08 November 2011

The importance of "not"; or, Machen's zombies

by Dan Phillips

Listening to Moisés Silva's lectures on Galatians at Westminster sent me back to Galatians 1:1. I have long noted (as has everyone and his uncle) that Galatians is a "hot" letter, a letter that hits the ground running and is very aggressive, alarmed, and passionate in tone. The entire first chapter makes that impression with crystal clarity, and Paul really doesn't let up until he has thrown down the quill.

But here I single out the very first three words in the letter: Παῦλος ἀπόστολος οὐκ. To break them down, we have:
  1. Παῦλος (Paulos) — his name, "Paul."
  2. ἀπόστολος (apostolos) — his office, "an apostle," a plenipotentiary of Christ, speaking on His behalf and with His authority.
  3. οὐκ (ouk) — "not."
Third word is "not." That didn't take long. No other letter starts like that.  "Paul, apostle —not..."

To open up the impact of this abrupt negation, I offer the podium at length to a guest writer. Sir, the floor is yours.
[The third word] is a word that is now regarded as highly objectionable, a word that Paul, if he had been what modern men would have desired him to be, never would have used. It is the small but weighty word "not." "Paul an apostle," he says, "not from men nor through a man, but...."
That word "not," we are today constantly being told, ought to be put out of the Christian's vocabulary. Our preaching, we are told, ought to be positive and not negative; we ought to present the truth, but ought not to attack error; we ought to avoid controversy and always seek peace.
With regard to such a program, it may be said at least that if we hold to it we might just as well close up our New Testaments; for the New Testament is a controversial book almost from beginning to end. That is of course true with regard to the Epistles of Paul. They, at least, are full of argument and controversy—no question, certainly, can be raised about that. Even the hymn to Christian love in the thirteenth chapter of I Corinthians is an integral part of a great controversial passage with regard to a false use of the spiritual gifts.That glorious hymn never would have been written if Paul had been averse to controversy and had sought peace at any price. But the same thing is true also of the words of Jesus. They too—I think we can say it reverently—are full of controversy. He presented His righteousness sharply over against the other righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees.
That is simply in accordance with a fundamental law of the human mind. All definition is by way of exclusion. You cannot say clearly what a thing is without contrasting it with what it is not.
When that fundamental law is violated, we find nothing but a fog. Have you ever listened to this boasted non-controversial preaching, this preaching that is positive and not negative, this teaching that tries to present truth without attacking error? What impression does it make upon your mind? We will tell you what impression it makes upon ours. It makes the impression of utter inanity. We are simply unable to make head or tail of it. It consists for the most part of words and nothing more. Certainly it is as far as possible removed from the sharp, clear warnings, and the clear and glorious promises, of Holy Writ.
No, there is one word which every true Christian must learn to use. It is the word "not" or the word "No." A Christian must certainly learn to say "No" in the field of conduct; there are some things that the world does, which he cannot do. But he must also learn to say "No" in the field of conviction. The world regards as foolishness the gospel upon which the Christian life is based, and the Christian who does not speak out against the denial of the gospel is certainly not faithful to his Lord.
...The Church of our day needs above all else men who can say "No"; for it is only men who can say "No," men who are brave enough to take a stand against sin and error in the Church—it is only such men who can really say "Yea and amen" to the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ.
We know not in detail what will take place when the great revival comes, the great revival for which we long, when the Spirit of God will sweep over the Church like a mighty flood. But one thing we do know—when that great day comes, the present feeble aversion to "controversy," the present cowardly unwillingness to take sides in the age-long issue between faith and unbelief in the Church—will at once be swept aside. There is not a trace of such an attitude in God's holy Word. That attitude is just Satan's way of trying to deceive the people of God; peace and indifferentist church-unionism and aversion to controversy, as they are found in the modern Church, are just the fine garments that cover the ancient enemy, unbelief.
May God send us men who are not deceived, men who will respond to the forces of unbelief and compromise now so largely dominant in the visible Church with a brave and unqualified "No"! Paul was such a man in his day. He said "No" in the very first word of this Epistle, after the bare name and title of the author; and that word gives the key to the whole Epistle that follows. The Epistle to the Galatians is a polemic, a fighting Epistle from beginning to end. What a fire it kindled at the time of the Reformation! May it kindle another fire in our day—not a fire that will destroy any fine or noble or Christian thing, but a fire of Christian love in hearts grown cold!
Timely words. This brother certainly understands the current scene here in 2011, doesn't he? Not only in some churches and movements, but in some would-be leaders and speakers and writers in various venues, wouldn't you say? We really should invite this guy to become a Pyro.

The trouble with that (as many of you recognized right away) is that the writer has been with the Lord for many decades. The "now" and "modern" time of which he wrote was the 1930s, for the writer was the great J. Gresham Machen, writing on pages 6-8 of his collected notes on Galatians. I quoted with only the addition of a bit of emphasis.

This is the great thing that even a bit of knowledge of history gives to anyone looking at the Emerg* crowd and all the wannabes and spin-offs and penumbrae. They present themselves as deep, nuanced, cutting-edge pioneers, when all they are for all the world are Machen's zombies. Machen (and his fellows) killed those errors dead eighty years ago; but here they are again, shambling about in search of fresh brains to devour.

I said "Machen's zombies," but should I perhaps say "Paul's zombies"? Hadn't the great apostle also killed the same errors dead two millennia earlier? He did. But as always there are dainty-souled men who consider themselves so much smarter than Machen, than Owen, than Calvin, than Augustine, than Paul; and, in the final analysis, so much smarter than God.

But are they really?

They are not.

