As we face an increasingly altering culture, we must hold fast to the truth. But this has caused us ask what is the truth! I am reminded of the times when the Church had to decide what books were really part of the canon, as the fierce winds of persecution called them to give up their religious books! What would they give up? What was truly God’s Word? In a similar way, we are being sifted. What is truly God’s Word? How shall we truly live in a post-Christian era? What is worthy of our holding?
The Danger of Holding the Fence and Not the Truth
At times, we have come to the sad realization that some of our ‘truths’ are nothing but old traditions received. Some where good applications of Scriptural truth, but the reason for their practice has long been forgotten, and they are not seen as truth itself. We have placed fences around the truth, and now the fences are seen as the the truth itself. For example, the application of not going to a movie theatre becomes the truth, rather than we are not to set wicked things before our eyes and endorse ungodliness.
This was often the practice of the Pharisee. They deplored the inroads of the Hellenistic way of life into Judaism. They wanted to live godly lives in the midst of corrupting influences from the pagan world. Since the Pharisees were passionate in their desire to obey God’s law, they had developed over time an oral tradition, “the tradition of the elders,” that put a “hedge” or fence around the Biblical commandments. The idea was that obedience to the tradition of the elders formed a barrier that would prevent a pious Jew from breaking a Biblical commandment itself. Speaking on this, the Jewish Encyclopedia comments,
On the whole, however, they added new restrictions to the Biblical law in order to keep the people at a safe distance from forbidden ground; as they termed it, “they made a fence around the Law” (Ab. i. 1; Ab. R. N. i.-xi.), interpreting the words “Ye shall watch my watch” (Lev. xviii. 30, Hebr.) to mean “Ye shall place a guard around my guard” (Yeb. 21a). Thus they forbade the people to drink wine or eat with the heathen, in order to prevent associations which might lead either to intermarriage or to idolatry (Shab. 17b). To the forbidden marriages of the Mosaic law relating to incest (Lev. xviii.-xx.) they added a number of others (Yeb. ii. 4). After they had determined the kinds of work prohibited on the Sabbath they forbade the use of many things on the Sabbath on the ground that their use might lead to some prohibited labor. It was here that the foundation was laid of that system of rabbinic law which piled statute upon statute until often the real purpose of the Law was lost sight of. But such restrictions are not confined to ritual laws. Also in regard to moral laws there are such additional prohibitions, as, for instance, the prohibition against what is called “the dust of slanderous speech” (Yer. Peah i. 16a) or “the dust of usury” (B. M. 61b), or against unfair dealings, such as gambling, or keeping animals that feed on property of the neighbors (Tosef., B. Ḳ. vii. 8; Tosef., Sanh. v. 2, 5; Sanh. 25b, 26b).
We know how this turned out! They erected man-made standards of spirituality. They overturned the very Law of God and substituted the divine revelation with their applications of the truth. In their desire for holiness and purity, they failed to see the greater objective in reaching the world. They failed to see the need of justice and mercy. Often the conservative groups fall into this same trap of holding forth the truth. Care must be taken here.
The Danger of Holding Ancient Error and Not the Truth
At other times, while thinking that we are holding the truth, we are just holding wrong views with a long history. We had forgotten Cyprian’s insight: “custom which had crept in among some ought not to prevent the truth from prevailing and conquering; for custom without truth is the antiquity of error.” I know many who believe that if a church does not have an altar call, then they are in spiritual decline. Not only does such a view have a false standard of spirituality, but they are enshrining a grievous error of the past.
Holding the Doctrines of Value and Not the Whole Truth
But there is another wrong way in which we are facing these altering times and the importance of holding truth. We see many adopting the view that suggests an evolutionary concept of knowledge. This is sometimes called the natural selection theory of knowledge and holds that ideas have ‘survival value’ and that knowledge evolves through a process of variation, selection and retention. They have adaptive value and are probably as close as our species can come to being objective and understanding reality.
Applying this principle to doctrine, we see that some believe there are certain doctrines that are important to hold, while permitting other doctrines to go into oblivion. Some so-called Baptists, mostly liberals, have seen that the doctrine of Baptism is the key, while rejecting the fundamental doctrines of the faith. This took place in the Downgrade Controversy and the Baptist Union in Spurgeon’s life.
Today, we are facing the same thing when alliances are downplaying core doctrines, such as creation, and raising up social activism and man-made ideas of justice to places of prominence. They have come to believe that in our contemporary crisis their ideas of justice have greater value than these other doctrines, suggesting almost an evolutionary view of knowledge.
However, God have given us a stewardship of all his words, even to the keeping of sounds words about that doctrine. This has a real practical point, which Luther asserts in his normal way, “The Holy Ghost (who speaks in all words of Scripture) does not permit Himself to be parted or divided, that He should permit one point to be taught or believed as true, and the other as false.” To this might be added another pertinent saying of Luther (19, 1132): “You must not say, I purpose to err as a Christian. Christian erring occurs only from ignorance.” (Cp. 9, 642 ff.).
