2011 Academy Conference - Session 1 - Theology in Dialogue
The 2011 Ligonier Academy Conference on pillars of Christian orthodoxy began Friday, January 21, with a Q&A session featuring Drs. Stephen Nichols, R.C. Sproul, R.C. Sproul Jr., and Carl Trueman. Chris Larson moderated.
Question: In one sentence, what is the message of the Bible?
R.C. Sproul: If I had to explain the message of the Bible in one sentence it would have to be “the autobiography of God,” because what I find in scripture is the character and attributes of God shown forth in His plan of redemption for a lost and rebellious world.
Stephen Nichols: There are two things I would say. One is not a complete sentence, but: creation, fall, redemption, restoration. The other would be that God is in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, and He’s doing that because He who knew no sin, took on our sin and became sin for us — all of this for His glory.
Carl Trueman: I don’t think it can be done in one sentence. I think “the autobiography of God” is probably that best you’ll get, but, still, when we are dealing with the level of biblical ignorance that people have, we cannot assume that people understand what the word “God” means. In our culture, it takes a much longer time to explain even those basic elements to an unbeliever.
R.C. Sproul Jr.: Romans 1 tells us that there are two things that the unbeliever knows: (1) there is a holy God and (2) they are not holy. Yes, they suppress this truth in unrighteousness, but they do know it. So if I had to come up with one sentence that would be most helpful to the unbeliever, it would be these words in the book of Revelation: “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end; to the thirsty I will give from the spring of the water of life without payment” (Rev. 21:6). I think this gets it by showing us the holiness of God, our need, and His provision.
Q: What should a Trinitarian emphasis look like in the life of the church or the individual Christian?
R.C. Sproul: When you ask that question, I think about the exodus and about God brining a people out of bondage in Egypt so they can worship Him. In American churches, I have not seen just a deterioration, but almost a total collapse of Godly worship. And I think that’s because people don’t have any idea of Who it is they are coming to worship. If we can communicate the biblical revelation of God, and we come to an understanding of who He is, then, the first corollary of this understanding is that we will have a revolutionary understanding of who we are as creatures in relation to the Creator. Nothing less than understanding this biblical, Trinitarian revelation of God will do.
R.C. Sproul Jr.: Some theologians can have the tendency to seek God as an object of study, more than an object of worship. When they do that, they end up taking these glorious attributes of God and separating them from the person.
Against this idea, I think of Jesus’ high priestly prayer wherein He desires for us to enjoy the same unity with the Father that He enjoys with the Father. This requires a recovery of the doctrine of the atoning work of Jesus Christ in our churches. This is not just this idea that Jesus died, and your forgiven, but it is the truth that you’re adopted as His child. This loving unity between the members of the Trinity is something we participate in because of the work of Christ. We become the children of God.
Carl Trueman: I think church history, or a knowledge of church history can help here. One of the practical problems you face when trying to teach people Trinitarian theology is the language of “substance” and “person.” It can sound quite abstract. It helps to keep in mind that the formulation of this language in the fourth century came out of two basic issues: One was trying to understand what it means to say “Jesus is Lord.” And the second is trying to understand the baptismal formula (i.e., why do we baptize in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit?). And if we keep this in mind, it will help us avoid problematic views of the Trinity and to be more sympathetic with the early church’s, and our, formulation.
Q: What do you say to the person who says that church is not relevant and is boring?
R.C. Sproul: If we go to the Scriptures and see the record of individuals who encounter God in this world (e.g., Jacob at Bethel, Abraham in Genesis 15, Moses and the burning bush, Habakkuk, Job, Jeremiah, Isaiah), you’ll see a wide range of human emotions and reactions. Sometimes it’s a giddy joy. Sometimes it’s just an awe inspiring silence. Sometimes it’s the quivering lip and the trembling belly. Sometimes it’s the rottenness that enters the bones. Other times it’s weeping. There is no singular, monolithic, prescribed, human emotional response to an encounter with God’s presence in Holy Scripture. If you canvass all of those events, the one emotion you will never ever, ever find in Scripture is that people are bored in the presence of God.
So instead of trying to entertain and keep people’s attentions, why don’t we simply present God to the people and develop our worship in every way to awaken the people to the presence and character of Almighty God? If you bring people into the presence of God and give them His word, how can it not be relevant?
Carl Trueman: If you find the preaching of the word of God boring, you need to repent.
Stephen Nichols: There is a passage in the middle of Ecclesiastes that request our words to be few when we draw near to the house of God, because we are on earth but He is in heaven (Eccl. 5:1-2). There is a fundamental “otherness” to worship that is lost on wide swaths of American culture, and that game of meeting them where they are is a dangerous game to play.
R.C. Sproul Jr.: When we are worshiping rightly, it’s not so much that we realize that we are on earth and He is in heaven, but that, in worship, He takes us from here to there. In Hebrews chapter 12, we read:
For you have not come to what may be touched, a blazing fire and darkness and gloom and a tempest and the sound of a trumpet and a voice whose words made the hearers beg that no further messages be spoken to them. For they could not endure the order that was given, “If even a beast touches the mountain, it shall be stoned.” Indeed, so terrifying was the sight that Moses said, “I tremble with fear.” But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all. (vv. 18-23)
Our worship lifts us up into the heavenly places. When we truly experience the presence of God, we won’t be bored.
Q: Dr. Truman, what are some particular problem areas in the American church?
Carl Trueman: One of the things I tend to see in the American religious world is how secularism has taken over in certain areas. There is still a prominent feeling that health, wealth, and prosperity are still very important to us — I get concerned that even in confessionally orthodox churches, those in the pew and even some behind the pulpit are (beneath the surface) functionally health, wealth, and happiness people.
