10 September 2010

Ignorance, or Unbelief?

by Phil Johnson

From time to time we pull classic comments up out of an old thread's combox. This is one of those:




    few years ago we had one of those long comment-threads driven mainly by the skepticism of a single persistent commenter. This guy was a character who posted under the pseudonym "Touchstone," and he continually questioned the authority and accuracy of Scripture—while insisting that he was a believer.

His assaults on Scripture were relentless. Answer one objection and he would immediately come back with two new ones. No matter how directly or thoroughly his arguments were defeated, he never even paused to acknowledge that an answer had been given. He just kept proposing new reasons to distrust what the Bible says.

When his pattern became clear, I suggested that he was either lying or self-deceived, but he was certainly no believer. I wrote, "someone who thinks the Bible is a human work, full of errors, and subject to an infinite number of possible interpretations, doesn't really believe in the truthfulness, authority, and perspicuity of Scripture in any meaningful sense."

It came to light several months later that I was exactly right: Touchstone was an atheist in the process of "coming out."

When I initially questioned his faith because of his incessant attacks on the truthfulness and authority of Scripture, several other commenters objected, suggesting I was trying to set the bar for saving faith too high. One wrote: Are you saying that a person can't be a believer in Christ if they don't believe in the innerrancy of Scripture?

My reply:

Ignorance is one thing; unbelief is another. I'm sure people become Christians without understanding the nuances of the hypostatic union. I don't question whether they are truly saved. But when someone comes along who actually does understand the basic idea and yet rejects the full deity or humanity of Christ, I would not regard that person as an authentic Christian.

That said, I don't think I would necessarily take the view that a strict inerrantist position is an essential aspect of Christian faith in the same sense that the apostle John suggests a sound doctrine of the incarnation is (1 John 2:22-23); or in the same sense Paul suggests both the lordship of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:3) and the doctrine of justification by faith are (Galatians 1:8-9). By that, I mean I wouldn't necessarily question the salvation of everyone whose notion of biblical infallibility doesn't quite measure up to the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy.

But clearly, there comes a point somewhere when a person's questioning the plain truth of Scripture ceases to reflect the weakness of an immature faith and instead becomes an expression of rank unbelief.

I think that point is reached sooner rather than later. The more someone questions Scripture, the more I question that person's profession of faith.

I deplore the tendency that has existed in every generation of church history to subject Scripture to the shifting trends of rationalistic hypotheses, behavioral theories, moral fads, academic novelties, and whatnot. That represents the worst kind of human arrogance—subjecting the eternal Word of God to the ever-changing measuring rod of human wisdom. It is the fruit of unbelief, and the history of the church reveals how deadly it is—even though it invariably infects the church through seemingly-benign people who profess to love Christ while subtly disagreeing with what He taught.

So when someone comes along whose main contribution to virtually every conversation tends to be an expression of distrust or disbelief regarding the historic Christian understanding of something Scripture seems to state plainly enough; and when that kind of skepticism becomes a hobby horse that they blog about constantly—I wouldn't take that person's profession of faith at face value. In fact, I think it's wrong to do so.

That's not to say such a person "can't be a believer in Christ." It's merely to say that it's folly to embrace such a person as a spiritual brother automatically just because he claims to be a Christian.

Phil's signature

40 comments:

Steve B said...

My, how very un-emergent of you!

My point of view is that you can call it whatever you want, but if you can't support it with Scripture, then it isn't Christianity.

Professing faith, but not being able to say in what, makes your testimony fairly suspect, IMHO.

"Having a form of godliness, but denying its power."

Keith said...

1 Peter 2:2-3 Like newborn infants, long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up into salvation-- if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good.

As soon as a regenerated person hears some new truth about our Lord or His Word, the Spirit testifies to the truth, and he drinks it down like mama's milk. If he's spitting up and pitching a fit, there's something wrong down inside.

Celestial Fundy said...

Keith, how do you then explain the wide variety of views of Christians on so many areas of doctrine?

