I have in my library a worn out, orange, paperback book entitled Basic Christian Doctrines, first published in 1962 and then reprinted in 1971.1
I do not remember when I first picked up this book, but I do know I was in my twenties. I also recall wanting to be personally equipped to teach and defend these doctrines to the Awana leaders I served with.2
The book contains 45 chapters on the essential foundations of evangelical faith. Each chapter is written by a theological heavyweight of a bygone era. The whole work is edited by the late, great Carl F. H. Henry. Forty-five chapters, each one plumbing the depths, the nuances, and the distinctive features of evangelicalism’s cardinal doctrines.
The book is remarkable to me today for two main reasons.
First, it uses the word basic in its title.
By today’s standards, however, this book is anything but basic. It explores theology in deep and meaningful ways. It deals with nuances that would be lost on most modern Christians.
What I am saying is that what a past generation considered basic, today's generation would consider too advanced to bother with.
The book differentiates the communicable from the incommunicable attributes of God. It discusses Original Sin, and the imputation of Adam’s guilt. It opens up the doctrine of the Mystical Union between Christ and His people, and includes a chapter on the Kenotic Theory relative to the person of Christ.
If these are yesterday’s basics, doesn’t that indicate there is something radically different today?
A second equally disturbing reason I find the book remarkable is that each of its chapters was first published, not in some abstract theological journal, but in the popular level magazine Christianity Today. The theologically rich content of this book was considered suitable for the average Christian reader of its day.
In my estimation, the seminary student of today would have a hard time plowing through this book. Many pastors would struggle with it. Yet Christianity Today found its content needful and suitable for its broad readership back in the day.
Something has changed.
I suspect that what has changed is the answer to a singularly important question which we must never stop asking.
That question is: Where do you get your truth?
The technical name for this topic is epistemology. Ever since Satan suckered Eve into questioning God's Word in the Garden of Eden, God’s people have waged war against the downward pull of cheap epistemology.
There is a growing roster of cheap substitutes for the in-depth teaching of the Word of God. These substitutes are cheap because they are imitations of the real thing. They are cheap because they are intellectually effortless. They are cheap because they capitulate to the spirit of the age, wimping out rather than confronting the destructive lies of our demonically hypnotized culture.
Dear Christian, where do you find your truth?
1. Contemporary opinion
A 2019 article in Christian Headlines described a seminary president who rejects the literal bodily resurrection of Christ. She also rejects the virgin birth, prayer for healing, and miracles. She has no faith in heaven, or life after death, yet she is the president of Union Theological Seminary.3
Of course, this is the sad trend in liberal branches of theology. Once they discard the Bible anything goes, including the teaching of Wicca and other forms of paganism in schools that were once solely devoted to the Word of God.
Apparently, they know better than the apostles and the prophets. They have the enlightened view of truth.
Why would anyone accept the mantle of Christian leadership, and then dismantle the entire structure of biblical faith?
The only answer can be that they have exalted human reason and contemporary opinion above the authority of Scripture, doing what is right in their own eyes. This is the essence of cheap epistemology.
What do you call that gathering of God’s people at 10:30 of your church? A mass? A worship service? An assembly?”
I don’t care to quibble about the label. I just want to think about the recent trend of calling it an “experience.” “Join us at the 10:30 experience.”
Is that what we’re crafting? Experiences? And what if attendees fail to experience something of note? Was the whole thing a flop? Such naming belies a faulty conception of the gathering of God’s people.
At the heart of that conception squats the erroneous assumption that if I don’t experience it, nothing important happened.
It’s worth considering this critique by the venerable D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones:
I trust that you will also agree that deliberate attempts at ‘conditioning’ the people are surely thoroughly bad… for the moment I content myself with saying that this attempt to ‘condition’ the people, to soften them up, as it were, actually militates against the true preaching of the Gospel.4
Karl Barth maintained that the Word of God only “becomes” the Word of God when the reader “encounters” God in its pages. This neo-orthodoxy, as it came to be called, has insinuated itself into the current church culture. We’re a church on an endless quest for experiences, encounters, and emotionally charged highs.
I would classify much of the seeking for “signs and wonders” and other “manifestations of the Spirit” under this category.
By this approach, church-goers are conditioned to require the experiential touch. They crave it. They can’t wait for the next one. They demand it. They berate themselves if they don’t get it. Worship leaders strain themselves to conjure an experience through an alchemy of repetitive chants, summonings of the Holy Spirit, digital pyrotechnics, and congregational scoldings.
The church remains intellectually empty even as they are over-stimulated experientially.
Experience per se qualifies as cheap epistemology because the experiential trap is just another mode of entertainment, heat without light.
