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Nothing Like a Little Heresy to Make You A Better Theologian

July 5, 2007

If nothing else, the presence of heresy forces us to become better theologians. Why? Because it forces us to become more sophisticated in our defense against it. Let me give an example to help me explain. John Calvin was one of the greatest (if not the greatest) theologian during the Reformation. Just read through his Institutes and you will recognize the brilliance in his understanding of God, redemption, and Scripture. If you read his letter to Jacopo Sadoleto defending Protestant reforms, you can see his brilliance is his arguments for justification and righteousness. His theology was precise and his exegesis was far more advanced than that of any of his contemporaries. But if we look 100 years later, there was another theologian named John Owen. John Owen, too, was reformed and Calvinistic. However, compared to Calvin, we see a much more sophisticated and advanced theology in Owen. His arguments for the doctrine of the knowledge of God, election, the Trinity, imputed righteousness, and substitutionary atonement are unmatched, even by Calvin. Why is this?

One reason is that Owen had to face many more sophisticated arguments. (1) Armenian arguments for the knowledge of God were taking shape like they had never before. Owen had needed to look at the biblical texts afresh and create fresh and sophisticated arguments to fight for what was biblical. There was a philosophical depth to the Armenian reasoning that had not been there before. (2) Socinianism (anti-trinitarianism, or modern day unitarianism) had developed arguments against the pre-existence of Christ as irrational. (3) Much work had been done in favor of universal redemption, much of it leading to universalism in Owen’s time. In response, Owen wrote his famous work The Death of Death In the Death of Jesus Christ, giving us a biblical, trinitarian argument for the particular redemption of Christ, to which none have been able to answer since.

We should learn from this example today, particularly when the doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement is under such attack. I do not want to give the impression that I believe that those who publicly oppose this doctrine are heretics, but I do believe any other belief on the atonement obscures the gospel badly. While some arguments against the doctrine of PSA are certainly not new, some are new and come from a very sophisticated and complicated exegesis of passages in Scripture. This should cause us to prayerfully work through passages of Scripture to, once again, defend the gospel with precision and clarity like no other generation before us. As J. I. Packer said, “I am so thankful for the penal substitutionary death of Christ. No hope without it.”

2 Comments leave one →
  1. July 5, 2007 9:18 pm

    “We should learn from this example today” A hearty amen! and Owen, the theologian that left so many others in their tracks and especially so for “Death of Death” and “A Display of Arminianism”!

  2. puritanblog permalink
    July 16, 2007 1:02 am

    So true. When a Jehovah’s Witness unleashes his “prooftexts” to show that Jesus is not God, it must prompt the careful Christian exeget to go to those “prooftexts”, look at the context, discern its true meaning, and show the Jehovah’s Witness that he cannot “wrest as they do also the other scriptures”(2 Peter 3:16) in order to promote their hideous doctrines.

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