Exploring Life’s Biggest Questions

G. K. Chesterton once wrote, “We all feel the riddle of the earth without anyone to point it out. The mystery of life is the plainest part of it.” He was right; there is nothing more basic to humanity than the desire to unriddle the mystery of life. Life’s Biggest Questions is a new book intended to help readers do exactly that.

Written by Erik Thoennes, a pastor and professor of theology at Biola University, the book raises sixteen fundamental questions (e.g. Does God exist? What is God like? Who is Jesus? What is a human being?) and offers snappy but Biblically solid answers in response. Less than 200 pages in length, the book’s strength is its readability and clarity – distilling complicated doctrines of the Christian faith into easily accessible chapters. The book also contains several charts and illustrative material to make the information easy to digest and with questions for application and discussion at the conclusion of each chapter, Life’s Biggest Questions is an ideal resource for small groups.

Because the book is primarily an introduction to theological questions rather than apologetic questions (e.g. Is faith opposed to evidence? Are miracles possible? Why can’t Christianity be true for you, and Buddhism true for me?) the book wouldn’t be my first choice to put into the hands of a skeptic or someone who is grappling with objections to Christianity. However, for new Christians or those who have had some exposure to Christianity and want to know more, or even mature Christians who are looking for concise ways to talk about what they believe, this book is a valuable resource.

You can find out more about the book here (including a sample of the first three chapters). To hear Erik Thoennes talk about the book, you can listen to his interview with Greg Koukl on the Stand To Reason radio program here (skip to 01:54:01 for the interview).

Here are some endorsements of the book:

“It is refreshing to see a book that addresses our deepest concerns from a distinctively theological perspective. Professor Thoennes is a master communicator, and Life’s Biggest Questions is marked by an accessible, interesting style. The book is filled with content and distinctively characterized by repeated examples of practical application. It is a fun read and would make an excellent text for a course in theology or Christian worldview.”
-J. P. Moreland, Distinguished Professor of Philosophy, Talbot School of Theology, Biola University

“Helpful, concise, accessible: this book will provide clarity and conviction for those looking for answers to the big questions.”
-Josh Moody, Senior Pastor, College Church, Wheaton, Illinois; author, The God-Centered Life: Insights from Jonathan Edwards

“Socrates’ well-known statement, ‘The unexamined life is not worth living,’ is an entirely appropriate start to Life’s Biggest Questions. Stepping outside of one’s day-to-day existence to reflect on the big-picture questions is understandable and commendable. This book clearly, concisely, and thoughtfully presents answers from an evangelical Christian perspective. Thoennes is not only able to articulate Christian theology and history, but also help readers think through the implications for their own lives.”
-Heather Campbell, vice president, Atheist Coalition of San Diego

“Dr. Thoennes is a masterful teacher. With biblical precision and profound understanding, he comes to grips with the most often asked questions about the gospel. The beauty of following Christ comes through with such clarity that the reader will want to fall in love with Jesus all over again.”
-Robert E. Coleman, Distinguished Professor of Evangelism and Discipleship, Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary

Doctrine and Doxology

A good reminder from Carl Trueman (emphasis mine):

[pk_box width=”600″]As Paul reflects in 1 Tim. 1 upon how God has dealt with him, his language becomes exuberant and he speaks of God’s grace ‘overflowing’ towards him.  Then, able to contain himself no more, he bursts into a doxology.  This is hardly surprising.  The description of God’s actions should naturally call forth worship; and here Paul offers a paradigm of a worshipful response in which he ascribes to God glory and honour, i.e., that to which God’s person and actions entitle him.  Paul’s praise is doctrinal in origin and doctrinal in content.  To state what should be obvious, praise and worship that is neither is simply not praise and worship as the Bible would understand it.

Yet there is surely more here: the relationship between doctrine and worship in the structure of Paul’s letters allows us to infer that doctrine which does not lead to praise is not really true in the richest sense of the word. Teaching of doctrine and appropriate response to the same are inextricably tied together such that the former should really terminate in the latter.