Frank Turk said...

Celestial -

There is a great new book by Andreas Kostenberger called The Heresy of Orthodoxy. You should read it, and then afterward see wheter or not you would ask that question the way you just did.

Robert said...

I always wonder how many people are willfully ignorant and how many are just in bad churches. I always think back to the Beatitudes and how Jesus said that those who hunger and thirst for righteousness will be filled. Well, I have that hunger and thirst and it drives me to Scripture because it shows where I am lacking in it. I know that one day God will perfect me...when I am glorified (this just amazes me because I know what I really deserve).

I find that people who are willfully ignorant often turn out to be disbelieving as well. You'll hear something like "God is the god of love and wouldn't do that." I use little g there because that is an idol, not God.

Celestial Fundy said...

I dare say I might.

I'll put it on the long list of books I would like to read.

mikeb said...

Keith, how do you then explain the wide variety of views of Christians on so many areas of doctrine?

Sin!

Tom said...

Here's a question... I've recently been in discussion with a jewish friend of mine regarding the authority and inerrancy of Scripture. He's willing to grant this to the OT, but not to the NT for various reasons:

1) He rejects the divinity of Jesus and that He was the Messiah.
2) He believes the NT writers (particularly Paul and the writer of Hebrews) purposely twisted OT Scripture to create "Christianity" (e.g. Gal 3:16).
3) Therefore, he rejects the various statements w/in the NT that Christians typically use to assert the inspiration and inerrancy of NT Scripture.

So, my question is ... can you defend the inspiration and inerrancy of the NT using the OT? Or, is this not possible given that he outright rejects the divinity and messiahship of Jesus?

Tom

Frank Turk said...

Celestial --

Put it to the top of your list if you really want to know what kind of question you just asked, and what kind of answer this question deserves. The question of whether "orthodoxy" is some kind of unwarranted demand on modern people is a standard question today, and that book lays to rest what we ought to know and believe about the church of the first 300 years.

round.tuit said...

In the world of virtual reality a character can easily assume any number of identities, and feign said belief or cause. I have often questioned the impact that forums/blogs have for those who state that it is their "ministry" tool for witnessing. I am concerned what the future holds for a "multi-task", masked society consumed with self (myspace, facebook, blogs, tweets, twitters...). And no, I do not have a blog - nor the desire to figure out how to set up a profile.

Frank Turk said...

Tom --

If one concedes the NT, you get Jesus as Lord and Christ. If one concedes Jesus as Lord and Christ, you get the NT as Scripture.

There's no way someone who rejects Jesus as Lord and Christ will accept the inspiration of Scripture on the first pass. The question you should pose to him is whether or not the NT is historically reliable -- and it is. Get him the resources that that will convince him of this, especially the recent tome by Richard Bauckham Jesus and the Eyewitnesses.

If he accepts the NT -- especially the Gospels -- as reliable historical documents, you can have a meaningful discussion with him.

If he cannot do that, just preach the Gospel to him from the standpoint of the Law. We actually undersatnd the Law better than Israel does -- because we undersatnd what fulfills the law.

Ed Dingess said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Steve B said...

It's partly a question of faith, as well as the confirmation of the Spirit. Why do we take ANY of the Bible as inspired?

If we truly believe that Jesus was the Word of God, made flesh, and that in the beginning the Word was with God and WAS God, then the Old Testament are Jesus words every bit as much as the new.

I believe that the Old Testament was Sprit-breathed, but not the Book of Mormon. I believe the New Testament was inspired by God, but the Koran isn't.

I'm "informed" about all the books in question, but I "believe" only in the Bible. And I believe that this is because of the confirmation/discernment of the Holy Sprit.

A Jam C said...

Great post! This reminds me of a blog I stumbled upon. Without using anything from the Bible, a woman went on a very long rant about why "complementarianism sucks" in her opinion. I originally thought that she was a misguided Christian, but the more I looked into things the more I realized she wasn't a Christian at all.

