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Defending the Faith

Renewing Your Mind / R.C. Sproul
The Truth Network Radio
February 22, 2023 12:01 am

Defending the Faith

Renewing Your Mind / R.C. Sproul

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February 22, 2023 12:01 am

Heresies are rarely new. They often repeat the same rebellious worldviews from earlier eras. Today, W. Robert Godfrey examines some ancient heresies, their modern counterparts, and the church's well-reasoned defenses against them.

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The first-century church was already seeing the results of many heresies, each of them the result of the same error. There is this danger amongst Christians to want to find certainty in the wrong place. We want to find certainty by the Holy Spirit still guaranteeing that we're right, or we want to find certainty by an infallible bishop that is always reliable no matter what happens. And the truth is, when we look into the Word of God, we discover there's only one place for certainty, and that's in the Bible.

Our tendency for error is built into our sinful hearts. We desire to find our own way, and we're going to see that plainly in today's edition of Renewing Your Mind. We welcome you to our program today as we continue Dr. W. E. Robert Godfrey's series, A Survey of Church History. Today he concentrates on some of the heresies of the early church, but also the defenders of the faith, the early apologists from the first and second centuries.

Let's join Dr. Godfrey now. We're returning to our subject of defenders of the faith, the apologists who, in those early days, which were no golden age, had to face all sorts of false teaching, all sorts of challenges, all sorts of difficulties that the church confronted. We looked last time a little bit at Justin Martyr and the way in which he tried to explain how Christians were inheritors of the Old Testament and how he tried to answer paganism.

And today we want to look a little bit at some of the other challenges, what we might call heretical challenges, challenges from people who claimed they were Christians, indeed better Christians than the mainline of the church, and were constantly challenging the church. One large group that goes under a very broad label of challenge is a movement known as Gnosticism. Gnosticism is a movement derived from the Greek word gnosis for knowledge. The Gnostics claimed that they had special knowledge, that they had more knowledge. The Gnostics appealed to several factors in the ancient world. One was the sense that some people are a lot better than others. And the Gnostics would sometimes make the argument, well, you know, the church you're going to is okay for common people, but if you want the fuller truth, if you want the deeper truth, often if you want the secret truth, we have that and they don't have it.

So you better come to us. We can do for you what nobody else can do for you. Now, the Gnostics were themselves a group with great internal divisions, great differences amongst themselves, but this was the essential claim of all the Gnostics. We have special knowledge. Sometimes we have secret knowledge that only the initiates can possess, and we can teach you a Christianity that is more radically spiritual than what the apostles have done. This characterized almost all the very many different kinds of Gnosticism, a spirituality that fundamentally denied the importance of history, the importance of the physical world, that said the action is really always in the spiritual. And in this regard, they connected with things to be found in ancient philosophy, particularly amongst Plato and some of his followers. The really important thing is the spiritual.

That may surprise us in some ways, but what's fascinating about what went on in the ancient world is there are always similarities in the modern world. Somewhat parallel to some forms of Gnosticism, one of the most striking examples would be Christian science. I don't know if you know much about Christian science, but the essential teaching of Christian science founded by Mary Baker Eddy is that the physical does not exist, and the secret knowledge that you need, the liberating deeper insight into reality is the physical does not exist, and therefore disease doesn't exist. If your body doesn't exist, it can't be diseased, and therefore if you can just liberate your mind from the illusion of a body, you can be well all the time.

You can see how that has a certain appeal. It's wrong, but it has a certain appeal, and Gnosticism in the ancient world had a similar kind of appeal that way. We can liberate you from the bondage to the body. They didn't always deny the body was real, but you can be liberated from it to a life above and beyond the body, and that appealed to a lot of people, and so the church needed to answer that appeal, especially since many of the Gnostics said, we are the true church. We're the true bringers of the message of Jesus Christ. So the church had to respond to that, and one of the great early teachers and apologists of the church who led the response was Irenaeus. Irenaeus lived from about 130 to about 200.