… The other aspect of this doctrine-worship connection is that, if doctrine which does not culminate in praise is not true doctrine, then praise which is not a response to true doctrine is not true praise.   Praise and worship – the ascription to God of the honour and glory which is his – is a response to knowing who he is and what he has done. It is provoked and shaped by the description of God which the teacher gives. Anything else which calls itself worship, whether traditional or contemporary, whether exhilarating or soothing, is not worship.  It is merely an aesthetic experience which helps to achieve a certain psychological or emotional state.[/pk_box]

Read the whole post here.

The History of Hell

The Christian History Institute, publisher of Christian History magazine, has produced a brief survey and resource guide on the history of Christian thought about hell. Given the current debate about hell, it is a helpful resource.

You can view or download the pdf here.

Is Hell a Vital Doctrine?

Biola Magazine has a good interview with Ashish Naidu, assistant professor of theology at Biola’s Talbot School of Theology, on some of the recent challenges to the doctrine of hell.

Can we Love Jesus and Accept Evolution?

James Anderson, assistant professor at Reformed Theological Seminary, reviews “I Love Jesus & I Accept Evolution”, the latest book by Denis Lamoureux:

“A full critique of Lamoureux’s evolutionary creationism cannot be given here. I will, however, indicate some of the major reasons why I don’t find his arguments compelling. In the first place, his approach to interpreting Scripture is highly problematic. He professes to acknowledge both the “Book of God’s Works” (revelation in nature) and the “Book of God’s Words” (revelation in Scripture) but it’s clear that he gives the former unqualified priority over the latter; if there is any apparent conflict between nature (for which read: modern science) and the Bible, Lamoureux concludes that the Bible is mistaken due to its accommodation to ancient science. On this way of thinking, the Bible must always be judged in the light of modern science. Yet this prioritization is the very opposite of the view that Christians have historically taken on the issue. As Calvin famously put it, the Bible functions like a pair of spectacles given to correct the distortion of natural revelation by our fallen intellects. Scripture has authority over science, whether ancient or modern.

Furthermore, Lamoureux’s separation of theological statements and scientific statements in the Bible is impossible to apply in practice. Take, for instance, the claim that God judged the world by sending a great flood (cf. 2 Peter 3:6). Is that a theological statement or a scientific statement? On the face of it, it’s both—at the very least, it has theological elements and scientific elements that cannot be teased apart.

A further concern is raised by Lamoureux’s central claim that the Bible is accommodated to ancient science and therefore makes scientific statements that are false. Why think that the accommodation only pertains to science? Why not suppose, for much the same reasons, that the Bible is accommodated to ancient morality too? Indeed, that’s precisely the argument used by many liberal theologians today who argue that Christianity is compatible with monogamous homosexual relationships. If Lamoureux wouldn’t accept their position, why should we accept his? What do modern scientists have that modern ethicists don’t?

The point can be pushed further still. If the Bible is accommodated to the fallible scientific outlook of its original audience, perhaps it is also accommodated to their fallible religious outlook. Perhaps all those claims in the New Testament regarding Christ’s substitutionary atonement are merely a concession to the religious outlook of ancient people who were used to thinking in terms of animal sacrifices, propitiatory atonement, and so forth. Presumably those claims would be no more immune to error than the Bible’s scientific claims. But then how much confidence could we place in the gospel message preached by the apostles?

The point is this: accommodationist theories of biblical inspiration such as Lamoureux’s are like a universal acid that burns its way through everything. Once we argue that the Bible is unreliable in one area (science) due to its accommodation to ancient ignorance, we can have no principled basis for insisting that it is still reliable—never mind inerrant—in other areas such as ethics and theology.

So much for Lamoureux’s doctrine of Scripture. What about his scientific arguments? I’ve noted already some of the weaknesses in his case: circular reasoning, selective evidence, and conclusions that go far beyond what the empirical data support. Equally problematic is the fact that he doesn’t even mention, let alone address, some of the many significant scientific difficulties faced by the theory that all living organisms have gradually evolved from rudimentary life forms by purely natural processes (e.g., the lack of a plausible mechanism for large-scale evolutionary development, the so-called “Cambrian explosion” in the fossil record, the origin of sexual differentiation, and the existence of irreducibly complex biological structures). The uninformed reader will almost certainly be misled into thinking that the scientific case for evolution is beyond question. Still, perhaps we should cut Lamoureux some slack on this point. After all, if the biblical authors can be excused their misleading or false statements on the basis that they were captive to the science-of-the-day, presumably so can he!