Q: Dr. Nichols, why is there a peculiar temptation among church leaders to have to comment on everything and to be the guru on every topic under the sun?
Stephen Nichols: The pressure seems to be on people to be the theological “dear abby,” and to be able to address any and every topic. The remedy to this is realizing that a minister of the word needs to be talking about God, Scripture, and salvation. Leave the question of “what does a Christian vacation look like?” to someone else.
Q: Dr. Sproul, would you share with us the experience you had with Francis Schaeffer when you asked him, “What’s your biggest concern for the American church?”
R.C. Sproul: Francis Schaeffer didn’t hesitate when asked this question. He said, “statism.” He saw the culture moving in this direction, and he thought that it would have a strong impact on the church. Statism is secularization on steroids. And it’s been amazing to me to see the state creeping more and more into every aspect of human life and the exponential growth of the central government after Schaeffer uttered that concern thirty years ago.
R.C. Sproul Jr.: There are difficult questions that surround the church’s involvement with the state. Is the church allowed to speak to political issues? Should the church speak up? As with so many things, the right answer is balance and wisdom. When you hear Christians talking about statism, the conversation often goes to discussing policy arguments without much resolution. The problem of statism, however, isn’t so much the size of the government or the consumption of national wealth, but the worshiping of the state.
Q: Tomorrow is the 38th anniversary of the legal decision that we know as Roe v. Wade. Globally it is estimated that over the course of this next year, 42 million children will be murdered around the world. What is the role of the church in an area where the state says abortion is a legal right?
R.C. Sproul: There’s a broad spectrum of answers to the relationship of the church to the state, even within the reformed community, but one principle that is clear in the scriptures, is that even without a theocratic situation, the church always has the responsibility to offer prophetic criticism to the state — not for the church to take the sword and be the state or for the state to administer the sacraments. We’re not asking for the state to become the church but for the state to be the state. The primary and foundational reason for the existence of the state is for the protection, the maintenance, and the care of human life.
Stephen Nichols: On this issue, I think the church’s prophetic voice needs to be raised for the sanctity of life, based on the image of God. I think we need to make a theological argument for that. But I also wonder if the church should have a priestly role along with its prophetic voice, in terms of a full orb response to the culture.
R.C. Sproul Jr.: I would want to encourage not only this prophetic voice, but I would argue that the prophetic and priestly voice need to be brought to bear in the house of God. We have this propensity to act as though abortion is “out there,” but the facts of the matter show that abortion is present in the church. The studies that have been conducted show that abortion within evangelicalism is no different than the broader culture. I’ll say this too; inside the church, our view of children is akin to the view of children in the world — we treat them as burdens, yet the Bible says they’re blessings. Until the church believes God on that issue, we can expect the unbelievers to continue to continue with this murder.
Q: Why does a Christian throughout his life need to ask for forgiveness when all of his sins have already been forgiven?
Carl Trueman: I think you are pointing to the tension of living in the here and now. We’re not sinlessly perfect, and therefore we do sin. When we sin, there is a sense in which our sins were all dealt with on Calvary. Yet that doesn’t negate the fact that, at some point in history, you need to repent and turn to Christ. Ultimately, this is a tension we will live with, but we recognize that the Bible still calls us to ask for forgiveness.
R.C. Sproul Jr.: I want to add to that a familial perspective. When we are regenerated and brought into the kingdom, we are adopted permanently. So the forgiveness that we’re talking about in 1 John is not a forgiveness in order to restore a destroyed relationship. This is a seeking after forgiveness from your loving father.
Q: How does reformed theology speak to aesthetics?
Stephen Nichols: I would recommend the work of Bill Edgar, who has thought very well about beauty, specifically from a reformed stance.
Even as we look at Scripture, it is a work of literature. God could have given us bullet points, but he gives it to us in the form of genre — Scripture itself is a work of art when we step back and look at it. So, I think we start there with the doctrine of revelation and the doctrine of creation for a theology of beauty.
R.C. Sproul: Every form is an art form, and every art form communicates something. It is impossible to build a building without a form. Whatever kind of color you paint the walls and whatever kind of floor you have, it all communicates a message. Just as all truth directs our eyes to God, all goodness directs our eyes to the source and foundation of all goodness, also, all beauty ultimately sends us to the Fountainhead of that which is beautiful, which is the character of God himself.
Q: How would you asses the Pentecostal movement in the last century?
Carl Trueman: The acid test of, for want of a better word, revival is, “does it lead to an increased focus on Jesus Christ?” If the revival leads to a focus on strange phenomenon, or even a focus on the Holy Spirit, then I think one has grounds for doubting whether it is what it purports to be.
I appreciate an analogy Jim Packer gave comparing the Holy Spirit to the flood lights at a sporting event. If you go to a sporting event in the evening, you don’t go to stare at the flood lights, but if the flood lights weren’t there, you wouldn’t be able to see the event. In other words, if the Holy Spirit is there, you will see Christ. You don’t spend your time looking at the flood lights. So, the test we should apply is, did this cause people to talk more about Christ? Or, did it lead people to talk more about the Holy Spirit? To the extent that it led people to talk more about the Holy Spirit, quite probably it was not of the Holy Spirit.
R.C. Sproul: Additionally, the Spirit’s chief menu of revelation is the Bible. So if it’s really of the Holy Spirit it will drive people to Christ, but it will also cause an awakening of passionate love and study of the Holy Scriptures.