I always like to say about 130, it wasn't his mother was in labor so long, it spread over several years. It's that these people emerged from such obscurity that we really don't know exactly when they were born, but this was about the period in which he ministered. He probably knew Polycarp who had known the Apostle John, so we're really sort of in the third generation after the apostles. He became a bishop in southern France, later in his life died a martyrdom, probably, but became one of the great early theologians of the church, answering particularly the Gnostics in his greatest writing entitled, Against All Heresies. Maybe slightly overly optimistic, but it shows how he saw the church besieged from many different sides and in many different ways and sought to expose the errors, many different errors that were around him. And he did that by carefully teaching the Scriptures and by carefully teaching the Scriptures particularly to show that God had created the physical world. Many of the Gnostics taught that some lesser God had created the physical world, not the true and eternal God. Irenaeus was eager to make the point the true and eternal God created the world and he created it good.

Physicality is not something to be rejected and overcome, but it's the way God created us to be. And because of that, history is important. Irenaeus could almost be the patron saint of historians. He said, you know, the Bible is not a book of myths. It's not a book of spiritual lessons hiding behind history, but the lesson is the history, that our God is at work at history to accomplish His saving purpose and to bring His Son. So, Irenaeus comes to stress the Scriptures. We don't need secrets.

We don't need speculation. We have what we need in the Bible. The Bible tells us God created, that creation is good, although it fell into sin, and that history is important because it's in history. God works, and in history, God brought His Son to be the Savior. And then Irenaeus, very importantly for the history of the church, said, and by the way, if you're confused, who is the reliable teacher in the history of the church?

Who can you trust as a teacher? You have this Gnostic, and you have that Gnostic, and you have another kind of heretic. The guy to trust is your local bishop. Now, when we hear the word bishop, I think we immediately think of bishops in our time.

One of the recurring problems in studying history is that we'll run into words that were used back then with a very different meaning than the way we use them and understand them today. Today, we think of a bishop as someone of considerable authority who rules over a kind of regional church that has many clergymen under him that maybe appears from time to time in grand processions impressively clothed. None of that would have been true of the kinds of bishops we're talking about in this ancient church period. The best example of a bishop in the ancient church would be R.C. Sproul.

What is characteristic of R.C. Sproul? Well, aside from the fact that he has these marvelous children, is that he's a pastor. He's a senior pastor in a church.

His primary work is preaching, and he has a few assistants to help him with other work in the local church. That's what a bishop really was in the ancient church, what we would think of as a senior preaching pastor. Bishops above all were teachers and preachers. They were not administrators in the ancient church, and they weren't so much over many churches. That developed much later in the ancient church period. They were primarily pastors in a local church, and so when Irenaeus says, when in doubt, stick with the bishop, he's really saying, when in doubt, stick with your local, reliable preacher, the guy you've known, the guy who opens the Word, the guy whom the church more broadly approves of.

And as a sort of practical bit of advice, it was very valuable. Maybe you, as a Christian, don't think you can think through every theological issue. Maybe you, as a Christian, can't understand the whole Bible and how it's put together.

Maybe you feel confused by all the voices that surround you. Well, find a really reliable preacher who teaches the Word of God and stick to him. Now, they're not saying, put your mind in neutral, but they're saying, God, let's see, Jesus said it, didn't He? I will build my church, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it. Now, the danger of Irenaeus' good practical advice is that later it became kind of a theory about the bishops. The bishops can never fail. The bishops are infallible. There's an apostolic succession of bishops that will never fall.

That's not what Irenaeus was saying, and it's certainly not what the Bible was saying. Now, I'm from the Dutch Reformed tradition. I don't know how it is in your churches, but in the Dutch Reformed tradition, there's a room for the elders where they meet before service to pray, and on the wall of the room are the pictures of all the previous pastors that have served that congregation, and it's kind of the apostolic succession of faithful teachers. None of them are infallible, but it's a sort of testimony. The truth has been taught here through the generations of these pastors, and that's what Irenaeus was saying.

Stick with somebody who's tried and true and tested by the church to lead you into the Bible because it's where the Bible can reliably be found. So Irenaeus against the Gnostics is a great defender of the importance of history, the history of the church, the history of faithful teaching in the church. But along came another movement also concerned about Gnosticism, also concerned to maintain the truth, and this movement comes to be known as Montanism after, yes, you guessed it, Montanus, the founder of the movement. Montanus, influenced by the desire to be sure that we have the biblical truth, influenced by the desire to stand against heresies, reached the conclusion that God was still working through the Holy Spirit to give a prophetic word to the church.