Let me expand upon this biblical truth. Although the unity of Holy Scripture does not demand that all its statements be considered of equal importance for faith and life, this attribute of the Word of God will not permit any feat of subtraction. What the Lord said to the children of Israel by the mouth of Moses: “Ye shall not add unto the Word which I command you, neither shall ye diminish ought from it,” Deut. 4:2, applies to Holy Writ in general. Cp. Rev. 22:18. It was one of the assertions of Paul: “We are not as many, which corrupt the Word of God.” 2 Cor. 2:17. To the great missionary apostle the smallest admixture of error to the Word of Truth was equivalent to a perversion of the entire body of doctrine. Gal. 5:9.
Nor did he confine his denunciation to the corruption of fundamental doctrines. When he writes that “in the latter times some shall depart from the faith, giving heed to seducing spirits and doctrines of devils,” he enumerates among such doctrines also the prohibition of marriage and of certain foods, 1 Tim. 4:1-3. And again, when he writes: “If any man teach otherwise, and consent not to wholesome words, even the words of our Lord Jesus Christ, and to the doctrine which is according to godliness, he is proud, knowing nothing,” 1 Tim. 6:3-4, the context shows that he at least includes questions which come under the Table of Duties.
It is well-known, also, that the second part of Paul’s Second Letter to the Thessalonians is practical, pertaining in a large measure to questions of Christian conduct, and yet, chap. 3:14 says: “If any man obey not our word by this epistle, note that man, and have no company with him, that he may be ashamed.” While he was still to be admonished in a fraternal way, brotherly fellowship was to be suspended until the offender had passed through a change of heart.
Holding to the Past and Refusing All Progress of the Truth
This is one of the most difficult aspects of holding to the truth: what is legitimate progress of that truth? As we face new technology and new forms of problems, we must know how to apply the truth of God in valid ways. We may error here in two ways; we open ourselves to all error by refusing to bring all to the Word of God, or we may close ourselves to the important duty of applying the Word of God in our day. Calvin speaks of this:
As to this, there is a twofold error that is wont to be fallen into, for there are some who, from having either been deceived by a false pretext of the name of God, or from their knowing that many are commonly deceived in this way, reject every kind of doctrine indiscriminately, while there are others that by a foolish credulity embrace, without distinction, everything that is presented to them in the name of God. Both of these ways are faulty, for the former class, saturated with a presumptuous prejudice of that nature, close up the way against their making progress, while the other class rashly expose themselves to all winds of errors. (Eph_4:14.) Paul admonishes the Thessalonians to keep the middle path between these two extremes, while he prohibits them from condemning anything without first examining it; and, on the other hand, he admonishes them to exercise judgment, before receiving, what may be brought forward, as undoubted truth. And unquestionably, this respect, at least, ought to be shewn to the name of God — that we do not despise prophecy, which is declared to have proceeded from him. As, however, examination or discrimination ought to precede rejection, so it must, also, precede the reception of true and sound doctrine.
We are being told, “Cultures are mixed, and each has valuable elements and demonic elements.” And there is certain truth within this statement. However, by itself, this is a half truth. Not all cultures are equally biblical, even as those overtly based upon Christian axioms are not entirely consistent
Yet, the same people who made this claim also assert, “There is no such thing as a universal, a-historical expression of Christianity.” In many ways, this sounds extremely like moral relativism, which “is the view that moral judgments are true or false only relative to some particular standpoint (for instance, that of a culture or a historical period) and that no standpoint is uniquely privileged over all others.”
But the Bible calls us to have one mind; it summons us to come into the unity of faith. Paul would demand that all the churches of the 1st century, which age was far less monolithic than ours and filled with varying cultural distinctions, to believe and practice the same things (See 1 Cor. 7:17; 11:16; 14:33, 34; 16:1). And Christianity itself seeks to resemble the great reality in heaven.
Those who have made these claims argue that those cultures that are primarily Christian cannot be assessed as more pure or less pure in true conformity to the Christian Faith, seeing that all have valuable elements and demonic elements. This is preposterous. and it tends toward worldliness. It rids the Christian the ability to discern. After all, as one will certainly claim, it is all cultural.
But, while these assertions sound great and sound in this period wherein men and woman have been programmed to believe them, they are proving to be a floodgate of ungodliness. Actions, which were over large periods of time seen to be godless, are now flaunted as new found freedoms. Old paths are being left as these gurus of godless antinomianism lead scores on broad highways to cultural liberalism. Social experimentation is dangerous enough, but religious experimentation may be fatal.
Does this mean that there is legitimate means of progress? No, there is; but it is organic growth from the Word. It cannot grow up to be something that does not share the life that comes from the Word. It must spring from it and tend toward its aims and goals. In all of this, we are to prove all things, which means both our own sentiments as well as the sentiments of others. The extent to which the course of conduct is to be carried is to “all things,” including things taken for granted to be right, things assumed to be and are wrong, and even things doubtful. It is to be done by an appeal to the word of God as supreme, authoritative, infallible, inerrant and the final arbitrator in all judgments. We must do this sincerely, thoroughly, prayerfully, and with the desire to submit to the will of God.
One of the great reasons why we are prone to the dangers outlined above is because of the hindrances we face in acting responsibly in our duty as stewards. We may well look to the need to discern all things, and we immediately come to dislike the trouble it may cause and fear the possible consequences. It is easier just to hold to the old paths, even though they are not personally examined by us, or we can simply throw all off and do what seems best to us or our favorite teacher. But let us not forget the blessings. We will possess a clear conscience, a greater confidence in our actions, and a larger acquaintance with the Word of God.