Finally, I suspect many evangelical readers will be unconvinced by Lamoureux’s plea that his position preserves all the essential doctrines of the Christian faith. He speaks several times of “non-negotiable” Christian beliefs, but never explains what criteria he uses for treating some traditional Christian beliefs as non-negotiable and others as dispensable. One can’t help but suspect that his list of essential doctrines is rigged so that his own views fall safely within the bounds of orthodoxy.

Lamoureux’s rejection of the doctrine of original sin, which follows of necessity from his rejection of the historical Adam and Eve, is particularly problematic. If Adam never existed then obviously no human being could have inherited a sinful nature from him. Lamoureux suggests that this traditional doctrine originated with Augustine (who was, of course, misled by the science-of-the-day) but he fails to acknowledge that Augustine argued his position from Scripture. What Lamoureux recommends in place of the traditional doctrine might be dubbed “Original Sin Lite” (or perhaps “Original Sin Zero”): every human being is a sinner and that’s all we need to affirm. Yet surely this falls far short of the doctrine taught in Romans 5:12-21 and 1 Corinthians 15:20-22, which offers both a coherent theological explanation for universal human sinfulness and a profound parallel (and contrast) between Adam and Jesus. It’s remarkable that Lamoureux makes no reference to these passages in his discussion of original sin, and his treatments elsewhere in the book require him to hold these texts at arm’s length. One has to wonder whether he would have so quickly concluded that Adam is a dispensable mythical figure had he been more exposed to the Reformed tradition in his theological studies. There is far more at stake here than whether Paul was mistaken in certain incidental historical facts.

I have to conclude that despite its irenic approach and the undoubted expertise of its author, this book fails in its goal of reconciling biblical Christianity with modern evolutionary science. Nevertheless, it is very useful in this respect: it makes clear what price has to be paid in order to make peace with evolution, even if one takes a relatively conservative approach. The first casualties are the doctrines of biblical authority, clarity, and inerrancy, closely followed by the doctrine of original sin; and once those are sacrificed it’s inevitable that more will follow, for no doctrine is an island. The doctrines of salvation by grace alone and justification by faith alone, to cite two examples, are intimately connected to the nature of the fall and its consequences.”

Read the whole thing here (or an abridged version at Discerning Reader here).


The Great Trinity Debate at Parchment and Pen

The Reclaiming the Mind Ministries site Parchment and Pen is hosting an online debate on the Christian doctrine of the trinity, the claim that God is three persons and yet one substance. The debate began on April 11 and will take place over six weeks. Defending the traditional trinitarian position is apologist Rob Bowman, author of books such as Putting Jesus in His Place: The Case for the Deity of Christ and 20 Compelling Evidences That God Exists. His opponent is David Burke, a Christadelphian heading up the Christadelphian forums.

If you’ve given much thought to the doctrine of the trinity and the nature and identity of Jesus, you’re bound to find the exchange a worthwhile one.

Here is the format and arguments that have been posted so far (I’ll update when the posts become available):

Week 1: Scripture and the nature of God.

Rob Bowman on God and Scripture

David Burke on God and Scripture

Week 2: The person of Jesus Christ.

Rob Bowman on Jesus Christ

David Burke on Jesus Christ

Week 3: The person of Jesus Christ (responses and further arguments).

Rob Bowman on Jesus Christ, continued.

David Burke on Jesus Christ, continued.

Week 4: The Holy Spirit.

Rob Bowman on the Holy Spirit

David Burke on the Holy Spirit

Week 5 (begins May 9):  Theological views of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Rob Bowman on the Trinity

David Burke on the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit

Week 6 (begins May 16): Closing statements.

Rob Bowman’s Closing Statement

David Burke’s Closing Statement

You can read Rob’s introduction to the debate challenge here. And also worth reading is Rob and David’s list of resources that are relevant to the debate.

Free Resource – Study Guide to Biblical Doctrine

If you’re looking for a rigorous introduction to the doctrines of the Christian faith, there are few contemporary works as solid as Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology. Published in 1995, the text continues to stand out as a resource for its clarity and refreshing doxological emphasis. However, for many, the 1,300-page book can be intimidating. To help lay people and new Christians, Wayne’s son Elliot has produced a guide to the essential Christian doctrines, based on Systematic Theology. Elliot’s book, Christian Beliefs: Twenty Basics Every Christian Should Know, canvasses subjects from the character of God to the nature of the church in a readable and non-technical way.

