Society of Fellows
Introduction: There’s a new heresy in town and it’s called “open theism.” Touted by a handful of supposed evangelical theologians who argue they are being true to a literal reading of the Bible, open theism’s tenets are very simple, yet profoundly destructive to a historically biblical view of God. The main ‘teaching points’ of open theism are:
Open theism argues that an honest and literal interpretation of certain biblical texts can only lead the thoughtful reader to one conclusion: God learns as we learn, is often surprised by what His creatures do, changes His mind often, is rarely left with more than ‘reaction options’ to what His truly free creatures do, does not have perfect foreknowledge and could even be said to have made a variety of mistakes and miscalculated risks along the way in creating and ruling the world.
For example, “open theists” interpret such texts as the testing of Abraham in sacrificing Isaac (Gen. 22) and the prayer of Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane (Mt. 26:36-46) as giving clear indications of the learning curve God goes through as He reacts to the free decisions of His creatures. In the one case, God learns that Abraham can only be trusted after he offers Isaac as a sacrifice [“Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son.” Gen. 22:12]; and, in the later case, God watches to see if Jesus will go to the cross and learns that Jesus will die on the cross only after he confesses in Matthew 26:39,42,44, “Yet not as I will, but as you will.”
A casual reading of the basic tenets of “open theism” causes even the most open-minded believer to cringe with holy fear. The consequences of this skewed view of God is that we are left with a “diminished God,” who has little knowledge, debilitated power, a heart full of regret and remorse and a God who is constantly surprised by what his creatures do. In essence, “open theism,” no matter how hard its tries, is simply a recapitulation of the diminished God of process theology. The faulty nature of this view of God not only flies in the face of a complete picture of a biblical view of God, but it ultimately leads to a damaged and diminished faith. If God is diminished, then the gospel is diminished, the church is diminished and God’s kingdom work is diminished.
This new version of an old heresy joins other modern-day heresies such as the Jesus Seminar movement enjoined by John Dominique Crossan and Robert Funk, certain aspects of the higher-critical method of scripture study that deny the reliability of the biblical texts and the eternal search for the historical Jesus that is reincarnated on a regular basis. In the face of these heresies that threaten the gospel, what is the pastor and average layperson to do?
One response is to know that such heresies are not new. In fact, they have been around since the beginning of time. These erroneous teachings also remind us that “…the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine” 2 Tim. 4:3. The time for heretical teaching – though heresy has always existed - has arrived in full force, especially in a post-modern, fully secularized world where the world impacts the church more than the church impacts the world. In fact, what is so disturbing about the modern-day incarnations of ancient heresies is that many of them now develop out of or receive the blessing from the church. The Apostle Paul’s wise counsel to young Timothy in 2 Timothy 3:14 – 4:5 is needed once again:
“But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it, and how from infancy you have known the holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work. In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who will judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I give you this charge: Preach the Word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction. For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths. But you, keep your head in all situations, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, discharge all the duties of your ministry.”
Four safeguards are given in this text to protect the believer and the church from the myths and heresies that serve as the seedbed for erroneous teaching. They are: A Holy Life, Holy Scripture, A Holy Calling, and Holy War .
I. A Holy Life, vs. 14,15a.
Paul begins by reminding Timothy that one safeguard against heresy is extremely practical – the safeguard of holy living. 2 Timothy 3:14,15a. outlines the foundation of Timothy’s holy life, “But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it, and how from infancy you have known the holy Scriptures…” Paul’s advice to Timothy was very simple. Timothy was to keep learning and applying what he had always known about God because not only was what he had learned true, but it had been passed on to him by people of holy character.
Timothy was the recipient of a holy heritage passed on to him by the matriarchs of his family, Lois and Eunice. 2 Timothy 1:5 notes, “I have been reminded of your sincere faith, which first lived in your grandmother Lois and in your mother Eunice and, I am persuaded, now lives in you also.” It was his mother and his grandmother who communicated gospel truth to him and who lived out that gospel truth in daily living. Paul wanted Timothy to know that there is no substitute for holy living.
It is very easy for the believer to let down his/her guard in a post-modern world. Worldly systems of thinking and believing can easily creep in and become the seedbed for wrong thinking. 2 Timothy 3:1-5 describes in graphic terms the consequences of what happens when holy living is eclipsed by personal sin:
“But mark this: There will be terrible times in the last days. People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not lovers of the good, treacherous, rash, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God— having a form of godliness but denying its power. Have nothing to do with them.” The final phrase is key, “Have nothing to do with them.” Holy living is an essential safeguard against unholy thinking. This was true in Timothy’s day; it’s true in our day, as well.
II. Holy Scripture, vs. 15b.-17
But holy living is not enough of a safeguard against misguided teaching. Holy living alone is not adequate to resist unholy untruths. In fact, many of the great heretics of the church believed they were doing the work of God. This is why 2 Timothy 3:5 suggests that those who teach heresy often have “…a form of godliness, but deny(ing) its power.”
Why is holy living not enough? Because in the end, holy living remains a subjective experience. What is needed is an objective guide that transcends subjective experience. This is where God’s Word is needed. It is also why Paul would write to Timothy in 2 Timothy 3:15b.-17, “…the holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All scripture is God-breathed (inspired) and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” God’s Word is the objective standard by which we are to live and judge all truth. Notice several things that outline the holy, objective nature of God’s Word:
· God’s Word is “…able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.” God’s Word is the means by which God saves sinners. While it is Jesus who saves; God uses the Word of God to communicate the gospel to unregenerate minds and hearts. As the Word is preached the Holy Spirit uses the Word as the “…sword of the Spirit…” (Eph. 6:17) to convict sinners of their sin and to convert them through faith in Jesus Christ. This is why Romans 10:14,15 reads: “How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can they preach unless they are sent? As it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!’” God’s Word declares and clarifies the saving gospel of Jesus Christ.
