Most fundamentalists are familiar with the “Five Fundamentals of the Faith” upon which early twentieth-century Fundamentalism was founded. The inspiration of Scripture, the virgin birth, the deity of Christ, His substitutionary atonement, and His resurrection and physical return to earth are the absolute basics of an orthodox framework of Christian faith. What the last thirty years has revealed, however, is that these five fundamentals are not enough to safeguard orthodoxy by themselves, and are no longer sufficient as a test for orthodoxy.
A case in point is the issue of inspiration. Some of the most lethal attacks against the Scriptures in recent years have affirmed inspiration (and even inerrancy). At the same time, they have rejected the veracity and authority of Scripture (for example, see the recent book by Kenton Sparks; Baker, 2008).
The reason the historic five fundamentals are no longer a sufficient test for orthodoxy is the fact that they rest on a more basic metaphysical foundation that has been quietly undermined by philosophy. (In this essay, the term “foundation” has nothing to do with foundationalist epistemology.) Philosophers, and theologians who have been heavily influenced by philosophy, have ceded key aspects of the doctrine of God that seem to conflict with philosophy’s demands. Rather than keeping philosophy in its proper place as the handmaid of theology, some have allowed the servant to become master. In doing so, the foundation of our theology has been subtly undermined. If we do not take heed to the foundations of our beliefs, we will not know that the framework has been undermined until it is too late. We will be like front line soldiers resisting the visible enemy encamped across the field, while a stronger force tunnels underneath our lines preparing to attack from the rear.
So what are the metaphysical attacks that constitute the real danger to orthodoxy? In this essay I will briefly describe the challenges to the doctrine of God and the biblical correctives for these challenges. I will conclude by pointing to some popular expressions of these errors to demonstrate that this is not just an academic exercise, but one that intersects the lives of many Christians in our churches.
The Doctrine of God
The first foundational truth of orthodoxy is the Creator-creature distinction. This simply means that God is God and forever will be only God, while everything else is and will always remain creaturely. There is an ontological distinction between God and everything else. This doctrine is challenged today by those who want to remake God and creation as two kinds or degrees of Being. In this way, God is different from humans only in that He is greater. The Creator-creature distinction is also challenged by those who want to see all creation as being “taken up” into deity in the consummation, where we become one ontologically with God.
Unified and triune
The second truth regards the relation between the unity and the triunity of God. Cornelius Van Til argued that unless we posit an equal ultimacy between the oneness and threeness of God, we fall into heresy. Equal ultimacy means that God is equally one and three, with neither concept prior or superior to the other. Many theologies today emphasize one or the other, and in doing so, recast God’s being wrongly (see Van Til, An Introduction to Systematic Theology, 2nd ed; P&R, 2007).
The third foundation truth is that God must be understood as personal rather than as an impersonal substance or force. When we say God is one God in three persons we speak of God in His unity, and, at the same time, we speak of Him as personal. God is one person and three persons. Van Til also championed this idea in contrast to evangelical theologians, such as Gordon Clark, who understood the unity of God as “mute substance.” God is personal, so we reject descriptions of Him as the impersonal Infinite or the Absolute. In doing so, we also prevent a corollary error of positing a fourth person of the Trinity. For if there could possibly be a fourth hypostasis of the Trinity, why not more?
The fourth foundational truth is the aseity of God. To say that God is a se is to say that He is self-sufficient, not needing anything else beside himself. God is not dependent on anything, and within the Trinity there is perfect fellowship (called perichoresis), so that God is entirely self-contained. Postmodern theology and panentheism make much of God’s “need” to create the world to become fully God. They also teach that because God created the world, He now needs the world to become “all in all.” An orthodox view rejects this idea, stating that God did not need to create the world, but having done so, He committed himself to redeem mankind while retaining His ontological independence from it.
Last, God is knowable. The principle that God’s revelation is true and authoritative gives human beings the ability to know God. If it wasn’t for God’s self-initiated revelation, people could never know the God who is ontologically distinct and self-sufficient. But because God has spoken through revelation, God is knowable in a salvific way.
