillars of Islam are: profession of faith (shahada), prayer (salat), almsgiving (zakat), fasting (sawm), and pilgrimage (hajj).  Even if these are followed, Allah may arbitrarily decide that the works you did were not enough and you may be consigned to hell.  This Islamic fatalism is what prevents any Muslim from having personal assurance of salvation – the only exception is for a martyr.  That contrasts with true Christianity which rejects salvation by works.  As Christians, we can also have the comfort of personal assurance.  Salvation is initiated by God and guaranteed by God (Romans 8:15-17).  Christians never have to second-guess their salvation.

The Message of Hinduism

Salvation in Hinduism doesn’t mean the same thing as in Christianity.  For a Hindu, to be saved is to be released from the endless cycle of birth, death, and rebirth.  It means to become one with Brahman, the greatest of the many thousands of Hindu gods.  This “salvation” is achieved through one of three means:  1) through the knowledge that you are actually already God; 2) through worship of a particular deity (any one you choose); or 3) through following ceremonial rituals.  You can pick, but in any circumstance you’ll have to do something to achieve Hindu “salvation.”  It’s achieved by human works.  Hinduism isn’t unique in that way – it’s no different than Islam or Roman Catholicism, or for that matter, Judaism or Sikhism.  All of them exemplify religions focussed on human effort.

The Message of Biblical Christianity is Unique

Only Christianity teaches that God graciously provides salvation as a free gift.  All other religions teach that the way to God is through your own deeds.  In our witnessing to others, this is one of the only things we really need to know.  We need to know that Christianity is different – it’s the only religion which teaches that human beings can’t save themselves.  Human beings can’t save themselves because they’re wretched sinners both by conception and by action.  We’re incorrigible rebels against God.  Of ourselves, we’re bags of flesh which have assumed room temperature.  Nothing a corpse can do can save it from the grave.  Someone else must intervene.  That someone else is God through his Son Jesus and through the mighty work of the Holy Spirit.  Indeed, the cross is what makes Christianity unique.  The cross speaks of human weakness and inability — but at the same time of God’s divine power to save.  Regeneration is also what makes Christianity unique.  The Holy Spirit unilaterally comes to a cold dead heart of stone and miraculously turns it into a heart of flesh which believes.  In short, sovereign grace is what makes Christianity entirely unique!

But Wait, There’s More!

The story shouldn’t end there.  Unbelievers may be impressed with our answer to this point, but it doesn’t tell the whole story.  Not only is Christianity unique in its central message of sovereign grace, it’s also unique in other ways.  These are ways which demonstrate the foolishness of unbelief.  This is the clincher in our discussions with people like Jason.  We may have shown that Christianity is unique, but that doesn’t really in itself present a compelling reason for any unbeliever to throw down his weapons and surrender.  Christianity’s uniqueness, by itself, doesn’t demonstrate its truth.  If we can show that Christianity is the only way our world can be adequately explained, then the only thing which prevents the unbeliever from repenting and believing is his own hardness of heart.

It can be demonstrated that only Christianity can explain our world and the way it really is.  Take laws of morality for instance.  Muslims can’t adequately account for absolute laws of morality.  Why not?  Because Allah is capricious and arbitrary himself.  Allah’s character is not what defines right or wrong.  He is not absolute.  However, within the Christian worldview, we account for absolute laws of morality by looking to the absolute character and nature of the Triune God.  He never changes.  From age to age he remains the same.  So does his moral law, which reflects his character.  The Christian relies upon absolute laws of morality and can also justify or account for his reliance.  The Muslim may speak about laws of morality as being absolute and may behave accordingly, but he’s inconsistent at that point with his professed religion.  Though claiming to be wise, he will have been shown to be otherwise (Romans 1:22).

Only Christianity Can

This can be extended to every other non-Christian religion.  Only Christians can speak of a Triune God who is both absolute (transcendent) and personal (immanent).  There is no other like him (Micah 7:18).  Only such a God as ours can provide the basis for reality as we observe and experience it.  In Colossians 2:3, we find that all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge are hid in Christ.  In Acts 17:28 it says, “In him [the true God], we live and move and have our being.”  Only the God of the Bible can provide the foundations upon which rest the laws of logic, morality, mathematics, and science.  Christianity is true because it is impossible for it to be false.

