‘It’s dangerous to loosen foundation stones!’

That’s true. Chipping away at basic Christian doctrines—which is what the speaker meant[1]—is always ill-advised; it is at our peril that we tinker with, say, the inspiration of Scripture or the deity of Christ. But surely many secondary issues of Christian belief, the theological equivalents of artexing a ceiling or removing a mock-tudor frontage, stand open to adjustment without threatening the whole structure?

When we come to Christ we naturally take on the theological framework of those who lead us to him, or of the church we first join. There is so much to learn, such a glorious treasury of truth to rejoice in, that we can’t examine and reach personal convictions on each item straight away. But with time that changes. As we become more familiar with the Lord, his ways and his Word, we begin to wonder whether some of the views we took on trust at the beginning now need adjusting.

This was certainly my experience, reared as I was in the Brethren. Going away to university got the ball rolling. I found myself in a Christian Union with students from a wide spectrum of churches and denominations. They were all deeply committed to Christ and to the Bible as God’s Word, yet didn’t agree on everything, and I found myself reading Scripture with a new urgency, wanting to settle my opinions on a dozen doctrinal issues.

I had already shifted ground before that on the Holy Spirit. Throughout my youth the Brethren had warned against the Pentecostals. Time after time I had heard variations on the tale of the lady who spoke in tongues in one of their meetings and of the visiting Chinaman who afterwards explained that she had been cursing Christ in fluent Mandarin. No doubt about it: the baptism and gifts of the Spirit were straight from the pit of hell. We were cessationists, my elders explained. We believed that, with the completion of the New Testament canon to finalise God’s perfect Word, the gifts of the Spirit that had filled the gap until then were no longer needed and had therefore ceased. Even as a teenager I had found it hard to see how the phrase ‘When that which is perfect is come’[2] could mean anything other than Christ’s return and the dawn of the age to come, but who was I to question my spiritual seniors?

You can’t, however, beat a bit of experience to knock your doctrine into shape, and when God sovereignly baptised me in the Holy Spirit at the age of seventeen I no longer questioned whether cessationism was wrong; I knew it was! Mine was a classic case of lex orandi, lex credendi.[3] Not that I ditched the Bible in favour of a direct experience of the Holy Spirit. No, the experience drove me to the Bible to see if my experience could be justified there. I looked and yes, it was there as plain as a pikestaff, written large all over the New Testament in bold fulfilment of the Old Testament promises. I haven’t looked back since.

This experience meant that I arrived at university with a readiness to shift ground in other areas if necessary. I didn’t have to wait long. Having been raised on the Scofield Reference Bible, I was a good premillennial dispensationalist, and a pre-tribulationist to boot. Before long I became convinced that Scofield’s scheme was an artificial imposition on the plan of God and I threw it out. At the same time I was beginning to dig in the field of hermeneutics and soon concluded that an obscure passage in probably the Bible’s most obscure book—the only place where the millennium found mention[4]—was hardly a sound basis on which to construct any major doctrine. So I became amillennial—with postmillennial leanings—and that has remained my position to this day.

Next was the hell question. I had never been comfortable with the traditional view. How could any sin be so gross, I wondered, as to deserve eternal conscious torment? There’s no way I could square that with the goodness and justice of God so clearly revealed in his Word.

I began to get a glimmer of light on this issue when reading up on what seemed at the time an unrelated subject: immortality. From childhood I had heard preachers telling me that we all have an immortal soul and are thus destined to spend eternity in either heaven or hell. I decided to look into the issue more carefully, and where better to start than Berkhof’s Systematic Theology? I recall being astonished at the paucity of biblical evidence adduced by Berkhof in support of the traditional doctrine. In fact his case was so weak that I jettisoned it almost at once.

Over the next few years, as I returned to the topic again and again, the weight of Scripture evidence convinced me that immortality is not, in fact, part of man’s innate condition but a gift of God bestowed on those who believe in Jesus. These alone will live for ever. Unbelievers will, of course, rise at the last day to face the Judge, and he will dispense the due punishment. That will be hell, and it will be of an intensity and duration that he wisely determines, but it will certainly not endure for ever and ever; it will at last issue in annihilation, the cessation of existence. (So maybe I’m a cessationist after all?) Certainly I’m satisfied that all the New Testament passages on the subject of hell are well capable of this interpretation, and I have been encouraged by finding a growing number of evangelical scholars openly espousing the same view.