Scott Thomas, of the Acts 29 Network, has just made available a study workbook that he has written to help people navigate Christian Beliefs. The workbook presents questions for review, essential Biblical texts, recommended reading, and references to Grudem’s original Systematic Theology. For small group facilitators and bible study leaders this is an incredibly valuable resource. There’s nothing more important than knowing God and thinking true thoughts about Him. Without a proper knowledge of who He is, our faith can quickly become emotionalism or worse. John Stott was right – as Christians we should neither seek to be loveless in our truth nor truthless in our love (Christ the Controversialist, page 19). This resource will be an enormous help to those who want to pursue a deeper knowledge of God and ground their affections for Him in the reality of who He is and what He has disclosed.

Thomas has released several versions of the workbook, in both black and white and in colour:

Theological Clarity and Application: Equipping Leaders in Biblical Doctrine

A response to Glenn Peoples's 'No, I am not an inerrantist'

A while back, one of New Zealand’s more prominent Christian bloggers, Glenn Peoples, wrote an article titled ‘No, I am not an inerrantist’. In it, he outlines his understanding of the doctrine of biblical inerrancy, and why he disagrees with it. I’ve been meaning to respond for some time, but have only now gotten the opportunity.

As Glenn notes, the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy is the widely accepted benchmark for what this doctrine entails. Very briefly stated, it affirms that the Bible is without error. That is what “inerrant” means. Glenn singles out the following parts of the Statement for disagreement:

WE AFFIRM that inspiration, though not conferring omniscience, guaranteed true and trustworthy utterance on all matters of which the Biblical authors were moved to speak and write.

WE AFFIRM that Scripture, having been given by divine inspiration, is infallible, so that, far from misleading us, it is true and reliable in all the matters it addresses.

WE AFFIRM that Scripture in its entirety is inerrant, being free from all falsehood, fraud, or deceit.

WE DENY that Biblical infallibility and inerrancy are limited to spiritual, religious, or redemptive themes, exclusive of assertions in the fields of history and science. We further deny that scientific hypotheses about earth history may properly be used to overturn the teaching of Scripture on creation and the flood.

WE AFFIRM that the doctrine of inerrancy has been integral to the Church’s faith throughout its history.

One of the obvious problems with this disagreement is that it severely undermines one’s apologetic with regard to the witness of Scripture. By disagreeing with these statements, Glenn commits himself to admitting that the Bible is not guaranteed true, trustworthy, and reliable; and may be misleading and contain falsehood, fraud, or deceit. That is a difficult situation for a Christian apologist like him to be in.

For my own part, I am an inerrantist, and I find Glenn’s critique of inerrancy shallow and unsophisticated to the point of attacking a strawman. Here’s why.

The Objection Evaluated

Glenn provides the following evidence for discarding inerrancy:

If the texts of the Bible contain not a single error, then two biblical accounts of the same event will agree. They need not cover all the same aspects of the event, but they will agree in the sense that there will not be any conflict between them. Otherwise there is an error present, since two accounts of an event that conflict cannot both be fully correct. However, we know that this is not the case when it comes to the four Gospels. There are some cases where this is fairly obvious. For example, all four Gospels contain sentences attributed to Jesus, but they differ from one Gospel to the next.

What is obvious to anyone with even a little exegetical training is that Glenn is implicitly evaluating the Bible against a modern, scientific or journalistic standard of reporting. It should go without saying, however, that the Bible is an ancient, prescientific compilation. While, in the Modern West, it is considered “inaccurate” or even “dishonest” to quote someone without doing so verbatim, in the ancient Near East no such view existed. On the contrary, it was customary to quote the essence of what a person said, without concerning oneself over the minutiae of the words and sentence structure used. This fact was not lost on the framers of the Chicago Statement, as indicated by Article XIII:

We deny that it is proper to evaluate Scripture according to standards of truth and error that are alien to its usage or purpose. We further deny that inerrancy is negated by Biblical phenomena such as a lack of modern technical precision, irregularities of grammar or spelling, observational descriptions of nature, the reporting of falsehoods, the use of hyperbole and round numbers, the topical arrangement of material, variant selections of material in parallel accounts, or the use of free citations.