The first thing I noticed was her support of homosexual marriage. Then I noticed a few other things and finally I realized that she didn't even believe in Christ being the only way to salvation.

I didn't start questioning her salvation at the point that I realized her unbelief in Christ being the only way. I started to question it waaaaay back when I found out she believed in homosexual marriage. Then, as things progressed it became clear that my suspicions were correct.

I think something similar is going on here. As you get more and more into things, it becomes clearer that the heart of a person is either regenerate or unregenerate. Touchstone started showing signs of an unregenerate heart early on and you were right to question his salvation.

Frank Turk said...

round.tuit --

that makes you part of the problem, doesn't it? Being an anony complainer?

:-) (-:

donsands said...

"..it invariably infects the church through seemingly-benign people who profess to love Christ while subtly disagreeing with what He taught."

My sister says she loves Jesus. And yet she is a Humanist, who rejects the OT, and embrace s portions of the NT: Sermon on the Mount, and any verse that says something about love and peace. But don't accept the verses on sin, holiness, hell, and judgment.
She actually represents so many in the Church.

I love my sister, and pray for her to come to Christ. Not her own christ.

Thanks for reposting this. Excellent words about Touchstone, and those who follow suit.

GW said...

Could it be possible that the person who said the following is a Christian?

It is my obligation … as a Christian, to remain open to the possibility that my unwillingness to support gay marriage is misguided… I must admit that I may have been infected with society’s prejudices and predilections and attributed them to God; that Jesus’ call to love one another might demand a different conclusion; and that in years hence I may be seen as someone who was on the wrong side of history. I don’t believe such doubts make me a bad Christian. I believe they make me human, limited in my understandings of God’s purpose and therefore prone to sin. When I read the Bible, I do so with the belief that it is not a static text but the Living Word and that I must be continually open to new revelation – whether they come from a lesbian friend or a doctor opposed to abortion.

Judge the words without knowing who said it.

round.tuit said...

Frank, Do you not see a crash coming?? Mine was not a complaint, but rather a statement. Anyway, can you trust an ID in the world of virtual reality? Now, how should I respond to your comment to me? Tit for tat?

Travis said...

Tom said...
“Here's a question... I've recently been in discussion with a Jewish friend of mine…”

Tom,

The authority and inerrancy of the OT was established when those that claimed to be the mouth piece of God were tested and found true in their claims (Deut 13 and 18). This was either by miracle or fulfilled prophecy. Based on the authority that they had, given by God, their writings had that authority and inerrancy as well (immediate canonization). It didn’t matter if they like them personally; there was no question to what they were writing. These men were Spirit led speaking the Word of the Lord. It wasn’t until the succession of these writing prophets stopped that the canon of the OT was closed. They knew it was closed based on the writings in the intertestament period - there were no more scrolls being added to the Law and the Prophets. All this to say God does not change this when we enter the NT.

We have men, apostles, claiming to be the mouthpieces of God (Jesus Christ); these claims are back up and proven by signs and miracles. If these men were, as the NT states, being carried by the Holy Spirit than their authority is passed on to their writings as well (like it was in the OT). The problem is accepting the testimony of these apostles in the line of the Old Testament prophets? Your friend is faced with the dilemma of, if they are than what they are writing is authoritative and without error (whether we like it or not) and Jesus is who the Scriptures (Old and New) say He is.

Sir Aaron said...

GW:

IMHO, it is bad form to pass judgement on one's salvation purely based on a random anonymous quote that I can neither verify nor read in its full context. I could pass judgement on some of the obvious errors in the text presented, but what's the point? To gin up controversy? Is that your purpose?

DaveS said...

G.W. said, “Could it be possible that the person who said the following is a Christian?"

Having read his book, I would say this person is more concerned with conforming to the expectations of society than the expectations of scripture. On that basis I would doubt their commitment to Christ.

"And Jesus said unto him, No man, having put his hand to the plough, and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God."

Given his background I doubt he has ever been exposed to authentic Christianity, but I don't think that makes him a muslim. :)

Truth Unites... and Divides said...