The passing of the years saw a host of finer adjustments to my views, but the next big one was the Israel question. With the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 and its expansion as a result of the Six-Day War in 1967 the Christian world had begun to embrace on an increasing scale the view that these events were a fulfilment of biblical prophecy. I doubted it from the time I first became aware of it, but the sheer size of the pro-Israel lobby forced me to take a further look at the dispensational and premillennial positions that I had previously abandoned. My studies left me even more convinced that the ‘Israel thing’ was a gigantic red herring drawing Christians away from what should be their proper focus: the church and its expansion throughout the world as the primary expression of God’s kingdom.[5]

It was at this stage that I realised as never before the importance of hermeneutics. One aspect of it leapt to the forefront at that time and I now see it as perhaps the number one principle in interpreting the Bible: that the New Testament writers are the inspired interpreters of the Old. To ditch this principle, I realised, is to condemn oneself to investing Old Testament prophecies with meanings different from those given them by the likes of Jesus, James, Paul and Peter, and I knew instinctively that such an approach couldn’t be right.

People told me that, if I really honoured God’s Word, I must treat prophecies responsibly by giving them a ‘literal’ interpretation. Committed as I was to the Bible as God’s inspired Word, that seemed a sensible starting-point, and I could see how, in the case of Israel, it would lead eventually to Zionist sympathies. But ‘literal’, I came to see, doesn’t necessarily mean literal in a material sense; it can mean literal in a figurative sense. Take the Davidic kingship, for instance. God promised David a dynasty; kings of his line would occupy the throne of Israel ‘for ever’.[6] But since the dynasty fizzled out with King Zedekiah at the time of Judah’s exile, how are we now to view that promise? It’s as clear as crystal in the New Testament: Jesus is the king of David’s line,[7] and he rules for ever not just over a tiny Middle Eastern kingdom but universally over everything and more specifically over the new, expanded ‘Israel’ called the church, in which the dividing wall has been demolished to embrace Gentiles as well as Jews in the one new people of God, who are now and for ever at the centre of God’s eternal purpose. So the OT prophecy was fulfilled literally, but with a figurative or expanded kind of literalism rather than in the limited, more parochial way in which David himself doubtless imagined it would be fulfilled.

This, I came to see, is the kind of approach the whole New Testament encourages us to bring to Old Testament prophecies. Jesus himself is the ‘Yes’ pronounced on all God’s promises,[8] fulfilling in his own person and in his church every OT ‘shadow’ of which he himself is the ‘reality’.[9] It’s a gloriously liberating revelation and one that, once embraced, is guaranteed to prompt a bit of ground-shifting in devotees of the, alas, too popular alternative.

As I have got older the ground-shifting has become less frequent and I have felt comfortable with my growing overall grasp of the Bible and its teaching. Until recently, that is, and the issue this time has been the role of women in marriage and the church.

My cultural background dictated my starting point. I remember my grandmother saying, when I was a child, ‘The master will be home soon.’ She meant her husband would soon be back from work for his evening meal. Her choice of words reflected his position as the undisputed head of the household and her own as the little woman dutifully serving him and looking after the children. My own parents were less hierarchical in outlook, but even so I was happy with the books I read in the 1970s that established a scriptural basis for ascribing to the woman a secondary position in marriage and excluding her from leadership in the church.[10]

The problem with this approach was knowing where, in the nitty-gritties of real church life, to draw the line. Some were happy for women to exercise leadership, including taking significant initiatives, as long as they did so under the oversight and approval of male elders, while others would question why competent women couldn’t make leadership decisions in their own right. Where, in practice, did one draw the line between restriction and permission? Could a woman head up the children’s work? Yes. Could she be an elder? No. Could she be a deacon(ess)? Maybe. Somebody at some point had to draw a legalistic line.

I knew, of course, that some Christians took an egalitarian view, but I could never square that with the New Testament’s apparently clear endorsement of male leadership and female submission. What caused me to shift ground was a further tweak in my understanding of biblical hermeneutics.

Most serious Christians want to be biblical in all they believe and do. The big question is: what do we mean by ‘biblical’? One could say that adultery and murder-by-proxy are biblical, because the Bible records that David committed both. That is ridiculous, of course, because the unspoken assumption is that by ‘biblical’ we mean what the Bible prescribes rather than what it simply describes, and when Paul urges wives to submit to their husbands and doesn’t permit women to teach in the church I had taken his word as prescriptive.

What wobbled me now was the realisation that even some of the New Testament’s commands and directives, because they were issued at a specific time in history and into a specific cultural situation, may never have been intended to set a pattern for all time and every culture. I had always been comfortable with a hermeneutic of development from Old Testament to New but had never considered that there might be a development from the New Testament era—the first century AD—into later history. I now came to realise that there is in fact such a development. In the nature of the situation it can’t be explicit, but the pointers are clearly there.