Emotion and experience go hand in hand in that both are empirical modes of epistemology. There is something sensible and tangible in the moment that is said to be speaking God's truth to me.
Clichés such as, “Wow, God really showed up today” manifest this cheap epistemology.
Please don't get me wrong, I am all for emotion and experience in worship. Don't think for a moment that I am advocating a dry and sterile intellectualism in our churches. I am not. I believe in passion. I am a fan of laughter and weeping. I’ve been known to clap my hands and shout Amen. I am all for the full range of human emotion in our interactions with God… whenever the emotions are aligned with and prompted by biblical truth.
The simple fact is however that no emotion is revelatory. God has spoken decisively in His Word. Everything else is to be a response to that unchanging truth.
I have known people who have made painfully bad marriage choices, because they felt that God was speaking to them. I know people who have lifelong regrets from following an emotion that they attributed to the Spirit of God. I know people who entered ministry because they “felt something” only to wash out a short time afterwards, because the feeling went away.
When it comes to truth, emotion is a fickle and unreliable guide.
Again, I am not opposed to feelings. I am a big fan of following your heart. However, we must first follow the truth as God has revealed it in Scripture, and as it has been apprehended by our minds, long before we ever let our emotions take the helm.
Subjectivity and emotions turn out to be cheap epistemology, and subtle ways of making a god out of self.
4. New Revelation, Inner Voices, Impressions
Every time I hear a Christian say God told me I throw up a little bit, in my mouth.
Once you lob a God told me into a conversation, that should end all debate, right? After all if God said it, that settles it.
“I have a word from God for you.”
“I feel that God is speaking this over you.”
“I’m getting a word of knowledge right now.”
“I just feel that God is saying that you’re beautiful.”
Why waste one nanosecond on new revelations, when there is so much authoritative, perfect, old revelation sitting in our Bibles untouched and unexamined?
The more of God's Word you have hidden in your heart, the more raw material there is for the Spirit of God to apply the Scriptures to your current situation.
This may feel like a revelation, but it is not.
It is the beautiful gift of God's Spirit to the Christian who has devoted their lives to the study of Scripture.
This still small voice is no new revelation. It is, rather, the just-in-time application of the old revelation that we call the Bible, given to those who have bothered to study it. This is properly called illumination, not revelation.
Do you want to hear God's voice? Do you want God to “show up?”
Open your Bible.
I cannot leave this discussion of cheap epistemology without shining the spotlight on the current trend in preaching to use the Bible as justification for preaching on whatever the preacher wants.
Any motivational speech, any practical how-to guide, any comedy show can be made Christian enough for today’s pulpit by adding some Bible verse sprinkles and saying it is from Jesus.
Famous preachers fill sports arenas with their Bible-light cheap epistemology.
The Word of God is a condiment, not the main course.
Nothing in the sermon is regulated by biblical exposition. Nothing is rooted in theology. Nothing adds to the creation of intellectual structures of meaning or shows the interlocking connectedness of all God's truth. Nothing adds a gravitas that will enable listeners to withstand the huffing and puffing of the devil's lies.
The whole thing is a feel good moment, brought to you by a really cool, hip, and fashion-forward preacher.
It is epistemology because it is an approach to the acquisition of truth. It is cheap, because it is an impotent counterfeit of the apostolic preaching that turned the world upside down.
I have no doubt I am cementing my status as a really crabby guy. I am sure I’m losing friends by saying these things. Maybe I'm going too far. I hope to God I am not.
Paul's admonition to Timothy applies to all of these modes of cheap epistemology.
For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine, but according to their own desires, because they have itching ears, they will heap up for themselves teachers; and they will turn their ears away from the truth, and be turned aside to fables. (2 Timothy 4:3, 4)
The B.I.B.L.E. Yes That’s The Book For Me…
Cheap epistemology is like mildew. It grows, it spreads, and it's very hard to get rid of.
But at its core, it is always the same, the exaltation of self, or of Satan, above the invincible all-sufficient Bible.
No experience, encounter, impression, word, emotion, opinion, or fad comes even close to the authority of the propositional truth of Scripture.
For the truly evangelical Christian, the source of truth will always be God's inerrant Word. There is, was, and never will be a substitute for the in-depth teaching of the Word of God, including the patient instruction in the rich vocabulary of theology for all the people of God.
“But we will give ourselves continually to prayer and to the ministry of the Word,” the early church apostles said (Acts 6:4).
“No,” said the people. “Hang out with us and be our friends and be visionary and make us feel better and give us steps to follow. Practical application, please. Also, get involved, and stay busy for Jesus, shoulder to shoulder with us. And post pious platitudes mixed with family photos of you planting carrots on social media so we can connect.”
“Okay,” said the pastor, “but my sermons will be shorter and more shallow.”