Now when I argued this way all those years ago, I didn’t persuade Jason.  The last time I saw him he’d invented his own religion.  His heart wasn’t changed by the Holy Spirit.  However, I still think about him and pray for him.  I pray that God will one day bring the right moment with the right means and give him a miraculous heart transplant.  Our arguments are just tools in God’s hands and he works as he pleases with them.  Nevertheless, our calling is to be faithful and always ready to give an answer to anyone who asks us about our hope in Christ (1 Peter 3:15).  Let’s honour Christ the Lord as holy by always proclaiming the uniqueness of who he is, what he’s done, and what he’s given us.

FRC Launceston Wednesday Evening Message — Colossians 1:21-23

The Darkness Has Not Overcome It

“All right, so this passage shows Jesus’ lordship and control over all creation.”  Bill glanced at his watch.  It was already 3:45 and his class started at 4:00.  It was at least a 10 minute walk across the campus.  “Are there any questions?”  Bill hoped that the passage was clear enough to Victor, the only visitor at the Bible study.  The group of four sat in silence staring at their Bibles briefly.  Then Peter spoke up, “Well, there aren’t any questions, I guess we can close in prayer.  Steve, could you close with us?”  During the prayer, Bill felt his stomach tighten.  The next two hours were going to be rough.  As Steve finished, Bill added a few extra words asking God to strengthen him for what was coming.

“Well, I’d love to stick around and talk, but I really gotta get going.  My class starts in 10 minutes.  See ya!”  Bill walked briskly into the cold October air.  The darkening dusk added to the tension in Bill’s body.  He quickly ran through in his mind the topic for the Intellectual History seminar.  He thought of whether he should just keep his mouth shut.  “Maybe,” he thought, “maybe I should just go home and skip.”  But then he remembered how many classes he’d already missed.  It wasn’t an option.

In the seminar room, the prof and most of the students were already seated.  The professor, Dr. Hamowy, was a short man, but he compensated for his stature with an antagonistic personality and sharp tongue.  He gloried in debate and loved the thrill of the attack.  Bill took his place at the end of the long table, opposite Hamowy.  With two minutes left, Bill quickly reviewed the book to be discussed.  A couple more students drifted in – it was time.

“Okay, today we’re looking at Dostoevsky.  You guys’ll like this.  Always creates a good debate.  Who’s giving the introduction?  Miss Hogan?  All right, go ahead.”  Hogan launched into it.  Bill had heard her talking with some of the other students and she mentioned something about going to a Lutheran church.  Could she be a Christian?  Bill listened intently.  Not a word about Dostoevsky and Christianity.

“Thanks, Miss Hogan, but that was rather superficial.  I’m wondering, why didn’t you mention anything about Dostoevsky and Christianity?”

Hogan’s face bleached.  “Umm…I just didn’t think it was that important.”

“Miss Hogan, did you even read the book?”

“Sure, but I didn’t really see anything religious.”

“Miss Hogan, next time you better do a closer reading of the book.  If you’d thought about it or even done some research, you’d see we can’t understand this thinker apart from religion.  Come on guys, get your act together.”

The first part of the class was over.  It was now completely dark outside.  “Okay, let’s get the discussion going here.  We’re especially interested in what Dostoevsky has to say about the problem of evil.  You’ve read the book, so you should know that Dostoevsky approaches the problem religiously.  Open your books to page 240 and we’ll start reading that second paragraph and go to the end of the following page.  Mr. Kosinski, could you read it for us?”

Bill opened his copy of The Brothers Karamazov and followed along.  Ivan was complaining to his brother Alyosha:  “People sometimes talk of bestial cruelty, but that’s a great injustice and insult to the beasts; a beast can never be so cruel as a man, so artistically cruel.  I’ve collected a great deal about Russian children, Alyosha.  There was a little girl of five who was hated by her father and mother…”  Ivan went on to describe how this little girl had been horribly abused by her parents.  He concluded by asking Alyosha if he would design the world in such a way that little children suffer so terribly.

Kosinski stopped reading and looked up.  Hamowy started the discussion.  “Okay, what’d you guys think of this?”  Silence.  “Come on, somebody must be thinking in this room!”  More silence.  Bill felt his stomach tighten more.  He leaned against the table and slightly pulsated back and forth with the rhythm of his thumping heart.  One of the other students raised his hand.

“Good, Mr. Bosley.  You’d like to comment?”

“Yeah, this book pretty much nails it right on.  How could anybody believe in God when there’s so much evil in the world?  Think of the Holocaust, all those Jews dying, where was God then?  How could anyone believe in a powerful good God who could control all this evil, but doesn’t?”

“Thank you, Mr. Bosley.  Anyone else?  Surely you don’t all agree with Mr. Bosley?”

It was time for Bill to strike.  He slowly raised up his hand, but Evans beat him to it.

“Okay, Miss Evans, enlighten us.”

