Thursday, July 16, 2009

Risking the Truth: an interview with Martin Downes

GD: Hello Martin Downes and welcome to Exiled Preacher. You have just brought out a book, Risking the Truth, Christian Focus Publications, 247pp. Summarise the contents of the book in a ten word blurb.

MD: Pastorally driven interviews on handling truth and error in the church.

GD: That was eleven words. Now, why the preoccupation with false teaching in the interviews?

MD: Actually they are not preoccupied with false teaching, even though the interviews are about that issue. They are really preoccupied with Christ, the gospel, the welfare of the church, the cure of souls, and therefore deal with how to handle false teachers and their ideas that obscure Christ and harm people.

On a personal level for eleven years now I have had an interest in heresy. I picked up, in a “health and wealth gospel” bookshop would you believe, The Cruelty of Heresy by C. FitzSimons Allison. That book opened up the moral and pastoral dimensions of heresy and helped me to see the subject in a new way. Heresy offers us something that we want, and offers it on terms that we find conducive. But heresies dishonour God, pander to our sinfulness, and are bad for our souls. Heresies are the narcotics of the theological world. Not all errors are heresies. Heresies are errors that are so bad they are soul destroying. I have a general interest in systematic and historical theology, and a particular focus on the concept of heresy. I want to explore these areas, think them through, and hopefully do some work that will be of benefit to churches.

There are three other concerns that drive me.

Firstly there is danger of not treating Jesus' warnings about false teachers seriously. That bothers me. His teaching on this should not be treated lightly.

Secondly too many Christians are naïve about false teaching because they fail to see that it dresses itself up as truth. False teaching gains acceptance because it hides under the use of biblical words and phrases but changes their meaning. It always appears to be plausible. We need to understand what the Bible says about the nature, effects, causes, remedies for, and antidotes to false teaching.

Thirdly, dealing with error is a pervasive biblical theme. Scan through the gospels, Acts, the epistles and Revelation, and you realise that this is a serious issue facing churches and Christians. I would even say that we are most likely to be confronted with demonic influences in the form of false teachers and teaching (see 2 Corinthians 11:3-5, 13-15; Ephesians 4:14 and 6:11; 1 Timothy 4:1; 2 Timothy 2:25-26; 1 John 4:1-3; Revelation 13:11). In the words of the Emperor in Star Wars “never underestimate the power of the darkside.”
GD: Have you ever felt drawn to erroneous doctrine? If so how did the Lord keep you from drifting from the truth?

MD: There was a time when my understanding of the grace of God in the accomplishment and application of the gospel was wrong and inadequate. But reading Ephesians 2:1-10, in the quietness of my room as a second year undergraduate, was an unforgettably humbling experience.

I was confronted with the truth that I owed my regeneration to God alone. He made me alive even when I was dead in sin. The grace of God in salvation was bigger than I had ever knew before and I had more to thank God for in saving me than I had previously understood. I also knew that I had to submit to this teaching from God's Word and not replace it with my own thoughts. So I escaped from an incomplete and erroneous view that at the time seemed reasonable to me. I came to agree with Jonathan Edwards' sentiment “absolute sovereignty is what I love to ascribe to God. But my first conviction was not so.”

Beyond that I often pray, as Charles Hodge did, “teach me that I may teach others also,” and with John Owen, ask that the Lord would, in his infinite mercy, continually lay an awe upon my heart and keep me in captivity to the simplicity and mystery of the gospel.

GD: The book has a stellar list of contributors; Carl Trueman, Derek Thomas, Michael Horton, Joel Beeke etc. How did you persuade them to take part, did you send round a member of the Taffia to "make them an offer they couldn't refuse?"

MD: I started with men that I already knew (Geoff Thomas, Derek Thomas, Carl Trueman, and Scott Clark) and they helpfully suggested others. That was invaluable. Further down the line maybe it helped others to know who was already on board with the interviews. I should also add that all the contributors were generous with their time. With some of the subject specific interviews I had definite ideas about who should address them. Thankfully they all said yes.