Variant Selections & Topical Arrangement

I highlight the latter items—topical arrangement and variant selections—because of additional evidence Glenn moves on to allege against biblical inerrancy. He presents for consideration the differences in who is reported to have visited the tomb on Sunday morning in Matthew 28:1, Mark 16:1, Luke 24:10, and John 20:1–2; concluding, reading all four accounts, could you tell who was there and who was not?

The answer, however is obviously yes. As the ESV Study Bible notes on Luke 24:10, It was Mary … and the other women indicates that at least five women went to the tomb. And of John 20:2, contra Glenn’s claim that according to John 20:1–2, the only woman involved was Mary Magdalene, it observes: The plural we suggests the presence of other women besides Mary. Since Luke 24:10 lists Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them, and Mark 16:1 lists at least one of those women as Salome, it’s trivial to deduce that these were all present—with at least one other, unnamed woman.

The only way in which one can find a difficulty in this passage is to suppose that each of the authors intended to exhaustively list everyone present. Yet even reading modern writing, that’s far from a reasonable or normal assumption. Imagine I were emailing someone to tell him about our going to an apologetics conference. I might say that “Thinking Matters went to the conference”; or, if the person I was telling knew particular people in Thinking Matters, but not others, I might say that “Jason and Stuart and I went to the conference”; or I might just mention Jason if the other people were less important in the telling. None of these even suggest that the rest of Thinking Matters wasn’t present; let alone entail it.

A final evidence alleged against inerrancy is as follows:

Another type of difference between different Gospels is the way that different events are placed in a different order. A well known example is the cleansing of the temple in Jerusalem. In the Synoptic Gospels this event occurs after Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, fairly late in the narrative. In John’s Gospel however, this event occurs in chapter 2, before much else has happened.

But it’s a well-documented fact that adhering to a strict chronological order when reporting is a relatively modern invention. In the ancient Near East, arranging anecdotes by topic or by idea was an extremely common, not to mention effective, story-telling technique. It’s called block logic. It’s not wrong, unless you’re specifically intending to present a chronological description of events. It’s just a different way of recounting things. Someone claiming enough exegetical competence to reject the doctrine of inerrancy should know this.

Standards of Truth

Now, Glenn even acknowledges that standards of truth in the ancient Near East may differ to those in the modern West. Yet in doing so, rather than seriously considering the issue and recognizing the relevant cultural distinctions, he appears to mock the notion:

Maybe you want to rescue it by saying that inerrancy is not only compatible with individual writers using their own style, but it is also compatible with the fact that writers are doing no more than adhering to standards of accuracy that were acceptable in their day, and that is why there are no problems with the existence of conflicting accounts, because the fact is, standards of the day just weren’t very high. But this is inerrancy in name only, and it creates a hilarious spectacle for the sceptics to pour scorn upon. […] If we qualify inerrancy this much to save it, it becomes a useless idea altogether.

There is simply no way to overstate how theologically inept—not to mention culturally prejudiced—this statement is. It amounts to saying that using the grammatico-historical method of exegesis to determine our doctrine is a hilarious spectacle. It’s akin to saying that all we need are English Bible translations, because qualifying our understanding of Scripture against its sociolinguistic context is to qualify it so much that it becomes useless. It’s to say that putting ourselves into the shoes of the authors and audience of the scriptural autographs is not merely irrelevant, but an exercise in comedy.

What Glenn wants us to believe is that how the original authors and audience of Scripture understood errors merely indicates that their standards were too low. And, if we qualify inerrancy to mean that the Bible is free from error as its original authors and audience understood errors to be, then it’s a “hilarious spectacle” and a “useless idea altogether”. This objection is dead on arrival for two reasons:

Inerrancy is supposed to be defined by Scripture

Firstly, even if standards of truth in biblical times were sub par—tsk, tsk—it remains that the biblical authors wrote in those times. Now, maybe Glenn thinks those scamps should have used modern Western standards of reporting, even though these were totally alien to their culture, where the retelling of stories was a largely verbal affair and the manner of conceptualization was quite different. But the fact remains that they didn’t use our standards. They used their own. Probably because the ignorant peons they were writing to, wretched, barely hominid gimps that they were, expected it.

