2011 Academy Conference - Session 4 - Questions & Answers
After a full morning of messages by Carl Trueman and Stephen Nichols, we started the afternoon with a question and answer session with Drs. Nichols, Sproul, and Trueman. Chris Larson moderated.
Question: Why do you think we don’t have the authority to label heretics as much as in the early church? Should we be able to apply that label?
Carl Trueman: It was easier in earlier times because first, the early church instituted a unity that we don’t have anymore. Today we have a variety of churches so we can move from one to another with relative ease. Second, there is now a cultural distaste for dividing over theological issues. We tend to think of heresy under more intellecutal terms than moral terms. We still have notions of heresy, but they’ve shifted. The inability to call out heretics is part of a general cultural way we’ve come to.
Q: Do you think there is a lack of unity or conviction around the set of doctrines for which we could then apply the term heretic?
Trueman: It depends on what you mean. In confessional churches, there are significant degrees of doctrines. One thing we have lost today is the disctinciton between heresy and error. Not every error is a heresy. There are errors where we can agree to differ.
Q: Dealing with the term repentance, is it just a change of mind or does it go deeper?
Stephen Nichols: It goes deeper. A gloss translation is a change of mind, but when you look at what Christ is putting before his audience, he’s calling for some deeper. He’s calling for an about-face, which the holy spirit helps with.
Q: Evil, or sin, originates in the heart of men. However, is the decree of God that sin should enter the world? Does God decree sin’s existence and its proportion?
R.C. Sproul: One of the standards of the Westminster Confession says God has ordained whatsoever comes to pass. God is not the author of evil but since God is sovereign and omnipotent, nothing can happen in the universe apart from his sovereignty. When evil came into the world, God was aware of it and had the power to stop it, just like he knows when I’m going to sin. He lets me do it not by sanctioning it, but He chooses not to stop. If he doesn’t prevent something, He’s choosing that it come to pass. In that dimension, He ordains evil. In His eternal plan, He uses it to bring about His ultimate purposes.
Q: Dr. Nichols - I appreciate your study of church history. How do you practically put to use historical theology? Is it one reference of study or does it have a sense of first among equals?
Nichols: Scripture always needs to be first and foremost. We look to historical writings because they’re merely pointing beyond themselves to Scripture, so that must always be kept in mind. But there is a sense in which the past is a helpful guardrail when we go to read the Scriptures. I would encourage you to allow some of these folks to minister to you as you read through them. We really are part of a community as Christians but it’s not just gloabal, it’s historical. These historical figures have the ability to see through the static to get to what matters. Allow them to nourish your soul.
Sproul: I’d like to add to that going back to the tradition that Steve spoke about this morning. The sin of substituting the Word of God with the traditions of man is something we need to be careful with. The apostolic tradition is something that each of these great teachers from history kept in tact. They didn’t try to create a whole new Christianity.
Q: Dr. Trueman - Can we have a definition of perspicuity?
Trueman: Perspicuity means that the fundamental message of Scripture is clear to whatever eyes are open to see. It doesn’t mean that every passage is equally clear, but the basic message will come through loud and clear. You don’t have to have an advanced degree to understand the New Testament.
Q: Is it okay to worship the Holy Spirit?
Sproul: We believe in the Holy Spirit, and it’s always appropriate to worship God. But if what is meant is do we seek to separate the godhead, that would be inappropriate. But our worship is to be trinitarian.
Q: Does God love those in hell?
Sproul: Yes and no. In the New Testament we hear about the love of God and the different types of divine love. There is benevolence (good will towards all), but the highest form of love is complacency (God’s love for His elect). We hear all the time that God loves everyone unconditionally, but I would like to find that in the Bible. If that’s the case, we don’t have to do anything. People say God hates sin but loves the sinner. That sounds nice, but he doesn’t send the sin to hell, he sends the sinner. We have to come to grips with passages like Isaiah where we hear that God abhors the wicked. He is set against evildoers. Obviously, he dosn’t have the love of complanceny for them.
Q: What does it mean to be a reformed congregation, theologian, or church. Aren’t all protestants reformed?
Nichols: Yes, all are reformed, just maybe to different degrees. Reformed is a commitment to eschatology, but it runs deeper. It also entails a commitment to a covenant understanding of Scripture. It extends to commit to understanding the marks of a true church - preaching, the sacraments, and church discipline. It seems like those are at least a starting point.
Q: Do you think there is a gap between theologians and laypeople and what do we do with that gap? It’s almost as if we need a gap between Sunday school and seminary, R.C.
Sproul: That’s what Ligonier exists to do. I believe that the Lord in establishing his church put a premium on preaching and teaching. I believe in the education of clergy - those educated are called to a high degree of understanding to handle the Word of God. There is a charge to pastors to feed their sheep. For the last 45 years, I’ve had one leg in the church and one in the academic world and it is so easy to get lost in the academic world in the pursuit of knowlege and forget why you’re trying to learn. The pursuit of truth and godliness were married for these leaders in church history we’ve been talking about. The biggest challenge for the scholar is to be able to communicate what he’s learned at a simple level without distorting the truth.
Q: What place do secular things have in the life of the Christian, especially music?
Trueman: Like many cultural pursuits, one of the things music does is bring pleasure and alleviate boredom in a fallen world. However, we must be careful because music, like fine food, can be good but can also become an idol. It can occupy too much time and money to where you are neglecting your duties. We must be careful, but I welcome music the Lord has given.
Nichols: What I found in blues was a real resonance with some themes in Scripture in terms of the lament, embracing the curse and realities of life in a foreign world. It better tuned me into some themes in Scripture.
Sproul: I love the blues. I think the blues was born in Egypt when God heard the cries of His people. Redemptive history really took off during the exodus. In our own history, we had the institution of slavery. People who were purchased, separated from family, and put to work living in poverty had very little to enjoy and much to be sorrowful about. In the basic structure of western music, we make a distinction between major and minor. The major sounds happy, while the minor sounds sad. In the black community, to express pain, they created music where they jammed between major and minor. The blues was born as an expression of people’s pain and with it, an eschatological hope. We have classic spirituals that have enriched our hymnody because of it. In many cases, all the slaves had was their knowledge of the Bible, which was incredible.