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The liberal ‘gevaar’

In many evangelical circles, and certainly amongst most fundamentalists, the world ‘liberal’ carries with it a definite emotional and theological charge.

Liberals are seen as threatening the Faith and undermining true Christian theology. Liberals have a nefarious agenda; they are wolves in sheep’s clothing, and so on. Liberal theologians, on the other hand, are concerned at what they observe as a lack of love and compassion for the human condition among fundamentalists. They also take exception to what they perceive as the naïve and uncritical spiritualisation of evangelicals. Some, like bishop Spong for instance, even contend that unless they save Christianity from unscientific supernaturalism it will become first irrelevant and then extinct.

So what is theological liberalism?  I would describe liberals as people who hold the following theological beliefs:  Concerning the Bible, they generally believe that the scriptures are no more inspired than other important literary works. As a result, they subject the Bible to rigorous ‘higher’ criticism and discount much of its historic reliability and factual accuracy. Concerning salvation, they understand regeneration as a reprogramming of the individual mind and the transformation of the structures of society. Liberal theology is both humanistic and anti-supernatural. On the positive side, this results in a focus on compassion for people and consideration for the human habitat. On the negative side, it strips Christianity and the Bible of everything that cannot be logically explained. Angels have never been scientifically evaluated therefore they cannot exist. A miracle is merely the mythological name given to a natural process we do not yet fully understand. Rebirth is actually just a way of describing the process of intellectual and moral transformation. The virgin birth is superfluous… and so on. I need to note though that there is a continuum from old fashioned liberalism on the one end, through neo-liberalism, evangelical orthodoxy, to fundamentalism on the other end. Some fundamentalists regard the average evangelical as somewhat liberal, and many liberals see little difference between evangelicals and fundamentalists.

As an evangelical, I have very real problems with most that goes under the heading of theological liberalism. I accept that the Bible has a human aspect to it, but I do not accept that it is anything other than divinely inspired and authoritative. If, as many liberals contend, most of the New Testament is simply a record of the philosophy of Paul of Tarsus, then it provides only limited help in the 21st century and no certainty for an eternal future. If the Gospels record the embellished mythology of overzealous first century Christ-followers, then perhaps Jesus did not do what they say He did and His teaching is no more definitive than that of any other wise man of His day. If man is essentially good, then sin is just a religious word for social dysfunction. If right and wrong, morality and immorality are genetically or culturally determined, then homosexuality is just a matter of personal preference or predisposition, and abortion on demand a societal convenience.

If science stands above scripture as the yardstick of truth, then tomorrow’s truth will not be the same as today’s truth and both will be uncertain.
If God is an archaic name for cosmic group consciousness, then the possibility of a personal relationship with him, her, or it is an absurd idea. If Jesus was just a radical Jewish teacher and activist then I am without a saviour and my only hope for the future is my own effort, the success of my particular race or society, and a lot of luck. If this is what the Christian Faith truly is then it isn’t worth saving.

I see no point to a liberal Faith of the kind I have described. However, a note of sober caution is in order. Liberalism is not the only aberration within the greater body of the Church. In my opinion, extreme fundamentalism, on the other side of the continuum, with its harsh separatism and exclusive definitions of biblical inerrancy, creationism and so on, is an ill-conceived over-reaction to liberalism. In its own way it does just as much damage to the credibility and vitality of the Christian Faith.  Naive and slavish literalism denigrates the rational aspect of biblical faith; fixation on non-fundamental doctrines fragments the church; separatist pride and lovelessness opens the chasm between church and world even wider than it already is.

Another caution is that we should recognise the liberalism in our own views and practices. When we focus on societal change as the Faith priority, then we are comfortably in line with the liberal agenda. When we practice our Faith as an essentially private matter, largely unconfined by the demands and restraints of church life and doctrine, then we are being distinctly liberal. When we respond accommodatingly to unbiblical societal norms with the mantra, ‘different strokes for different folks’, then we are surely liberals at heart. So perhaps, rather than being as concerned as we often appear to be with only  the liberalism we identify in the institutions of the church, we ought also to examine the insidious incursion of it into our own lives and thinking.

I can’t speak for you, but I actually don’t want religion of any type, liberal or other; I want a relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ as revealed in the Bible and as illuminated by the Holy Spirit … so help me Father God.

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The hope of glory

When I was ten my parents decided to give my older sister piano lessons. I asked them why I too could not be taught to play the piano, but they dismissed the idea out of hand. This really upset me! My parents were often out in the evenings for business or church functions and so every time they went out I executed a cunning plan. One of their favourite LP’s was Tchaikovsky’s piano concerto number one, and so each time I was alone I put this record onto the turntable, sat at the piano, and laboriously learned to play two minutes of the first movement. One evening after supper I asked if I could play something on the piano. They smiled indulgently at each other but their smiles turned into open mouthed surprise when I flamboyantly played the first few bars.

Now the truth is that I was no child prodigy, just a brat with a good ear and perseverance. I can’t help wondering what would have happened if my parents had mistakenly believed that I was a master musician in the making, and insisted on three lessons a week and endless hours of practice. How frustrating and heart-breaking that would have been for everyone.  No matter how many hours I practiced I could never be like Tchaikovsky; it just isn’t in me.

