Affirmations and Denials

            One of my elders gave me the new biography, R. C. Sproul: A Life, by Stephen Nichols a week ago. There were many things that intrigued me about this biography of Sproul, but I want to refer to a couple of things that are relevant for Vanguard Presbytery.

            First, Sproul several times used a phrase, “studied ambiguity”, to describe the slide into heresy. Instead of being straightforward with the truth, people are simply ambiguous. Sproul considered that a greater danger than blatant error. When error is presented in its true colors, it is easy for Christians to oppose it. When the truth is opposed by “studied ambiguity”, it is much more difficult to oppose those errors. We live in a time when “studied ambiguity” has become the norm.

            Second, to combat “studied ambiguity”, Sproul typically dealt in affirmations and denials. In 1978, he wrote the 19 Affirmations and Denials for the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy. He knew that the truth must be hedged in on both sides—both what we believe and what we deny. That seems so simple, but it is not. Modern conservatives are too quick to be mesmerized by affirmations and equivocations. They focus on the affirmations and too often take the approach that a little ambiguity is no problem. But it is a problem.

            The whole Bible deals in opposites. There is truth and error. There are the lost and the found, the sheep and the goats, the saved and the unsaved, believers and unbelievers. There is light and darkness. There is heaven and hell. There is always the thesis and the antithesis. Hegelian dialectics has changed all that. Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831) developed what is called the Hegelian dialectic. Instead of opposites (thesis and antithesis), Hegel developed a new interpretative method which results in synthesis. Hegel’s dialectical method influenced Karl Marx, among others. Thus, when a thesis is stated, incipient Hegelianism moves quickly to the synthesis—not the antithesis. Sproul, like all good theologians, engaged in true antithetical thinking. Thus, he would affirm what he believed. Then, he would deny the antithesis in order to hedge in the truth on all sides.    

            Heresies are promoted by affirmations and equivocations or affirmations and syntheses. The Catholic Church did that. When Calvin had been exiled from Geneva, Cardinal James Sadolet attempted to woo the Genevan Church back into Catholicism. He pretended to hold to justification by faith alone, but he qualified it (which is an equivocation), thusly:

When we say, then, that we can be saved by faith alone in God and Jesus Christ, we hold that in this very faith love is essentially comprehended as the chief and primary cause of our salvation.[1]

            Sadolet made it clear in the context of that passage that it was not God’s love for us that was the primary cause of our salvation, but our love for Him. Earlier he had stated that faith alone does not save apart from “charity and other duties of a Christian mind.”[2] Rather, for Sadolet, our love for God is the beginning of our salvation. That turns the gospel completely around. That is the danger of equivocations.

            The Federal Vision is a heresy that has caused great harm to the church because of their equivocations. The Joint Federal Vision Profession is replete with equivocations. They affirm what they supposedly believe, but then they take it all back with their equivocations. What they do not set forth is a denial for every affirmation which safeguards the truth against error. It is not surprising that the Federal Vision would fall into that error. Peter Leithart wrote an email in June of 2007 that one of the strengths of the FV is that it has a little bit of Barthianism in it. Barthianism is compatible with Marxism as I have written in the past. Barth was favorable towards communism and Marxism has followed wherever Barthianism has been established. And Marxism was influenced by Hegel. Thus, where Marxism is, where Barthianism is, where the Federal Vision is, there will also be equivocations or the synthesis of dialectical thinking. One of the hallmarks of Barthianism is that it resolves the tensions in its inconsistent theological positions by various “nevertheless” statements. Nevertheless is an equivocation—not a denial. Barthianism says, “On the one hand, this… nevertheless, that.” That is the Hegelian dialectical method. That is a failure to view the world in terms of white and black, truth and error, etc.

            Both our modern world and the modern church have been co-opted by Hegelianism. Pastors and church members alike in large measure believe that gray is a much better color than either white (truth) or black (error). When I first became aware of communism in the late 1950’s, I was as opposed to it then as I am today. I was told in the 1970’s, though, that the true goal of communism was to bring about a synthesis between capitalism and communism. That is what has happened in Russia. That is what is happening in the US. That is what is happening in the church. That synthesis or equivocation dominates the thinking of most young people, whether in or out of the church. They say they believe in freedom, but they also think that Marxism can be a good thing.

            So, what is wrong with holding to affirmations and equivocations rather than to affirmations and denials? The equivocations and syntheses are not for the purpose of negating the antitheses. The aim is always to destroy the affirmations. The synthesis in Hegel’s dialectic always does more harm to the thesis than to the antithesis. Hegel’s dialectic allows the error a safe place to grow. That is a problem. Truth cannot be equivocated. Error cannot be synthesized with truth any more than water can be mixed with equal parts of poison without tainting the whole supply. Herein is the lesson: We cannot hold to the truth unless we guard it against the error. We must both affirm the truth and refute the error (Timothy 1:9) which is the responsibility of every elder.     

[1] Henry Beveridge, ed., John Calvin: Tracts and Letters, Volume I, Tracts, Part I (Edinburgh, Scotland and Carlisle, Pennsylvania: The Banner of Truth Trust, 2009), 80.

[2] Ibid.

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