Thus, taking into account what the Bible itself considers an error when we’re defining inerrancy is not a “qualification”. It is a central tenet of the doctrine. When Scripture attests to its own inerrancy, it does so assuming an ancient Near Eastern concept of truth and error.

Modern journalistic standards are not an objective ideal

Secondly, what justification does Glenn have for taking his view that the “standards of the day just weren’t very high”? High compared to what? It isn’t as if our modern Western conventions for journalism constitute an objective standard against which any kind of story-telling should be judged. They’re not some pinnacle of reporting—a gilt-edged ideal that any writer in any culture should be looking up to and trying to imitate, even if that were possible without the use of technologies unavailable to them. In fact, these standards aren’t even commonly used in Western society.

Does Glenn really believe that the genre of the gospels is functionally identical with modern journalism? Does he seriously believe that using any other story-telling conventions actually amounts to error? If I tell him that “Thinking Matters went to an apologetics conference last month”, and he tells his wife that Bnonn said, “Last month, Thinking Matters went to an apologetics conference,” should we say that his standards of testimony are so low that, in fact, he has reported what I said erroneously? Even in the modern day there is no presumption that we retell the exact words someone used unless we’re doing so in very specific circumstances—such as writing for a newspaper, or using a blockquote tag. Certainly, the advent of copy and paste has made this much easier, and thus raised our expectations. But that hardly implies that reporting the gist, if not the precise words, is a lowlier method, and in fact constitutes error. The only time that would be true is if there is a presumption of a verbatim quote. Unless Glenn has remarkable evidence to the contrary, in the case of Scripture, there is not.

Moreover, even in modern journalistic writing it is never expected that the author report everything, or that he not be selective about the facts he conveys. In fact, basic common sense tells us that every reporter must do these things, because it is inherent to the nature of reporting as a subjective exercise. And this may become more pronounced depending on the kind of story-telling techniques an author is using, and the specific reasons he has for writing. In short, Glenn appears to ignore even the most obvious facts of literary criticism in his efforts to make his case.


Overall, Glenn’s understanding of inerrancy is too inadequate for his critique to gain any actual traction against the doctrine. The fundamental exegetical principles of genre, language, cultural context, and intent are all ignored, meaning that inerrancy itself is essentially ignored, while a strawman is burned in its place. Indeed, it’s as if he’s unaware that inerrancy is an exegetical issue at all. Instead of looking at the scriptural foundation for the doctrine, and the linguistic nuances of the term “error”, he imposes upon Scripture his own arbitrary conventions of reporting, finds it lacking, and then declares that inerrancy must be false. Sadly, the comments on his blog suggest that many other Christians don’t see anything immediately problematic with this approach. Hopefully this article can serve as a corrective.

Faith and Knowledge

There is no faith relation with Christ free of doctrinal content. The knower must have some knowledge of the known, or no relation exists. That seemingly redundant and self-evident statement should underlie the issue. Jesus Christ and our knowledge of Him are not in any sense coextensive. But one cannot have a relation with Him without knowledge, and that knowledge represents incipient doctrine…

If one does not believe the truths concerning the Christ as revealed in Holy Scripture, one cannot have any authentic relationship with Him. Doctrine, we eagerly concede, does not in itself save . . . But, on the other hand, one cannot truly worship Christ and seek to live as an authentic disciple and deny, denigrate, or neglect in any sense the biblical teachings concerning Him.

R. Albert Mohler, Jr., “Response,” in Beyond the Impass? Scripture, Intrepretation, and Theology in Baptist Life, ed. Robison B. James and David S. Dockery (Nashville: Broadman, 1992), page 249.

What is a Cult?

Talk of late has been centred on the controversy of Bishop Brian Tamaki and the Destiny Church of New Zealand, and whether it is a cult. So the question I’m going to ask today is what is a cult? Or how do we recognise a cult when we see it? The topic could be greatly complicated if we were to start thinking of world religions and their cults, so today I’ll be looking specifically at Christian cults.

Like all things definitions are important, and will influence how precisely one goes about evaluating what makes a cult a cult. Cult just means deviation from the mainstream of its historic representative, but common usage of the word is to denote a sinister group of religious fanatics – notice the word sinister neither means insincere or sincere: their motivation is not a factor. Its that word deviation which is problematic, because deviation comes in a spectrum and the mainstream is so hard to define. On reflection I’ve identified at least four different methods one can use to evaluate if a group is a cult.