A Jam C: "I didn't start questioning her salvation at the point that I realized her unbelief in Christ being the only way. I started to question it waaaaay back when I found out she believed in homosexual marriage. Then, as things progressed it became clear that my suspicions were correct.

Touchstone started showing signs of an unregenerate heart early on and you were right to question his salvation.
"

Good comment, sir.

Follow-on: Is it okay to question Obama's salvation and whether he is a Christian?

Eric said...

Do we really want to start playing the game of "is (insert the name of well know person here) really saved?"? That exercise hardly seems wise or profitable, and seems to me to miss the point of Phil's post.

Truth Unites... and Divides said...

Eric,

Phil Johnson wrote at the very end of his boxed comment:

"It's merely to say that it's folly to embrace such a person as a spiritual brother automatically just because he claims to be a Christian."

Obama claims to be a Christian. (Also, look back again at "A Jam C's" comment.) There are some indicators about Obama whereby Phil's statement about it being folly to automatically embrace Obama as a spiritual brother just because Obama claims to be a Christian rings true.

Eric said...

Truth...,

I certainly don't dispute that Phil's post has elements that are applicable to your question. But I did not get the feeling that Phil intended his post as a jumping off point for public speculation about the salvific status of any number of public figures. I was not saying that your question was wrong, per se, but rather I was suggesting that the line of speculation that appeared to be started was not particularly profitable, especially in that it can lead to more widespread speculation. Of course, you are free to disagree with me and feel that it is in fact profitable and that it does/would not lead to more widespread public speculation about others (Rick Warren, you name the public figure). I simply saw a line of conversation developing that I did not believe to be profitable, so I commented to that extent.

GW said...

@SirAaron It is not my intention to stir up anything. This is an honest question that I struggle with.

I don't feel that the quote is out of context and many more examples of similar thought from Mr. Obama can be found.

I did not like it the day that James Dobson indicated that he did not think Fred Thompson was a Christian, so I agree with people who say it is not wise to make a definitive statement about other people. That's why I tried to leave the name out.

I think it is interesting that the world's media members are the people posing the "Is Obama a Christian" question all of the time.

Cathy M. said...

"there comes a point somewhere when a person's questioning the plain truth of Scripture ceases to reflect the weakness of an immature faith and instead becomes an expression of rank unbelief"

This speaks to a heated discussion I've found myself in more than a few times recently concerning whether or not a certain well known cult member is a Christian. At some point it just reflects willful ignorance.

Sir Aaron said...

GW: it's out of context precisely because you didn't source it. You can't judge somebody on one comment. There is plenty of material on which to judge Obama's spiritual state and I don't see how it applies to this particular post.

joel said...

'That said, I don't think I would necessarily take the view that a strict inerrantist position is an essential aspect of Christian faith in the same sense that the apostle John suggests a sound doctrine of the incarnation is (1 John 2:22-23)'

Lately I have heard people mention that C.S Lewis was not an inerrantist, yet he is a very beloved figure in evangelicalism. I am not tempted to question his salvation on account because of this, but I do wonder how we should handle the subject of him. I don't know what kind of a church he attended but he must not have had the advantage of very good teachers, as many of us do. I am also uncomfortable with the thought that God would let one of his children live their entire life without such a vital anchor for their sole as the inerrancy of scripture, or any other dear doctrine for that matter.

I don't know of any scripture where God guarantees that each of his children will come to certain level of knowledge of him before they die. Perhaps, there in lies his command for clear biblical teaching.

Joshua Cookingham said...

I think in C.S. Lewis's case, he never outrightly denied Inerrency, he just remained ignorant of certain key parts(Creation, etc) That could also be blamed on the Spiritual whole of England at the time, which was not condusive to a study on the innerrancy of Scripture.

Celestial Fundy said...

Joshua, have you read CS Lewis' 'Reflections on Psalms'? I think it is hard to imagine a believer in the inerrancy of Scripture writing tha book.

Rob Auld said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
GW said...