The attack in this area comes from a surprising direction. For those who see God as ontologically similar to humans, as personal only in His triunity, and as needing the world, revelation becomes multiform. That is, to them, Scripture is not the only form of special revelation. Now God also speaks with equal clarity and authority through culture, the community to which one belongs, even nature. Scripture is not explicitly denied (as was the case in old liberalism), but it is set along a myriad of other sources through which God now speaks.
Contemporary Challenges to the Doctrine of God
Clearly, denial of the first four foundational truths leads invariably to a denial of the authority of Scripture. That is, the rejection and distortion of the doctrine of Scripture begins with the rejection and distortion of the person of God. This is why I say that holding to and fighting for the historic Fundamentals of the faith is not enough anymore, because the attack is at a more basic level. In this sense, heresy has made an end run around our defenses and flanked traditional theology. In effect, purveyors of false doctrine have said, “Go ahead and hold to your Five Fundamentals. We will change the meanings of all the words you use by attacking the doctrine of God, so that we can agree with you verbally, but undermine you conceptually.”
Now the question that you may rightly ask at this point is, “Where exactly is the doctrine of God being denied in a way that affects me and the people in my church?” Let me give you a few examples.
The Shack has become a popular book among many Christians, primarily because of its portrayal of the persons of the Trinity as sympathetic to human suffering. Many Christians have testified of its power to restore faith in God, making God seem compassionate instead of distant and angry, and revolutionizing their understanding of Him. The god portrayed in The Shack, however, is far from the biblical God. Among the many errors of the book, its portrayal of the Trinity is especially disturbing. The Creator-creature distinction is fuzzy at best. The triunity of God is emphasized almost to the exclusion of the unity. Wisdom is implicitly a fourth member of the Trinity, even though this is explicitly denied in the book. God’s aseity (absolute independence) is questionable, and Scripture’s authority is clearly denigrated, to the point of being belittled as an authoritative source of truth. While many Christians find hope in The Shack, it is a false hope, based on a heretical view of God.
Rob Bell, Pastor of Mars Hill (church) in Grand Rapids, MI is one of the most visible and well-known emerging church leaders in the U.S. His Nooma series of 10-14 minute videos is a popular mainstay of many church youth groups, even those in fundamental churches. Bell’s books include Velvet Elvis, Jesus Wants to Save Christians, and Sex God. In Velvet Elvis, the Trinity is distorted in several ways. First, the Holy Spirit is portrayed as the “presence” of God, not a distinct person of the Trinity. This depersonalizes the Spirit, a move that is further complicated when Bell seems to make a distinction between the authority of God and the authority of the Spirit (the Spirit’s authority in Acts is rendered as inferior to God’s).
When Jesus ascended to heaven and promised the coming of the Holy Spirit, Bell characterizes this as Jesus “not sticking around” and implies that the disciples were on their own (which indicates to Bell that “God believes people are capable of amazing things”). Bell clearly misunderstands or distorts the personhood of the Holy Spirit, and his additional errors regarding the history of the Trinity further corrupt the doctrine. The doctrine of God is one of many doctrines regarding which Bell errs (including the gospel, the church, salvation, anthropology and more). Despite these clear errors, Bell’s books and videos are popular among some younger fundamentalists.
It seems clear that the doctrine of God is key to the defense of the fundamentals of the faith. When the Trinity is compromised in any way, that compromise undermines the foundations of all corollary doctrines. In addition to holding to the fundamentals of the faith, believers need to possess a robust knowledge of the Trinity, both historically and exegetically, in order to detect the subtle heresies of our day.
Mark Farnham is Assistant Professor of Theology and New Testament at Calvary Baptist Theological Seminary (Lansdale, PA). He and his wife, Adrienne, grew up in Connecticut and were married after graduating from Maranatha Baptist Bible College (Watertown, WI). They have two daughters and a son, all teenagers. Mark served as director of youth ministries at Positive Action for Christ (Rocky Mount, NC) right out of seminary and pastored for seven years in New London, Connecticut. He holds an MDiv from Calvary and a ThM in New Testament from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary (South Hamilton, MA). He has also studied ancient manuscripts at Harvard Divinity School and philosophy at Villanova University. He is presently a doctoral student at Westminster Theological Seminary (Glenside, PA) in the field of Apologetics. These views do not necessarily reflect those of Calvary Baptist Theological Seminary or its faculty and administration.