“That’s all right, as long as they’re funny and crammed with stories. Especially vulnerable ones.”
Because truth takes a back seat to feelings.
Jude, writing to the everyday people of God, “…found it necessary to write to you exhorting you to contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 1:3).
Do not miss that “the faith”—in this context the doctrinal content of Scripture—had been delivered to the saints. Not the popes, priests, pastors, or preachers, but to all the people of God. That deposit of theology is the heritage of the pews equally with the pulpit. It is a strategic blunder for pastors to reserve theological meat for church leaders only.
Even more importantly, it is the job of the saints, as custodians of this doctrine, to know it so well they can “earnestly contend for it.” They must be so theologically informed they can raise a defense, they can answer critics, they can tear down misconceptions, and correct preconceptions against the truth of God. They can stand toe to toe with atheists, agnostics, post-modernists, modernists, romantics, Hindus, Buddhists, and anyone else who would trash God's Word.
Even when Scripture sounds antiquated, or narrow-minded, or ridiculously out of date, it is still where we take our stand.
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The Dogma is the Drama
Another prophetic voice from the past, Dorothy Sayers said it best. Way back in the World War Two era, she wrote:
Official Christianity, of late years, has been having what is known as a bad press. We are constantly assured that the churches are empty because preachers insist too much upon doctrine—dull dogma as people call it. The fact is the precise opposite. It is the neglect of dogma that makes for dullness. The Christian faith is the most exciting drama that ever staggered the imagination of man—and the dogma is the drama.
The dogma, she says—meaning the theological formulations such as those found in the confessions, and in Basic Christian Doctrines, is the drama. This is the truly interesting bit.
[T]he cry today is: “Away with the tedious complexities of dogma—let us have the simple spirit of worship; just worship, no matter of what!” The only drawback to this demand for a generalized and undirected worship is the practical difficulty of arousing any sort of enthusiasm for the worship of nothing in particular.
Without a well-formed theology of the nature and attributes of God, we can only send our worship into outer space where it will boomerang off a god of our own creation, made in our own image, and, thus, reflect nothing but an insidious worship of self. Without biblical theology, there is nothing to worship but a reflection of ourselves, the inevitable fruit of cheap epistemology.
Yet every survey shows a stark biblical illiteracy ravishing the Church. Where do we find our truth? Everywhere but the Bible it seems.
I am afraid for the Church.
We – and I mean the Church at large – find ourselves back in idol-saturated Ephesus, worshipping The Unknown God.
Theologically, this country is at present in a state of utter chaos, established in the name of religious toleration, and rapidly degenerating into the flight from reason and the death of hope. We are not happy in this condition, and there are signs of a very great eagerness, especially among the younger people, to find a creed to which they can give wholehearted adherence. This is the Church’s opportunity, if she chooses to take it.5
Has there ever been a better descriptor of 21st century culture, and with that of the 21st century church, than those words, “the flight from reason and the death of hope”?
Cheap epistemology gives birth to irrationality and irrationality gives birth to chaos.
I have so many Bibles, it is easy to take them for granted. On my good days however I remember that every time I hold the Bible, I am holding a blood-bought, sacrificial gift. I'm holding a monumental miracle of the mercy of God. I'm holding a costly treasure.
“This is the church’s opportunity, if she chooses to take it.” My words today can only echo Sayers’ prescient warnings of a generation past.
May God grant us an army of Pauls to say, “The One whom you worship without knowing, Him I proclaim to you” (Acts 17:23).
Dear Christian, where do you find your truth?
[Editor’s Note: Veritas School of Biblical Ministry is offering readers of the Christian Post a free, no-obligation enrollment. Join a growing tribe of everyday Bible scholars.]
1 Carl F.H. Henry, ed. Basic Christian Doctrines (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1971.)
2 The Awana Youth Association provides Bible-based clubs for boys and girls through churches around the world.
3 Michael Foust, “Seminary President Admits She Doesn’t Believe in Heaven, Miracles or Christ’s Resurrection.” April 25, 2019 in Christian Headlines retrieved April 20, 2020 from https://www.christianheadlines.com/contributors/michael-foust/seminary-president-admits-she-doesn-t-believe-in-heaven-miracles-or-christ-s-resurrection.html
4 Lloyd-Jones, D. Martyn. Preaching and Preachers . Zondervan. Kindle Edition. Location 4576.
5 Dorothy Sayers. Creed or chaos? : why Christians must choose either dogma or disaster (or, why it really does matter what you believe). Manchester, NH: Sophia Institute Press, 1999, ©1949, pp. 44, 45.
This article is excerpted from the book Chaos: As Goes the Church So Goes the World by Dr. Bill Giovannetti (Endurant Press, San Francisco: 2020).