@SirAaron

I think I was clear that I was asking for opinions about the words and did not want to judge the person.

I really dislike the attitude that my question was out of bounds. I'm sorry that you have been offended. Thanks for the open and frank discussion.

GW said...

@SirAaron

I think I was clear that I was asking for opinions about the words and did not want to judge the person.

I really dislike the attitude that my question was out of bounds. I'm sorry that you have been offended. Thanks for the open and frank discussion.

Sir Aaron said...

GW:

I'm not offended. But your first question was: "Could it be possible that the person who said the following is a Christian?

Now a few people here immediately recognized the quote as being from Obama. I did not. The theological problems with the quote you provided are obvious. But it would be impossible to judge somebody's overall spiritual state or even their theological bent based on one quote.


And I still am not sure what the relationship is to the main post. I'm really trying to understand what your point is. Maybe you can enlighten me.

GW said...

Original Article was about Touchstone whose “assaults on Scripture were relentless” , he “kept proposing new reasons to distrust what the Bible says”. About this person the original article said the point (of unbelief) is reached sooner rather than later. The original article said “The more someone questions Scripture, the more I (Phil Johnson) question that person's profession of faith.”


Obama has assaulted the scripture numerous times but to list them all would be a ridiculous amount of text for a combox. I assure you if you look for them you can find them. The “When I read the Bible, I do so with the belief that it is not a static text but the Living Word and that I must be continually open to new revelation” part of the quote I included is indicative of someone who distrust what the Bible says.


I do not think the question or quote is off topic as you seem to want to suggest. Maybe you should summarize what you think the article is about if you want to insist that I am missing the point.
Now the mainstream media loves to try to get Christians on record saying they indeed they doubt that Obama is a Christian because they would like to use it as a wedge, so most Christians do not want to go there. My question is that if it is obvious that Touchstone was an unbeliever why is it crazy to question Obama’s belief?

Sir Aaron said...

GW:

I'm glad I asked, because I would never have gotten to your point otherwise. I think you would have been better served if you had posted your last response first.

Anyways, with respect to Obama, it'c clear to me that he is certainly not a believer. But most people are questioned not because anybody cares about his faith, but because it some sort of political trap to make his detractors out to be crazies. If I was asked on TV about his faith, I'd seriously have to think about my answer as Jesus did when people tried to trap him.

I pretty much have doubts about any Democrat being a believer, right off the bat. Besides the general incompatiblity of the democrat platform with Christianity, the last 12 Presidents, six were Democrat and six were Republicans. Of the six Democrats, four of them had torrid sexual affairs while in office (the exceptions being Truman and Carter). None of the Republicans had affairs.

GW said...

Sorry SirAaron, but I still cannot follow what it is I have misposted or how I have missed the main point of the article.

I would not dismiss all of these people because they belong to the Democratic party or because they sin. We all sin and fall short of the righteousness of God.

Unlike the previous presidents you mention, Obama likes to tee off on the Bible from time to time. That really sets him apart in my mind.

Sir Aaron said...

Obama seems worse because he is before us now. Read your history and you'll see how many of the other Democrat Presidents shrouded their liberal policies in Biblical lingo.

Obama also seems worse because we have blatant theological statements which clearly show the fruit of unbelief. But others claimed to be Christian and acted far worse behind the scenes.

I really do tire of people using the fact that we are all sinners as an excuse to justify rampant immorality and heresy by those who claim to be Christian.

Steve B said...

Brings to mind the verses about the wheat and the tares, Matt 13:29.

If we spend too much time trying to zero in on who may or may not be a Christian, we lose our focus on what is important: feeding those who are, or who may become.

Clearly we need to be discerning, in that we don't take our spiritual guidance or mentoring from those who don't know Christ, but at the same time, God alone is the judge of the state of a person's salvation.

Yes, oppose error and false teaching, but remain focused on ministering to those in whom your efforts will bear fruit, and shun those who it will not.

By their fruits shall you know them. Works both ways!