Does that sound familiar to anything you've ever heard before? It's interesting, you see, how ideas keep popping up in the history of the church, not necessarily influenced by one another, but just there are tendencies that recur in the history of the church. And Montanus, himself a very orthodox guy, thought, wouldn't it be wonderful if we so had the Holy Spirit that when questions came up, we could just ask the Holy Spirit and He'd tell us what's right.

It would make life a lot easier. And that was the teaching then that Montanus came up with. Now, like most of these people, then they go sort of too far with an idea so that Montanus and his immediate followers said that Jesus would come again before they all died. They were wrong. That didn't happen, just in case you weren't sure. They also said Jesus would come back to a small town in Asia Minor. That apparently isn't happening either. Isn't it Orlando?

No. But, you see, this was the desire against all this heresy to find certainty. And there is this danger amongst Christians to want to find certainty in the wrong place. We want to find certainty by the Holy Spirit still guaranteeing that we're right, or we want to find certainty by an infallible bishop that is always reliable no matter what happens. And the truth is when we look into the Word of God, we discover there's only one place for certainty, and that's in the Bible. And we might say, well, you know, that's kind of annoying because there are a lot of people who find a lot of different things in the Bible. The good side of that is it keeps bringing us back to the Bible, doesn't it?

Jesus, when He faced the devil and the devil quoted the Bible, Jesus said, it is also written. Jesus is directing us, you see. Always go back to the Bible. Always compare Scripture with Scripture.

That's the only way forward. That's the only way to be assured of the truth. It's the Bible that is the source of our certainty. Now, these Montanists, as I say, were really pretty orthodox in their theology except for their notion that the Holy Spirit directed and guided them. And then, as is the case with many, they began to think that other folks were not as strict and were not as insightful as they were.

And they began then increasingly to separate themselves from the main body of the church because the main body of the church wasn't quite strict enough. And out of this movement, or better to say into this movement, moved one of the great thinkers of the ancient church early period, Tertullian. Tertullian, who lived and ministered in the late second and early third century, was one of the great thinkers and one of the very best early writers of the church. He was a great Latin writer. And in the Latin world, the way you wrote made a big difference to people.

They were deeply moved when the Latin language was written elegantly and eloquently. And Tertullian was a great stylist as well as a remarkable theologian. And in his writing, he accomplished great things in advancing the cause of Christianity but was drawn to the Montanists because Tertullian himself was a rigorous. He was tough-minded on the way in which Christians should completely separate themselves from the world. So he wrote treatises on the games, how Christians shouldn't go to football. No, it was chariot races then, but sort of the same thing.

And so you have to separate yourself from that violent, gambling-ridden sporting world. He wrote a treatise on the clothing of women, how they were not modest enough. So he tackled all sorts of issues in his own day and then also again did apologetic work defending the faith. It was Tertullian who came up with some of the phrases that we still remember. It was Tertullian who first said, what does Athens have to do with Jerusalem? Let's not be corrupted by pagan thinking.

Let's just focus on the Bible. And so Tertullian was one of those who spoke so passionately, so firmly, so eloquently in defense of the faith and was a really great figure in terms of defending the truth. And the later church had trouble with Tertullian because technically he died as a schismatic. He died outside of the church as they saw it because he'd identified with the Montanists. Nonetheless, his theology was so helpful that they still quoted him as the master even though they didn't like that he had died outside the church. Well, here we have these remarkable figures as teachers and it really brings us on then to the one who maybe should be called the greatest theologian of the first half of the ancient church and that is Origen. Now I'm glad R.C. is not here because I think if R.C. heard me say this was the greatest theologian of the first half of the church, he'd be restless.

He might even get up and object. He might take over and maybe he's right. I've always had just this little bit of sympathy for Origen which I find troubling in myself. Origen was a great theologian who was wrong about almost everything. So, what makes him a great theologian? Well, what was great about Origen is he was a pioneer and the problem with being a pioneer is you can often take the wrong trail, but you know it's a very different thing for a pioneer to take the wrong trail than for someone who comes after the highway's been paved to take the wrong trail.

If you won't take the highway that's been paved, you're a rebel, but if you take the wrong trail as a pioneer, it's a different sort of deal. There's a whole different spirit at work there. Origen raised so many critical questions for the church. He began the process of theology in such a profound and helpful way.