GD: No doubt the Taffia heavies helped things along a bit. The book began as a series of interviews on your blog, Against Heresies. Did you have a view to publishing the conversations in book form when they were originally posted?

MD: Not at all. My original intention was just to post all the interviews online. Geoff Thomas, one of the early contributors, suggested the idea of putting the interviews into a more permanent form. I had for a long time appreciated the work and ethos of Christian Focus and have enjoyed working with them on this project.

GD: In his interview, Carl Trueman made some salient points on the dangers of theology blogging. What are the strengths and weaknesses of blogging as a medium for theological reflection?

MD: I can only speak from a personal perspective. I had already published several articles and contributed to a book before starting a blog. It helps to keep me writing, it is useful for finding an outlet for my specialist interest, and it is an easy way to develop material that hopefully will find an outlet elsewhere. So I use it as an extra medium for the kind of writing and theological reflection that I am already doing. I think it is possible to use the medium to inform and edify others, just as it can be abused by selfish motives. I always write as a public person. I never want to bring shame on my family and my church by misusing a blog. If you blog about theology always review your aims.

GD: What is the advantage of confronting the issue of false teaching in the form of a series of interviews?

MD: I think that it is a good and legitimate way to combine biblical reflection, theological insight, historical awareness and, crucially, personal involvement. That is why the book is about “handling” truth and error, you get a marriage of knowledge and experience. I have tried to set a pastoral agenda throughout.

GD: The overwhelming majority of interviewees are Presbyterian. Why the Presby bias, do so few Baptists and Anglicans have opinions on stuff?

MD: Well that wasn't intentional. I could give you a list of Baptists and Anglicans who were too busy to contribute to the book. Perhaps Presbyterians have too much time on their hands.

GD: A question you return to again and again is this: "Calvin said that ministers have two voices. One is for the sheep and one is for warding off wolves. How have you struck the right balance in this regard in your pulpit ministry?" Well, how about you?

MD: Guy there are three strands to my thinking on this subject.

1. I am committed to consecutive expository preaching, always striving to teach the text. I hope this reigns me in from riding hobby horses in the pulpit. So I deal with false teaching as it arises in the text (and as I have preached through Titus, 2 Timothy and Colossians on Sunday evenings the subject has come up a fair bit).

2. I am convinced that a thorough knowledge of, and delight in, the truth is far better for my people than filling their heads with a variety of errors and contemporary trends. I take it that Paul's approach in Colossians, where the supremacy and sufficiency of Christ is shown in widescreen, really is the best way to safeguard congregations. What believer will want to go after novelties when they have such a soul satisfying view of Christ?

I've also learned from the Westminster Directory of Public Worship to be cautious about “raising old heresies from the grave” and mentioning “blasphemous opinions unnecessarily.” I love to see the effects of sound teaching, taught from the Word and applied by the Spirit. By way of contrast it distresses me to see the effects and the spread of error. There have been occasions where I have spoken publicly and privately about particular issues. It is important to ask if an error is a clear and present danger to your people.

3. My reading and study is more comprehensive than my spoken public ministry. Pastors ought to read beyond and above the level we are teaching at, and have a grasp of the anatomy of theology and doctrinal diseases. When I started out in pastoral ministry I was given a helpful piece of advice. As a rule I should give five days a week to the local church and one day a week to the universal church. In that way there is an outlet for broader research and writing that hopefully will benefit others.

GD: A strong theme running through most of the interviews is the importance of creeds and confessions of faith for confirming believers in the truth and guarding against heresy. Presbyterians seem to be especially hot on this issue. How can we encourage Baptist churches to be more self-consciously confessional?

MD: I think it is a case of use it or lose it. Go back and read the 1689 Confession or the Abstract of Principles. Find practical ways to reintroduce them into the life of the church. Take 5-10 minutes during the morning service to explain an article, or a catechism question (state it, explain it, illustrate it, apply it). Start a class, recommend some good books on it, get kids learning it (get the Sunday school to make an audio CD for the church). Find ways to show its importance and relevance to prayer, worship, evangelism, Christian living etc. Every church should know where it stands theologically and should have that in a written form.

