Progressive Truth

2 John 1

From an article in the February, 2007 issue of Christianity Today entitled Five Streams of the Emerging Church by Scot McKnight, professor of religious studies at North Park Theological Seminary in Chicago, Illinois and who is happy to consider himself part of the emerging “conversation”:

“The emerging movement tends to be suspicious of systematic theology. Why? Not because we don’t read systematics, but because the diversity of theologies alarms us, no genuine consensus has been achieved, God didn’t reveal a systematic theology but a storied narrative, and no language is capable of capturing the Absolute Truth who alone is God. Frankly, the emerging movement loves ideas and theology. It just doesn’t have an airtight system or statement of faith. We believe the Great Tradition offers various ways for telling the truth about God’s redemption in Christ, but we don’t believe any one theology gets it absolutely right.

Hence, a trademark feature of the emerging movement is that we believe all theology will remain a conversation about the Truth who is God in Christ through the Spirit, and about God’s story of redemption at work in the church. No systematic theology can be final. In this sense, the emerging movement is radically Reformed. It turns its chastened epistemology [theory or science of the method or grounds of knowledge; Ed.] against itself, saying, “This is what I believe, but I could be wrong. What do you think? Let’s talk.””

As sincere and heart-warming as this sounds, is it a biblical view of truth and theology? Did God reveal only a “storied narrative” or does his revelation include systematic theology? Does the idea that language is incapable of capturing the Truth who is God mean that no truth concerning God is unchanging and knowable? Does the absence of consensus and the diverse claims of various theologies preclude the possibility of a single theology that “gets it absolutely right”, that “[n]o systematic theology can be final”? Did the author of The Shack get theology right?

Perhaps the question should also be asked, “What ought our mindset to be toward our Christian brothers and sisters who out of love for the lost can be found toward the emergent (or postmodern) end of the ecclesiastical and philosophical spectrum?”

“It is much more popular to be tolerant of error than to try to correct it. Sentiment might dictate a less stern stand against falsehood.

A French proverb says, “There are times when to be only kind is to be not even kind.” John demonstrates, in his firmness motivated by love, that the sort of kindness which in our day answers to tolerance is not a manifestation of real Christian love in the presence of error.” Bible Study Textbook

A. a passion for the truth v. 1-4

1 The elder to the elect lady and her children, whom I love in truth, and not only I, but also all who know the truth, 2 because of the truth that abides in us and will be with us forever: 3 Grace, mercy, and peace will be with us, from God the Father and from Jesus Christ the Father’s Son, in truth and love. 4 I rejoiced greatly to find some of your children walking in the truth, just as we were commanded by the Father.

Jesus spoke of truth in absolute terms: “Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth.” John 17:17 John similarly speaks of truth in the first four verses of his letter to the church, using the term for truth that indicates: truth as the opposite of a lie or mere appearances, the reality rather than the appearance. In other words, Jesus and John both indicate that there is a reality and specific truth which corresponds with that reality.

John and Jesus both narrow the concept of truth by making it exclusive: “the truth” (John 17:17; 2 John 1:1-2 ) in contrast with “truth”. It is not any collection of truth, something that is mostly truth, a system of truth that is accurate but not comprehensive, of which John and Jesus speak. It is instead an exclusive, specific and comprehensive truth which corresponds to reality both natural and supernatural. Jesus declared himself to be the truth (John 14:6) and identified the Word of God as revealed truth. John, in the concept that the truth can abide in us (2 John 1:2), parallels Jesus’ thought about the Holy Spirit whom he identified three times as the “Spirit of Truth” (John 14:16-17; 15:26; 16:13), the one whom he and the Father would send.

Jesus and John further describe the truth as something which can be objectively known. Jesus says the Spirit will guide believers into all the truth (John 16:13); John addressed his epistle to those who “know the truth”, that is, those who have an intimate experiential knowledge and understanding. Thus truth can be known, it can be understood, and it corresponds to reality. If God’s Word is revealed truth, then, since God’s word is forever settled (or firmly fixed) in heaven (Psalm 119:89) some category of revealed truth must be absolute and unchanging.

It is for this sort of truth that John had a passion, a determination to follow and uphold. John was so concerned for the truth especially as it was perceived by his loved ones in the church that he felt compelled to issue a strong warning to them. John greatly rejoiced to see some of his spiritual children living according to the truth (see also 3 John 1:3) and was determined to do all he could to encourage them to persevere in the truth.

B. walking in the truth v. 4-6

4 I rejoiced greatly to find some of your children walking in the truth, just as we were commanded by the Father. 5 And now I ask you, dear lady-not as though I were writing you a new commandment, but the one we have had from the beginning-that we love one another. 6 And this is love, that we walk according to his commandments; this is the commandment, just as you have heard from the beginning, so that you should walk in it.

If the approach to truth is “This is what I believe, but I could be wrong. What do you think? Let’s talk.”, how do you get beyond conversation to action? While it may not be rank skepticism, it certainly sounds like a prime breeding ground for indecision. In fact, it puts me in mind of Paul’s description of spiritual “little children, tossed by the waves and blown around by every wind of teaching, by human cunning with cleverness in the techniques of deceit.” (Ephesians 4:14)

John leaves no room for debate here, he urges his readers to follow the command to love one another. John repeats the command given by Jesus in John 13:34 when he instructed his disciples to love one another as he had loved them, repeated by John in 1 John 2:7-8 and then again here. It is described as a command which is not new, yet new, the same as first given, yet different. The command from the beginning was to love God and love neighbor, the greatest commands according to Jesus and from which all other commands were derived. And in principle those two commands dated to the Garden, since to disobey even the one explicit command regarding the fruit immediately resulted in breaking the two Great Commands.