The first method is the Top-Down approach. This looks to the cults that we know of and seeks to find the points of dissimilarity with the orthodox and historic Christianity, and the points of similarity between them. This is a good approach, but it has its weaknesses. For instance, when another cult comes along you always have to re-examine your definition of what it is to be a cult and possibly expand it. And you can never be sure your not reasoning in a circle – which is fine if your in that circle of logic but from the outside it just an informal fallacy.

The second method is the Bottom-Up approach. This formulates a list of criteria from scratch and evaluates any religious group to see if they fit the criterion. This is also a good approach but what invariably happens is you miss one or two who refuse to fit the mould you construct for them.

Third, you can evaluate them theologically. Like the second approach this formulates a list of criteria, but restricts the list to doctrine. This is an excellent approach, but again has its weaknesses. I’ve seen lists of up to fifteen essential doctrines, where if on any point there is disagreement, then the whole group is just written off. It’s difficult to evaluate the importance of one doctrines over another, and its also true that some church just have bad theology, yet remain not-cults. Its also difficult sometimes to discern if one should take the official statements of belief as normative or the general spoken beliefs of a preacher in the moment and the people of the congregation.

Fourth, you can evaluate them sociologically. Here one would look for signs in the community, like religious enthusiasm, gathering around a strong leader, strict codes of behavior, separation of the laity with the leadership, a distancing of the community from the world. The weakness is here is that none of these things are overtly wrong. Though every Christian community has elements of each, all of them can be taken to the extreme end of the scale. And it’s when a variety of these elements are pushed to the extreme when we need exercise caution. The problem is counter-examples can always be found, and ones own preference (prejudice?) for their own particular style of church is too easily an influence on ones judgement, and so this approach is the least conclusive.

What I think is most valuable is a combination of the above methods. The late Dr. Walter Martin, author of Kingdom of the Cults, utilises mainly a combination of the Top-Down and the Theological method, with some consideration given to another method – Psychology. I formulated a long time ago a quick litmus test to see if a group were a cult. I suspect it’s not perfect, but for me it’s been helpful. In order of importance;

(1)  The Doctrine of the Trinity.

It appears that every cult gets the doctrine of the Trinity wrong. Belief about the Trinity is like a yardstick for the historic, orthodox Christian position. If they get the doctrine of the Trinity wrong, it’s a fair indication they get other important things wrong as well.

(2)  One True Church

Cult groups usually believe they are the only ones who will attain salvation, and one has to be a member of their church to belong to the select group. Mainline Christian denominations do not this belief. Anglicans have their own style and distinctive theological beliefs, but freely accept that Baptists are saved and even members of the same wider church body. Most will say that those who never attend a church service in their life (though inadvisable if avoidable) can be saved.

(3)  Attitude when Leaving

A good indication to see if you are in a cult is to ask yourself this question; if I were to abandon the faith and leave this church, would there be a severing of relationship with those who remain? Would others be instructed to shun or separate themselves from me? If the answer is “Yes,” then this is not a good sign.

(4)  Encouraged to Question.

Other good questions to ask your self are these; if I were to ask the pastor or any church leader the stickiest theological question I could think of, would I told I shouldn’t ask such questions? Are people encouraged to educate themselves? Read the scriptures with no interpretive aids? Go to university or attend a Bible school? Refrain from visiting certain websites with religious information? If I were to disagree with something a leader said or did and I respectfully enquired about it, would I be ignored? Or told I just had to accept some things? Or would I be stonewalled or told not think about it? Or would I receive a pat answer – perhaps one that’s illogical or unscriptural?

Questions are powerful things. But true Christianity is not afraid of questions. Cults generally are, and do what they can to subtly dissuade people from enquiring.

Now is Destiny church a cult? According to my test I’d have to say NO. (1) They are theologically conservative. (2) They do not consider themselves the one true church. I have first hand knowledge of this. (3) I have no knowledge of, so can’t say with authority, but strongly suspect not. (4) Yes, Definitely.