And don't forget the Heidelberg Catechism. Every Christian should learn at least the first question and answer. When you are lying in a hospital bed that's the truth you want to have stored in your memory.

GD: Martin Luther said that when it comes to contending for the faith we should fight for the truth that is most under attack at any given time. Where is the battle raging most fiercely today?

MD: We don't have the luxury of fighting only on one front. We must know the essential articles of the faith thoroughly, we must preach them constantly, and as Luther said about justification, beat them into our heads continually. All the major doctrines are continually being sniped at from somewhere, but in the current evangelical scene there is an untying of the bonds that connect us to the Reformation. The doctrine of God, Scripture, the atonement, justification by faith alone, final judgement, to name but a few are under considerable attack.

GD: John Newton advised a young minister that, "we find but few writers of controversy who have not been manifestly hurt by it." How can we faithfully contend for the truth without becoming contentious bores?

MD: It is all too easy to forget that not only is the gospel about the grace of God but our reception of it is also by his grace. I have to keep on coming back to 2 Timothy 2:22-25, “The Lord's servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone...correcting his opponents with gentleness.” God requires this kind of orthopraxy in his servants. Timothy must cultivate and display these attitudes and graces. But the key is what follows. The only hope for a change in these opponents is if God grants them repentance so that they come to a knowledge of the truth and escape the snare of the devil. If I keep this text in mind as I contend for the truth it will make me thankful, subdue my pride, and lead me to pray for my opponents. A passage like this is like having a behind the scenes DVD. There is a real spiritual battle going on.

GD: Do you regret not asking proper questions like, "If time travel were possible, who would you like to meet?" or "Care to share your top three tunes?" (Like in the famous 'Blogging in the name of the Lord' interviews - see MD's contribution here).

MD: Of course. Perhaps the next project is a sound track, Risking the Truth: Tunes to bash heretics by. Doubtless there would be some Wagner, Led Zeppelin and U2 (“Stuck in a moment”) on there.

GD: Put me down for one of those. What are the main lessons that you learned regarding handling error in the church as a result of doing these interviews?

MD: I particularly valued Iain D. Campbell's reference to John Kennedy's assessment of the ministers of his generation, “each one of them would have been distinguished as a Christian, though he had never been a minister,” and Iain D's comment about how it is possible “to preach orthodox doctrine with passion, and yet be cold in our love for God and his people.” I found that the answers that dealt with the pastor's role and responsibility spoke to my soul, challenged me, and spurred me on.

If I am to deal with error I must always seek to have an living, growing relationship with the triune God. For example, I can see justification by faith taught in the text, but I must know the reality of it in my approach to God, I must know that peace that it gives, I must watch that my heart does not seek after works righteousness and so open me up to forms of teaching that offer them to me as a way of acceptance with God.

GD: Why is being against heresies not enough?

MD: Because there is the danger of it being purely academic, an outlet for an argumentative personality, a way of showcasing the extent of our knowledge. It is all too easy not to be motivated by a deep love for God and his people, to be trigger happy, and not to be compassionate. Francis Schaeffer wisely said that we should “beware the habits we pick up in controversy.”

GD: Is a sample interview available on the internet for those who would like to get a flavour of the book?

MD: You can read Carl R. Trueman's very helpful interview at the Westminster Bookstore site by clicking on this link.
GD: Your conversation with Trueman was one of the best of the bunch. Well worthwhile checking out. But I guess that just about wraps things up for now, Martin. Thanks for dropping by for this little chat. Oh, and watch this space for my reivew of RTT, where I tell you what I really think of Downsie's new book.
Order Risking the Truth:


Truth Unites... and Divides said...

I should like to inquire whether Martin Downes regards egalitarianism and women's ordination as false teaching and error.

BTW, superb interview! Thank you to both Guy and Martin!

Martin Downes said...

Yes, I would hold that egalitarian views and women's ordination are erroneous and harmful to the church.

I assent to the way this is expressed in Article 16 of the Together for the Gospel affirmations and denials (