The only problem is he was wrong in an awful lot of the conclusions that he reached, but the questions he asked were really important ones and he asked them in quite brilliant ways. He's a child of Alexandria and Alexandria was arguably the most important city in the ancient Mediterranean world and it was a center of great commerce, but also a center of great learning. Only Rome and Athens could challenge it as a center of learning, but by our day certainly Alexandria had surpassed them both. And there was a vital Christian community there that had started early on and there had emerged a school for catechumens, that is for converts before they're baptized, had emerged in Alexandria.

And Origen is really almost the third generation of teachers in that school even though he's there in the early third century. So this Alexandrian church has a long history before Origen and then he comes along and he's not concerned only to teach the catechumens. He's not concerned only to help new believers, but he thinks we have to be thinking more profoundly about theology.

We have to begin to do what we would call systematic theology, to see the connections in theology, to build it out to help the church and to keep it orthodox. The passion of Origen's heart was to preserve the orthodoxy of the church. He wrote once, I who bear the name of priest and have to preach the word of God, if I offend against the doctrine of the church and the rule of the gospel and were to become a scandal to the church, then may the whole church with unanimous decision cut me off her right hand and cast me out.

This is why I have a little bit of sympathy for Origen. He really wanted to serve the church. He didn't want to be a radical. He didn't want to go his own way. He didn't want to separate from the church.

He wanted to serve the church and he did in many, many ways. One of the ways in which he served the church was to defend the church against some of its platonic critics. There had been an earlier pagan critic named Celsus. Celsus was an eminently thoughtful and philosophical man and as a typical pagan, Celsus had said, those Christians, you know, if you wanted to gather just a group of thugs, you wouldn't do any better than the local church. They're stupid. They're not well educated and for them to go around constantly saying that God is interested in them, they're like a bunch of frogs croaking in a pond trying to get attention to themselves. And Origen took on this critique of Celsus, this elitist attitude on the part of Celsus and answered it brilliantly.

He said, you know, Celsus is right. Christians aren't much and the glorious thing about Christianity is you don't have to be much to come to Christ because you don't have to change yourself in order to come to Christ but you come to Christ in order to be changed. And it's a brilliant turning of the argument on its head. Christianity is a glorious religion because it's for everybody and it's a glorious religion because it's for smart people and dumb people. It's for moral people and immoral people, at least as they come to Christ, find forgiveness in Him and find transformation in Him. And so Origen is a brilliant defender of the faith at that point from the elitism that tended to dominate the Roman world. So as we come to the end of this lecture, we've seen various defenders of the faith and we've come to Origen. We want to look a little bit more at Origen and the pioneering and wrong trails that he took but find in him one who raised the right questions and began a wonderful process of insight along the way. It's interesting to see that these defenders of the truth in the early church were fallible just like you and me.

But through their defense of the faith, we're able to see a clear line of truth drawn through history. Thanks for listening to Renewing Your Mind on this Wednesday. I'm Lee Webb, and we are pleased to present Part 1 of Dr. W. Robert Gottfried's series, A Survey of Church History. If you'd like to continue your study in this area, let me commend this two-DVD set to you for your gift of any amount. While you wait for the DVDs to arrive, you can begin your study with access to the digital download for the series. We'll also include a PDF of a study guide featuring an outline of each lesson and group discussion questions. To give your gift and make your request, call us at 800-435-4343.

If you prefer, you can go online to And on behalf of all of my colleagues here at Ligonier Ministries, thank you for your generosity. Well, as we all know, if we don't learn from history, we're doomed to repeat it. It was interesting to hear Dr. Gottfried say that many of the heresies that cropped up in the early church are appearing again today. Understanding error helps us avoid it. Again, the series A Survey of Church History is available to you for your gift of any amount.

Our number is 800-435-4343, and our web address is Before we go today, I want to remind you about RefNet, our 24-hour internet radio station. You'll hear great teachers like John MacArthur, Stephen Lawson, and R. C. Sproul. You'll also hear Christian audio books, music, news, and much more. You can turn it on and know that your family will be hearing sound biblical teaching throughout the day. You can listen for free right now at, or download the free RefNet app and listen on the go. Well, tomorrow Dr. Gottfried will tell us more about the early apologist Origen. I hope you'll join us for that Thursday for Redoing Your Mind.
Whisper: medium.en / 2023-02-22 03:43:58 / 2023-02-22 03:53:20 / 9

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