Dan Phillips's signature


olan strickland said...

Spot on. The preaching that is needed today is called negative preaching. The JOKERS who think preaching should be all positive have one question on their minds for the faithful preachers: Why so serious?

James Scott Bell said...

It's funny that emergent hipsters who mutter "True dat" cannot mean what they say, as they reject the core definition of truth itself. Maybe we should practice saying "Not dat" around these folk.

Tom Chantry said...

Wait a minute...you're saying...Emergents like turtles?

Good word, though. This stuff was killed dead long ago.

John Dunn said...

Indeed, a timely call for our generation if we are to stay faithful to Christ our Lord.

Today's church is lacking intrepid men who are willing to stand boldly in the face of error and declare !NO! to the ways of flesh and !NO! to the pervasive methods of pop-entertainment that have crept into the church.

Today's church is lacking intrepid men who are filled with glorious indwelling and resurrection-power of the Spirit of Christ, whose minds think heavenly thoughts after Christ.

Sadly, we are witnessing an entire generation drunk with excesses of our decadent pop-culture: personal fame, self-worship, materialism, and entertainment . . . these things now drive our North American coporate "church" business model.

DJP said...

Olan and Johnny: it is terrifically encouraging to me as a writer when the first comments are anti-trollish — that is, on-target and in fact such as actually add to the discussion. Both of yours are perfect examples.

Chantry: well, like turtles they have a tendency to duck their heads when actually confronted.

And you're absolutely right: it being dead yet speaketh... in a bad way.

Robert said...

It is all as old as the philosophies of man. Just think of Paul at Mars Hill. Again, I can not imagine why anybody would name their church Mars Hill.

David A. Carlson said...

and now for something completely different....

I think you may have misconstrued the intent of Galatians.

Galatians is not about fighting in and of itself. He is not putting pen to paper to castigate some blogger or pastor he knows not. Paul surely intended and wrote Galatians from the perspective of love just as surely as anything in 1 Cor 13.

His love for the Galatians is what brought him to confront their sin. He did not write this to a bunch of people he did not know - these were his children, just as surely as Timothy was. They were his brothers and sisters, and from his love for them he brings correction, not abuse. He cares for them, and as such is willing to state plainly what is needed. He does not toss off some screed to castigate someone outside the church with labels such as emergent which, let us be honest, are used far more often as scorn and even hatred than with love in an intent to correct a sister or brother.

I do not see this as a "hot" letter. This is a letter filled with love, and pain. Pain? Yes - do you think that when Paul wrote this there was any joy going on inside him? I think it is a good question to ask when we correct brothers and sisters. If it does not bring you pain (from the sorrow of having to do so, not some frippery about being worried about the response to your correction) to do so, perhaps you should refrain, because it is not from love that your making the correction.

This letter is bursting with love.

Robert said...

"there are some who are disturbing you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. But even if we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to what we have preached to you, he is to be accursed (anathema)! As we have said before, so I say again now, if any man is preaching to you a gospel contrary to what you received, he is to be accursed (anathema)!" (1:7-9)

"You foolish Galatians, who bewitched you" (3:1)

"They eagerly seek you, not commendably, but they wish to shut you out so that you will seek them." (4:17)

"A little leaven leavens the whole lump of dough." (5:9)

"I wish that those who are troubling you would even mutilate themselves." (5:12)

Paul did love the Christians in the region of Galatia, but he was hot about the false teaching of the Judaizers and the legalism they brought with them.

olan strickland said...

Dac, did you mean to say that the emergents are outside the church?

Anonymous said...

Sure it was bursting with love. And love, when confronting serious error, particularly error which threatens those whom you love, often comes out as anger.

And so it should.

Excellent post, well said.

Solameanie said...

I've enjoyed this more than any post I've read for quite some time, and not that I didn't enjoy the others.

The yellow jacket is a perfect illustration, and you probably could have quoted Cassius Clay . . . "float like a butterfly, sting like a bee . . . "

Jugulum said...


I can't tell why you think Dan's description of Galatians conflicts with your view.

How does "hot", "aggressive", "alarmed", and "passionate" imply "abuse"? How does it conflict with "love"?

Kimberly said...

This is an interesting thing to say:
"He does not toss off some screed to castigate someone outside the church with labels such as emergent which, let us be honest, are used far more often as scorn and even hatred than with love in an intent to correct a sister or brother."

Ironically, this actually happened to me at my previous church. They'd want to discuss Bible passages, but when I'd share my thoughts (just like they were sharing their thoughts) I got this annoying label of Calvinist thrown at me. It was quite frustrating since I didn't know what a Calvinist even was & I was being invalidated & labeled as one. But their "love" was for their dogma so that's what they were defending in labeling me. They were not defending the church against false teaching.

Love for one's dogma is not the same thing as love for one's brothers & sisters in Christ.

Aaron Snell said...

I like the zombie word-picture. Of course, maybe they're not all dead - maybe they're only mostly dead.

Aaron said...

With all due respect to the problem of our generation, I think this is an example of Eccl 1:9. There is nothing new under the Sun. People needed "negative" preaching in the OT. They needed it in the NT. The church in Spurgeon's time needed it and now we need it. I don't think emergents are anything new. If the Lord tarries, somebody will post this message 2,000 years from now and it will seem timely. (And that's because the Bible is always timely).

Anonymous said...

Bam! Cop that! COP IT! Thanks for the article and the encouragement.

The Christian Theologist said...

Augustine? Wait. What? Lol!

Oh well, one small off-note at the end of an otherwise nifty little fugue isn't too big a deal.

[Did I wait long enough before posting my troll's comment?)