Take slavery as a case in point. It was widespread in the Old Testament and endemic in the New. Many of the first Christians were slaves. The New Testament writers like Paul addressed Greco-Roman society as it was, not as they would have liked it to be. They were teaching their readers how to act in a Christian manner inside the society and culture of their day so as not to bring the gospel into disrepute. So Paul commanded Christian slaves to be obedient to their masters and Christian masters to treat their slaves considerately. Peter does the same. Does this mean, then, that slavery is ‘biblical’? Is our hermeneutic to be based on a ‘frozen in time’ historical situation so that what was applicable in the first century remains, by definition, equally applicable twenty centuries later? If we say yes we are obliged not only to condone slavery but to actively encourage it. And some have done so: the Dutch settlers in southern Africa, for instance, had no hesitation in making slaves of the black indigenous inhabitants on the grounds that their action had biblical backing. Americans in the south of the USA took a similar view.

Most of us recognise, however, that we can never in good conscience sanction slavery. The exodus is one pointer to God’s desire to end it. Another is Paul’s advice to slaves that, should they get a chance to gain their freedom, they should take it without hesitation. The trajectory of what has been called ‘redemptive movement’ in Scripture continues beyond the Greco-Roman world into later centuries and on into the future of God’s purposes. People like William Wilberforce saw this clearly and it inspired their efforts to end slavery once for all.

I came to realise that the same process is relevant to the situation of women in marriage and the church. The New Testament taught a Christian attitude appropriate to a first-century society in which the husband was expected to be dominant anyway and the wife obliged to be not only submissive but, in many cases, little more than a chattel. Women were barely educated, their opinions counted for nothing and they were not seen as having anything to teach.

But the New Testament writers, in signalling in Christ the end of the main cultural distinctions of the day—Jew/Gentile, slave/free and male role/female role[11]—set up a clear marker signalling the continuation of the liberating trajectory into the post-New Testament era, when marriage would become a partnership of mutually-supportive equals and when gifted women, once duly taught, would teach others and exercise leadership alongside gifted men. I believe this is what we should expect, and what we should put into practice today.[12]

So yes, I’ve shifted ground quite a bit over the years, and I have no regrets. I remain quietly confident that, in holding these modified positions, I remain in line with the principles of God’s Word and in harmony with his eternal purpose.

Not everybody will be happy about my position, on several counts. Some will say that to shift ground is to cast a slur on the wise and godly people who discipled us and taught us our original theology. But it isn’t. The chances are that they, too, had shifted ground during their own pilgrimage of faith and that what we got from them was their modified thinking anyway, except that we didn’t realise it. Like us they were people of their time, and they pleased God by living according to the light they had. We ourselves will please God, not by holding ground for the sake of their reputation, but by adjusting to the further light that God has caused to break forth from his holy Word in more recent times.

Others will argue that a ‘redemptive movement’ hermeneutic is fraught with danger because it could, in theory, be used to justify all manner of dubious beliefs. There in the New Testament, they’ll say, you have the angel Gabriel calling Mary ‘highly favoured’ and at the current end of the Marian trajectory you have her Immaculate Conception and Assumption. But these doctrines, far from being open to prayerful debate over the words of Scripture and their meaning, both implicit and explicit. have been put forth as dogmas of an authoritarian Roman Catholic Church and are both, in the view of Bible-believing Christians everywhere, without any New Testament pointers and utterly untrue.

So, yes, there will be some risk. All the major truths of the Christian faith are risky, none more so than the doctrine of the grace of God, which history shows can all too easily be turned into licentiousness. But we don’t for that reason ditch the doctrines of grace and embrace salvation by works, nor should, say, violent exponents of Liberation Theology be allowed to stop us proclaiming freedom in Christ Jesus, whether it be for believers in general, for slaves, or for oppressed women.

So that’s me and my moves, at least for now. I’m an amillennial believer in the baptism and gifts of the Holy Spirit, convinced of conditional immortality and a hell that issues in annihilation, certain that Zionism is a red herring and fully persuaded that we should give no room to slavery or to the subservience of women in marriage and the church.

A major refurbishment, one might say, but worry not: no loose foundation stones. Not that any of us can relax: we now have Gregory MacDonald contending for the idea that one can be a Bible-believing, bona fide evangelical and still embrace universalism.[13] Ah well, back to the drawing-board...

Copyright © David Matthew 2007

POSTSCRIPT - 7 years on…

My theological journey continues—as does my real-life journey informed by it. But in spite of the ups and downs I feel more confident in my faith than ever and feel ever closer to the Lord.

Hermeneutics has, not surprisingly, proved to be the key issue. It touches everything. I’ve become convinced that the Bible, far from being a timeless rule-book for living, is more the story of Israel’s journey with God, a journey continued by the first Christians in the New Testament. And because God, in revealing himself, adapted his revelation to their times and circumstances, much of it is couched in terms of their culture and historical setting. I’m much more wary now about, for example, seeing some of the Old Testament teaching about God as permanently relevant. If he commanded Joshua to commit genocide against the Canaanites, how come Jesus taught us to love our enemies and, as he himself demonstrated, allow ourselves if necessary to be put to death by them? Both can’t be right.