John’s reference to the beginning probably had the start of their Christian life in view; the application he makes is that what they believed about the truth was evidenced by their lives. If they believed Jesus was the truth, then they would keep his commands; if they believed the Bible was truth, they would obey its precepts. Again, John leaves no room for debate as he declares that the command which was in force at the beginning is still in force; the standard which was operative when they came to faith is still the standard.

John also makes it clear he believes that truth can be effectively communicated from God to man and that man can fully understand it. He didn’t rely on Jesus to filter and process the communication, making it intelligible to man on God’s behalf. John rejoiced to find saints within the church obeying the truth as “commanded by the Father”. The saints possessed the truth, it had been commanded, communicated, by God the Father, and it was unchanging. Although they possessed the truth, John was concerned that they maintain it, that they continue to walk in the truth, that they continue to love one another.

C. upholding the truth v. 7-11

9 Everyone who goes on ahead and does not abide in the teaching of Christ, does not have God. Whoever abides in the teaching has both the Father and the Son.ESV

9 Anyone who goes too far and does not abide in the teaching of Christ, does not have God; the one who abides in the teaching, he has both the Father and the Son. NASB

Finally John issues a strong warning about those who perhaps had started out in the church and then left, going out into the world to spread their ideas about religion. Because of what they accomplish John compares them to Satan, the ultimate Deceiver, since they are busy doing his work for him. The particular error John has in view here is that of docetism, that Jesus only appeared to be human and thus there was no real incarnation and no substitutionary atonement.

John’s concern was that the saints would be seduced, drawn into the error and thus lose their grasp on the truth. While their salvation was secure, their sanctification and progress in holiness was by no means guaranteed. This is especially true if they departed from a right understanding of the truth and started behaving in ways inconsistent with the commands of God. Apparently there were sufficient elements of truth in what the deceivers taught that even the saints could be tricked, if not at first,then by repeated contact.

These Gnostics claimed to be the progressives, the advanced thinkers, and were anxious to relegate Christ to the past in their onward march. This struggle goes on always among those who approach the study of Christ. Is he a “landmark” merely or is he our goal and pattern? Progress we all desire, but progress toward Christ, not away from him. RWP

How like the mindset that is often expressed in liberal churches, in Supreme Court decisions, and in scientific debate: “biblical Christianity is primitive and outdated, we’ve moved beyond that in our thinking. As humanity has progressed and developed, we have reached new heights and must develop new and better paradigms in order to reach our full potential.” The same is true in the postmodern or emerging church: “we’ve moved beyond the need for a fixed and rigid theology, beyond an unchanging version of the Truth supposedly held by the historic church. At this stage of our culture we need a new paradigm, a more relaxed understanding that there may not be a single overarching explanation (metanarrative) of reality. Let’s talk about it and see what we come up with.”

Nowhere do we see any evidence in Scripture for Jesus using dialogue and the creative process to develop his theology. At the risk of personal harm, he staked out biblical territory in concrete and absolute terms, making it plain that the foundational truths of God’s Word were not negotiable or even open for debate. Repeatedly Jesus reinforced the old truths, correcting modern innovations and taking his hearers back to the foundations laid in the “Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms”. (Luke 24:44) To think that we have progressed beyond that way of thinking means that we have progressed beyond Christ, something which John denounces. In his inspired view, such a person was not a follower of Christ, a child of God.

John’s antidote for deceivers is twofold: (1) abide in the teaching of Christ and (2) provide no hospitality whatever for their teaching and no encouragement for them in their work. The order here is essential; in order for the saints to stay the course, they must remain fixed on the foundation which “no one can lay …other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ.” (1 Corinthians 3:11) They must stay true to the teaching which pointed to Christ and that which he himself taught. Christ and his revelation is the “only sufficient, certain, and infallible rule of all saving Knowledge, Faith and Obedience”. (LBCF I.1) To go beyond Christ is to abandon him as the foundation and that which he showed by his example teaching to be all-sufficient. To stay with Christ requires as extensive an understanding of Scripture and knowledge of Christ as we can possibly achieve.

Second, he instructed the saints to be on guard against them, to be discerning and recognize the deception – “watch yourselves” – and not be sucked in by it. They were not to be wowed by the new ideas but to understand that what was being presented represented a departure from the historic faith of the church. As such, it was not to be encouraged or promoted in any way; the saints were not to be uncivil but neither were they to treat the deceivers as brothers. In John’s view, to promote their efforts directly or indirectly was equivalent to being one of them, actually involved in their work of deception.

What does that mean for us? Obviously we should use great care in directing our support, financial and otherwise. Things I try to avoid (besides the obvious ones – don’t invite the local cult missionaries in the door, etc.):

buying new books when I don’t want to encourage the author by running up their sales numbers. Buy used or borrow from a less discerning friend! Besides, we are to be good stewards of our finances.

reading a book or paper when good reviews from reliable sources will suffice.

filling your mind with questionable material. It’s one thing to be informed about error, it is quite another to become saturated with it. If you must get informed, be sure to intentionally intersperse material from a trusted source.

visiting websites that promote error. Many if not most have hit counters and running the numbers up will add to their revenue and encourage them.

So, is truth progressive? Well, it can be as long as it causes us to progress in our understanding of Christ and conformity to him. Diligent study of God’s Word with an eye to personal application accompanied by a regular use of the means of grace will surely cause a child of God to progress in sanctification. The study and application of any truth that draws us closer to Christ should be welcomed by the Christian; any “truth” which claims to improve our lot in life but serves to divert our attention or love away from Christ must be shunned. We MUST begin with God’s Word and filter all that we see and hear through the lens of Scripture; praise the Lord he has revealed himself to us in his Word and we have copies of our own to study and use.

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