I suspect that many Christians feel frustrated and defeated by constantly trying to be LIKE Jesus and failing time and again to imitate Him.
They never say so out loud, but inside they often say; “I just can never be like Jesus! I try and try but I keep falling short and it’s frustrating me terribly. I love Jesus and its breaking my heart that I can’t be like Him as He expects me to.” Some people give up when this realisation dawns on them and become closet-Christians, or they lapse into living the Faith life in guilty failure. To make matters worse, these folk often have to endure a regular Sunday dose of moralistic preaching which just serves to make them feel even worse about themselves.

Len Sweet and Frank Viola write the following in Jesus Manifesto; ‘the “good news” is that Jesus doesn’t want us to be “like” Him. He wants to share His resurrection life with us. He doesn’t want us to imitate Him; instead, Christ, the Unspeakable Gift, wants to live in and through us. The gospel is not the imitation of Christ; it is the implantation and impartation of Christ. We are called to do more than mediate truth. We are called to manifest Jesus’ presence. That “we” means you’ (http://www.thejesusmanifesto.com). Are they right? Actually, they are not alone in proclaiming this message. Dr Jim Fowler writes in one of his essays that ‘the Christian life works by the out-working of the life of Jesus Christ. Christians must give up trying to make the Christian life work by their own efforts and orientations, and allow the life of Jesus Christ to be lived out through them.’ (http://www.christinyou.net)

Instead of examining the theology of this, I want rather, in this short article, to touch on some practical implications. If we are oriented to imitating Jesus then will we not end up practicing just another form of works-oriented religion?  It sounds a noble idea to imitate Jesus in our daily lives but success will surely depend largely on how well WE can do this. However, if we understand that it is Christ within who seeks to manifest His life through our lives, then the criteria for success will be His initiative and our yielded cooperation. Instead of putting on our faith life from without, we manifest it from within. This is closer to what Jesus himself taught, modelled and prayed for (see John 17:20-23). It seems that we are not called to perfectly imitate Jesus Christ, but to manifest His life through our lives – not imitation but incarnation.

Jesus’ life is loving and kind, and so to manifest His life is to be loving and kind. His life is holy, and so to manifest His life to be holy. Jesus’ life is anointed and miraculous, and so to manifest His life is to live in the anointed miraculous. His life is a life of giving and sacrifice, so to manifest His life is to live a life of giving and joyful self-sacrifice.

For the last 30 years I have taught that the purpose of life is to come to know Jesus, to become like Him, and to help others to do likewise. It is time I amended it to read;

‘the purpose of life is to come to know Jesus, to manifest His life through our lives, and to help others to do likewise’.  Know Him and show Him.
 

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Faith

“Pat, where is your faith?!”
The exclamation came from a lady in our congregation just after my wife had shared her concern about the church finances. I had left a secure and well paid executive job in a major bank just months before to pastor a very small but growing church. A flu epidemic was sweeping our area and Pat had said something like, “If everyone is sick and they don’t come to church then how are we going to make ends meet?” It was in the days when most people used cheques or cash, and so non-attendance usually meant non-giving. Despite our concerns, everything worked out just fine and has continued to do so till this day, but I wonder what the lady meant by her question.
Today when I hear people talking about faith I still question what they mean when they use the word.
To some people faith equates to ‘standing on the promises of God’. By this they usually mean all the general promises of scripture irrespective of when or to whom they were originally given. Some take this even further by constantly reminding God what He has promised in the Bible. Some even claim the promises as their right and confess that God is bound by His Word to fulfil them all. Is this biblical faith? I don’t think it is, in fact it sounds more like presumption to me. I have serious reservations about placing unqualified trust and dependence on generalised biblical statements such as ‘”I will restore you to health and heal your wounds” declares the Lord’ (Jeremiah 30:17).  Surely I cannot ‘claim’ this promise in my current circumstance irrespective of context, time, and purpose, simply because it is stated in the Bible as a promise to ancient Israel?

Some folk believe that faith is a force that can be used to achieve what we want. They base this on the King James Version of Hebrews 11:1, ‘now faith is the substance of the things hoped for…’ A dictionary definition of ‘substance’ includes the idea of something tangible, like electricity, so accordingly ‘faith’ is something tangible that can be manipulated in a similar way to, say, electricity. According to this doctrine, we should grow our faith and use our faith in order to obtain what we hope for.  Of course words like ‘substance’ in King James’s day meant something else entirely and modern translations render it as ‘being sure of ‘(NIV) or ‘assurance’ (NASV), or something similar. So is this ‘faith is a force’ idea biblical? I don’t believe it is. Having faith in faith is both unbiblical and almost atheistic. Where is the need for God in such a doctrine? All one needs is to believe that belief itself will achieve for us what we hope for – God is superfluous! Our faith is not in faith, but in Jesus, who is the source and object of our trust and dependence.