So when people call Destiny a cult, I have to wonder, what method of evaluation are they using? I suspect a strong reliance on the Sociological approach – but this I concluded was the weakest indicator of whether a group is a cult. When Destiny church responds to the accusation of being a cult, what method do they use? I suspect they have strong preference to the Theological method, which is in my view one of the best. What should be emphasized here is that Destiny has ‘cultish tendencies’ sociologically yet remains not a cult. We should pay careful attention to where they are headed and the things that they do, but the solution is probably not confirming the biases of the media, nor flushing the baby out with the bath water. Instead it is good biblical theology and practice to balance their more extreme tendencies in our own churches, pray for our brothers and sisters in the Lord, and cultivate a friendship with them that exemplifies our love for Christ and his church.

Unity and Diversity

We’ve looked at some key terms and some different methods of doing theology. Today I want to take an extended excursion to look at the issue of unity and diversity within Christian belief. To help explain I shall be utilizing a solar system, a sumo-wrestler and a mirror.

Should all Christians believe exactly the same things? Or is there room for disagreement? What defines authentic Christian belief? These are important and difficult questions in need of clear answers. By finding these answers we shall be equipped to answer many other questions, such as how denominations (such as Presbyterian, Methodist, Baptist, Anglican, etc.) arose, if similar church splits can or should be avoided, and if other churches, such as Catholics, can rightly be called Christians. In setting up Thinking Matters, conceived as an inter-denominational organization to encourage and support Christian apologetics in New Zealand, we had to wrestle with these very issues, and still regularly are confronted with different perspectives and disagreements within our own ranks concerning what correct theology should be. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that there is a great diversity of opinion in Christendom about certain doctrines. But how much diversity of opinion can be permitted until someone can no longer rightly be called an authentic Christian? Read more

Key Terms: Doctrine, Theology and Worldview

Today I want to give you a few definitions that I think you’ll find helpful and then give to an analogy as a way to think about them. All are welcome to comment, ask questions and disagree with the definitions, but I will be strict on this post to make sure the comments are topical to what is written here.

First is the word doctrine – a belief. It could be any single belief about anything, or it could be a set of beliefs about a particular subject. Here we’re mostly interested in the set of Christian doctrines, which will be beliefs affirmed by Christianity. Think of a doctrine as a brick, or a collection of bricks stacked on top of each other.

The next word is Theology. This is made out of two Greek words; Theos, that your Bible translates “God,” and Logos, which is “rationality” or “the study of.” So theology is the study of God and by extension, the study of God’s revelation. If a doctrine is a brick, then a theology is a wall. Now your wall can be as big as you want. It could be one brick! You might think that there is no God and theology is worthless. But you see, that is a belief about God and therefore a theological belief. So in other words everyone is a theologian – because everyone has some opinion about God or the Bible.

Theology is that first order discipline which studies God and his revelation, and that second-order discipline which that seeks to form a coherent worldview from all sources of available knowledge. While philosophy employs reason and experience, theology also considers the possibility of specially revealed knowledge. Thus theology is oft called the Queen of the sciences.

On this definition anyone with an opinion about God or some aspect of his revelation is a theologian. Ironically this means Richard Dawkin’s disdain for the discipline can be directed at himself also, for even fundamentalist atheists are theologians. He who thinks that God cannot be known is doing theology, making him an agnostic theologian. There are folk theologians aplenty. Examples multiply. The issue is not if one is a theologian, but is ones theology is correct.

For practical reasons, sometimes people find it helpful to define theologian in a more narrow fashion. They reserve the title for those who study and intentionally reflect on theological thought. The sort of theologians we want to pay attention to and become are those who take time to examine their beliefs about God and his revelation. In other words, we want to make an effort to construct a wall that is made of the same quality of material (true beliefs), that all fit well together (are coherent), and have a strong foundation (is correspondent to reality).

Where does Christ fit in the analogy? Perhaps he is a particular brick or a section of the wall; the foundation stone; the mortar that holds everything together, or all of the above. Perhaps here the analogy is pressed too far and begins to fall apart.

The higher you build your wall, the better the view you have of the surrounds. Your worldview is the way you view the world – or the set of beliefs that influence your perspective. The Christian worldview is, we’d contend, the strongest tower. Perhaps some bricks in your wall are missing, damaged or unconnected. Well, like Nehemiah, lets set about fixing it together.