I’ve come to believe strongly that only Jesus is the complete and final revelation of the Father[14], and that he trumps everything that preceded him. There are still many timeless principles and values in the Old Testament, of course, but wherever there is a clash, Jesus wins every time! And we can learn a huge amount from the journey of the OT saints as we pursue our own.[15]

Then there’s the science issue. I’m not a scientist by training, but it’s obvious even to me that the Bible contains ‘ancient science’: the earth as a flat disk, the solid dome of the sky separating the waters above it from the waters below it etc. We now know that the true picture is very different and accept the discoveries of modern science because, as Augustine put it, ‘All truth is God’s truth’. To me, that includes the acceptance of evolution as having at least some part in the development of homo sapiens, and the Young Earth Creationist attempts to allege otherwise leave me unsurprised that so many young people regard the church as anti-science and out of touch.

At the same time, I remain committed to the belief that it was God who originally created the universe ex nihilo[16]—though I doubt whether the early chapters of Genesis are referring to that.

I have declared elsewhere my longstanding and deep dissatisfaction with Calvinism and its misplaced emphasis on God’s sovereignty. The Arminian approach seems so much more in keeping with a God whose primary attribute is love: ‘God is love’, and that’s where my heart has found most rest regarding the great scheme of things. Until recently. The so-called ‘open view’ of the future and God’s relationship to it has been slowly drawing me, and I now feel fully at ease with this way of looking at things.[17]

On this view, the God who is love, and who desires a loving relationship with his creatures, has given us, among many blessings, freedom to make real choices, including whether to respond to him or reject him. He thus does not control every single thing that happens (as Calvinists hold). Nor does he foreknow everything that happens (as Arminians teach), since there are millions of decisions every day that people have still to make. But he does know every single permutation of possibility within that range of choices, and as they unfold he is skilfully steering things towards the fulfilment of his ultimate purpose. Parts of the future are determined ahead of time by his will, but by that same will other parts remain ‘open’ and in our hands, so to speak.

The implications of this view are far-ranging. One is that God is not responsible for the evil in the world. Wills other than his own, both human and angelic/demonic, are at work, but God is able to turn even their worst machinations to ultimate good[18]. Practically, this means that while not everything that happens to us is necessarily his will for us, he can enable us to turn it to our advantage. Another implication of the ‘open view’ is that prayer can genuinely cause God to change his mind and do things differently—most encouraging!

In other areas I’ve weighed the options and, for now at least, remain on fairly conservative ground. I can’t get enthusiastic, for instance, about gay marriage. Nor can I accept universalism, in spite of the best efforts of Rob Bell and Gregory MacDonald. And I can’t go along with the blurring (by Brian McLaren et al) of the clear distinction between those whose baptism has marked their commitment to Jesus Christ and the rest. Sheep and goats, wheat and weeds have much in common but remain fundamentally distinct, and the church must surely reflect that.

On the basics I remain unmovable: love is the ruling paradigm in the divine scheme of things. Jesus, not the Bible, is God’s final word to us. We are blessed with hope and a future.

Copyright © David Matthew 2014

1. The oft-quoted statement probably originated with Thomas Manton (1620-1677) in a sermon on John 17:25.

2. 1 Corinthians 13:10 KJV

5. See my article on the subject, Red Herring In Galilee.

Shifting ground

Changing one’s views

This is one essay in the Shades of Grey series. Click the Next and Previous buttons to move through the series, and Up to go to the list. Footnotes appear in the right-hand column. Hover over Bible references to see the text.

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3. A Latin phrase capable of various translations, but here taken to mean that the way one prays (i.e. one’s religious practice) influences one’s beliefs, not vice versa.

4. I.e. the book of Revelation chapter 20.

6. E.g. 2 Samuel 7:16

7. E.g. Luke 1:31-33

8. 2 Corinthians 1:20

Moving house

9. Colossians 2:16-17

10. Such as Hurley’s Man And Woman In Biblical Perspective and, later, Grudem and Piper’s work.

11. Galatians 3:28 etc.

12. The book that played the major part in my ground-shift is R.W. Pierce & R.M. Groothuis, eds., Discovering Biblical Equality (IVP/Apollos, 2005). Piper and Grudem have responded to it in what is to my mind not a convincing way. See my review of it.

13. The Evangelical Universalist by G. MacDonald (SPCK, 2008). See my review of it.

Shifting Ground

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14. Colossians 1:15; Hebrews 1:3

16. Hebrews 11:3; Colossians 1:16

18. Romans 8:28

17. For a helpful introduction to Open Theism see Greg Boyd’s book, God Of The Possible, reviewed by me here.

15. If this interests you, try Peter Enns’s book The Bible Tells Me So, reviewed by me here.