“I agree.  Believing in a good God in a world where there’s suffering is completely illogical.  I don’t get all these god-freaks.  Are they even thinking with their brains?  We aren’t going to get anywhere in dealing with evil as long as those brain-dead ideas are around.  We’d be better off with something like when we’re all god and we all work together.”

“All right, thanks Miss Evans.  There seems to be a consensus developing.  What’s wrong with you guys?  Mr. Gordon, I saw your hand.  What do you think?”

Finally, Bill had his opportunity.  “It intrigues me that everyone agrees there’s such a thing as evil and wickedness.”  Bill’s heart beat faster and harder and his voice trembled.  “I’d like to just ask a question to all of you:  can we all agree that sexually abusing children is absolutely immoral?”

Most students nodded their head in agreement.  Only Bagchee didn’t.

“Mr. Bagchee, you disagree with Gordon?  Why?”

“Well, there may be some societies where adults having sex with children is completely normal.  In my country, in some of the cultures, it was at one time custom to make mothers sleep with their boys.  In other cultures, teenage girls must be deflowered by tribal leaders to prepare for their arranged marriage.”

Hogan couldn’t restrain herself.  “I think that’s completely disgusting!  Sexual abuse is wrong no matter what!”

Dr. Hamowy smiled as the class finally heated up.  “Miss Evans, you have something to add?”

“Yeah, Subhash you can say that about your country or other cultures, but what if part of their culture was to smash their children’s head against rocks while sexually abusing them, would that be okay too?  And what if it was you or your child?”  Bagchee shrugged.

“Mr. Gordon, where’d you want to go with this?

“Well, pretty much everyone agrees there’s an absolute moral rightness or wrongness to certain things, like sexually abusing children or brutally murdering them.”  Bill’s voice was quivering again.  “But when you ask how can there be a God with so much evil in the world, you’ve missed the hidden assumption in your question – that there is such a thing as evil.  And the fact that you get upset about evil in the world shows that in your hearts you know there is such a thing as absolute good and evil.  But when you deny the God of Christianity, you deny the possibility of there even being absolute right and wrong.  Apart from God, morality is an individual or cultural matter, and like Subhash’s examples, sexually abusing children could conceivably be acceptable.  But we’ve agreed that it’s absolutely not.  When you ask the question, you’re stuck.  You’ve betrayed yourself and the real nature of your problem with Christianity.”

“Umm, thanks Mr. Gordon.  Okay, what’d the rest of you think of those comments?”

Kosinksi leapt in again.  “Yeah, I think Bill’s wrong.  You’ve got a contradiction in your idea here.  You say God is good.  You say God is powerful, right?”  Bill nodded.  “But you say evil exists!  You’ve got a contradiction, ‘cause if God was all-good and all-powerful, there’d be no bad stuff.  So, ya see, Christianity isn’t so true after all.”

Bill thought carefully for a moment.  “Joe, you just said God is all-good and I completely agree with that – it’s found in the Bible.  His character defines right and wrong.  God is all-good and because I’m a Christian, I look at everything in the light of that.  And so when I see evil, I can be consistent by inferring God has a morally good reason for the evil we see around us.  Any evil we see must somehow fit with God’s goodness.  Look at Jesus for example.  Jesus was crucified.  It was an act of evil – he was 100% innocent.  But the cross fit in with God’s good plans to rescue those who’d believe in him.  God therefore has a good reason for the wickedness in the world and there’s no contradiction.  It all fits.”

Bill took a long deep breath and carried on.  “But within the non-Christian way of looking at the world, you can’t justify your contradiction between having absolute moral standards and not having an absolute source for those standards.  If all we are is ooze, what difference does it make if one glob of ooze sexually abuses another glob of ooze?  Who cares?  Only with Christianity can absolute standards of good and evil have any meaning.  And I think that was the point Dostoevsky was trying to make too.”

“Okay, thanks Mr. Gordon.  Anyone have anything to say?  Mr. Bosley?”

“Yeah, this is stupid.  What about the influence of Dostoevsky on feminist scholarship?”

The rest of the seminar rambled in inanities.  Bill’s heart-rate and blood pressure were still coming down 20 minutes later when the class ended.  As he got up to leave, he tried to make eye contact with some of the other students.  He made his way out and walked down the hall of the history department.  Hogan came up behind him and stopped him. “Bill, I really liked all those things you said.  That was really good.”  “Thanks.”  He walked away wondering why no one ever spoke up in class to support him.  As he stepped out into the chilly darkness, he still felt the aching of his chest and the tightness in his stomach.  The only thing not bothering him was his conscience.