In the Old Testament, faith is defined as resting, trusting and hoping in God, with the idea that we should trust in and commit ourselves to the Lord. In the New Testament, faith is defined as believing and accepting a statement as true, and further, to place personal trust in this belief. To have faith in Jesus for salvation is therefore to believe what He says and to rely on Him to accomplish what He says He will do.
However, faith in itself is not limited to Christians. To my mind, atheists are people of great faith because they choose to believe that God does not exist and they live accordingly, trusting implicitly that life ends at the grave and that there is no eternal accountability for how they live out their lives. However, to the Christian, faith should never be separated from the one in whom we have faith, the Lord Jesus Christ

In essence, faith is a divinely motivated decision to believe and trust in the Lord Jesus. The Holy Spirit illuminates the testimony of the scriptures to us in such a way that we believe sufficiently to act on or rest completely in the promise. The basis of our faith is the nature and character of God as revealed in and through Jesus Christ. God is good, faithful, and totally trust-worthy.

Perhaps the lady who responded to my wife’s concerns should have addressed her as follows; “Pat, do you believe that God has assured you that He will provide for your needs? Then have faith in what He has said to you; believe Him, trust Him and don’t worry about the flu epidemic. You might be short of funds for a month, or maybe longer, but you will come through because God will not desert you; He is faithful”

 

 

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Westminster Confession

The Westminster Confession through Jesus spectacles

Many are well educated on the history and contents of the Westminster Confession  of Faith. Some may have just a nodding acquaintance with it, while  some may never have heard this term.

New ArticleI recently read an article in Joy! Magazine asserting that the Westminster Confession “has been described as the finest, most Biblical description and definition of Christian life, faith and practice”. Only those adhering to the Calvinist system of theology could assert such a thing so I promptly submitted an article presenting a different view on the subject. The article is to be published in the August edition of Joy! Magazine. If you would like to read the full article then please click HERE, but for those of you who need a bit of background, here is a brief description of the Westminster Confession.

The Western Confession of Faith was commissioned by the Church of England and published in 1646 to set out its essentially Calvanistic understanding of the Christian Faith. It consists of a number of questions each followed by the Church of England’s response.
The condensed version of the confession, usually referred to as the Shorter Confession, starts with three important questions:
  1. What is the chief end of man?
  2. What rule hath God given to direct us how we may glorify and enjoy Him?
  3. What do the Scriptures principally teach?
My article attempts to answer these questions, not from a Calvinistic standpoint, but from a Jesus-centred perspective. l am deeply committed to the idea that the questions of faith and life should be answered, not in terms of systems of theology, but from what Jesus taught and did
You can find “The Westminster Confession through Jesus spectacles”  here at www.truthistheword.com under the PUBLISHED ARTICLES tab, where you can also find other articles I have written over the years.
Please note that the dates shown are not the dates the articles were published (most of them are a lot more recent) but back-dated for archival purposes.

God Bless you!

 

 

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Special Notice – Spread the Word

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How do YOU read the Bible? (and don’t say “with my eyes”  *grin*). Do you read it the same way as everyone else? Do you understand it the same way? Or maybe you have certain biases that you haven’t even noticed which you ‘wear’ as  ‘Biblical Spectacles’

Click HERE to read a short article concerning the varieties of Biblical Spectacles.

The second article I’d like to point you toward is one called “Today is the Day” and you can read it HERE. This short article concerns our mortality and serves as a very good reminder about just what exactly we are prioritising in our daily lives, and why?

Let us set our eyes towards Jesus, focus on things of the Spirit, and not the tat and ‘bling-bling’ of this world, and march towards.
Finally, if you haven’t yet had a chance to read “A Word of Witness”, please take this opportunity to do so and share with others. It’s about living life NOW, particularly in SOUTH AFRICA and I’d like as many people as possible to hear what I feel is a vital message. At the end of this post, you can read the comments others have made and add your own. Let’s make a change in this country people!

 

 

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About Me

My name is Christopher Peppler and I was born in Cape Town, South Africa in 1947. While working in the financial sector I achieved a number of business qualifications from the Institute of Bankers, Damelin Management School, and The University of the Witwatersrand Business School. After over 20 years as a banker, I followed God’s calling and joined the ministry full time. After becoming a pastor of what is now a quite considerable church, I  earned an undergraduate theological qualification from the Baptist Theological College of Southern Africa and post-graduate degrees from two United States institutions. I was also awarded the Doctor of Theology in Systematic Theology from the University of Zululand in 2000.

Four years before that I established the South African Theological Seminary (SATS), which today is represented in over 70 countries and has more than 2 500 active students enrolled with it. I presently play an role supervising Masters and Doctoral students.

I am a passionate champion of the Christocentric or Christ-centred Principle, an approach to biblical interpretation and theological construction that emphasises the centrality of Jesus

I have been happily married to Patricia since the age of 20, have two children, Lance and Karen, a daughter-in-law Tracey, and granddaughters Jessica and Kirsten. I have now retired from both church and seminary leadership and devote my time to writing, discipling, and the classical guitar.

If you would like to read my testimony to Jesus then click HERE.