Submitted by Prof. Renihan
There is a certain kind of over-confidence that resides in the minds of many today; an overconfidence expressed in their attempts to adjust or even re-write Christian doctrine. Many ‘study’ a doctrine, develop a thesis about that doctrine, arrive at novel conclusions, and then promote their deduction as the right and proper way to understand the matter under review. I have been guilty of this, so have others.
This is a great problem. It is exacerbated by the internet. I am appalled by the amazing level of overconfidence expressed by incompetent students. Everyone now has the opportunity to pour forth their wisdom–whether or not it has any value. Idiosyncratic theology abounds everywhere. The result is cacophony and confusion. Who is right? Is Christian theology the product of my reflection–or study–of Scripture?
The more I reflect on this, increasingly knowing my own weaknesses and the limitations of my own understanding, I have been drawn back to the wisdom of the Spirit in guiding the church through the ages. We are not the first to wrestle with texts, doctrines and practices; there may be nothing in the whole system of Christian theology which has not been wrestled with before us.
But where do we turn for guidance? For me, it is to the great Confessions of the church. These documents show us the way. They reflect theological consensus, and help to keep us from heading off into our own personal and private theological isms.
John Owen wrote a treatise on Apostasy, and in it says some searching things, directly related to this issue. It is almost as if his words were prophetic. Rather than developing idiosyncratic self-ologies, we need the wisdom of those before us. Here are some of his insights:
There is a glory and beauty in those spiritual things which are the subjects of the truths of the gospel.
But to return; it is to be feared that as Pelagianism, in its first edition, did secretly and gradually insinuate itself into the animal and vital spirits of the body of the church in those days, proving a poison unto it, so under its new varnish and gilding it will be received, until it diffuse itself into the veins and vitals of the present reformed church-state in the world. This I know, that some pretending a zeal for holiness and reformation of life do yet, with a shameful partiality, charge those doctrines as a principal means of the decay of piety, which they cannot but know were generally believed and avowed then when piety most flourished in this nation. But this is part of that entertainment which the church of England meets with at this day from her degenerate offspring. The doctrine of all the ancient bishops must be traduced, as the means of the decay of piety; and, which increaseth the wonder, it had not this effect till it began to be publicly deserted and renounced! for whether they are the one the cause of the other or no, yet there is a demonstrative coincidence between the originals of our visible apostasy from piety and the admission of these novel opinions, contrary to the faith of the first reformed churches, and that they both bear the same date among us.
We have, as I suppose, sufficiently demonstrated the truth of what we before observed concerning the proneness and readiness of mankind to relinquish and fall off from the mystery and doctrine of the gospel, after it hath been declared unto them and received by them. Withal we have stated the matter of fact, — namely, that such a defection there hath been, and is in the world at this day.
Here, therefore, I place another means and cause of apostasy from the truth of the gospel after it hath been received and professed. Multitudes in all ages have been instructed in the truth, some have been learned and knowing in the doctrines of it; but whereas, by reason of their darkness, as being destitute of spiritual illumination, they did not discern the things themselves which they assented unto, in their supernatural, heavenly nature and glory, and therefore had no experience of their proper power and efficacy on their own minds, affections, and lives, they could not have any such evidence of their truth as would upon trials confirm their adherence unto them or secure them from apostasy.