· God’s Word is Holy Spirit inspired: “All scripture is God-breathed (inspired)…” Two truths emerge out of this phrase. First, the text states that “All scripture…” is inspired. This means that both the Old Testament (Mt. 5:17-20) and the New Testament (2 Peter 3:15-21) are inspired. The Bible is not a word about God; it is not simply a word from God; rather, it is the Word of God Himself. And since it is from God it is reliable, infallible, trustworthy, inerrant and sufficient. Second, “All scripture is God-breathed (inspired)…” Not only is the entirety of God’s Word sufficient, but the sufficiency of scripture is rooted in its inspiration. The word for inspired literally means ‘breathed out of God.’ The nearest we come in scripture to having the process of inspiration described is 2 Peter 1:21 where the text states, “…men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.” God used men – their personalities and backgrounds – to write down exactly what He wanted written down. This is why the Bible is time-bound in that it records the events of specific people groups and specific places; yet, it is timeless and eternal because as God’s Word – his principles, precepts and eternal truths – God Himself communicates with clarity, precision and accuracy through these events, people groups and places.
· God’s Word is useful for “…teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness…” While God’s Word is the means God uses to bring people to faith in Jesus and while it is inspired, it is nonetheless a very practical and helpful book. The Bible is not simply an ivory tower experiment. It is an all-sufficient, Spirit inspired book practically beneficial for those who read and study it.
o teaching (doctrine) – this is the content of God’s Word that teaches the truths about God, salvation, the church, and the other great doctrines of the church;
o rebuking (reproof) – this is the activity of God’s Word that confronts wrong behavior and wrong belief;
o correcting – this is the restoration of something to its proper condition; this is the restorative power of God’s Word;
o training in righteousness – this means that God’s Word is sufficient to train a person in how to think and live righteously.
· God’s Word leads to a mature person, “…so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” The inspired, but nonetheless, practical nature of God’s Word results in a person fully equipped for God’s Work.
In the end, God’s Word is the objective rule by which we live and think as believers. And while holy living is an essential safeguard against heresy, the all-sufficient Word is the objective standard by which all beliefs are to be evaluated. The person who strays from or denigrates the Bible is the same person who ends up in error.
III. A Holy Calling, vs. 1,2
The text now moves from a call for personal holiness and an understanding of the holiness of God’s Word, to a holy calling to preach God’s Word: “In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who will judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I give you this charge: Preach the Word; be prepared in season and our of season; correct, rebuke and encourage – with great patience and careful instruction.” Rather than wilt under the heat of erroneous teaching from godless men, Paul was reminding Timothy that he lived under the mandate of a holy calling. This calling is clarified in verses 1,2. Several points are worth noting in these two verses:
The calling to preach and apply the Word of God with precision and patience is essential to the faithfulness of the church to God’s kingdom ministry. This is why Paul challenged Timothy to remain faithful to holy living, to God’s holy Word and to the holy calling to preach the Word even in the face of opposition.
IV. A Holy Warning, vs. 3,4
Why would Paul spend so much time instructing Timothy in the varied aspects of gospel ministry, especially the ministry of preaching the Word? Because Paul knew that people have short memories when it comes to God’s Word. This is why verses 3,4 state, “For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. The will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths.” Incredible! Paul’s warning to Timothy to remain faithful to God’s Word came against the backdrop of outright unfaithfulness. In just a few short years, after the ascension of Jesus, some in the church would fall into outright heresy. Look at the differing aspects of this move from orthodoxy to unorthodox belief:
Paul wanted Timothy to avoid heretical teachings by being faithful to God’s Word, but also to avoid heretical teachers who lead people to stray from God’s truth. 2 Timothy 3:6-9 describes these restless, ruthless teachers in the following manner: “They are the kind who worm their way into homes and gain control over weak-willed women, who are loaded down with sins and are swayed by all kinds of evil desires, always learning but never able to acknowledge the truth. Just as Jannes and Jambres opposed Moses (Ex. 7:11), so also these men oppose the truth – men of depraved minds, who, as far as the faith is concerned, are rejected. But they will not get very far because, as in the case of those men, their folly will be clear to everyone.” Such are the people who teach heresy – both then and now!
V. Some Holy Advice, vs. 5
Paul concludes his encouraging challenge to Timothy with some practical advice found in verse 5: “But you, keep your head in all situations, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, discharge all the duties of your ministry.” Rather than get sidetracked into developing “new” teachings, as is often the case with heretical teachers, Paul challenges Timothy with some very practical advice that is worth hearing once again.
· “But you, keep your head in all situations…” This simple phrase can also be translated to be watchful and ready. Too often, the teacher and preacher of God’s Word will hear of a new angle or teaching that sounds good, but is nevertheless unbiblical. In his desire to “stay up with the times” he loses his head in his desire to keep pace – to keep current. He buys into a teaching that skews the faith and ends up teaching heretical things to an unsuspecting church. This is why Paul reminds Timothy to keep watch – to keep his head – in all situations, especially as enticing theological fads come and go.
· “…endure hardship…” Ministry can be rough, especially when others abandon the truth. It is difficult to remain faithful in an unfaithful age. Yet, the minister of the gospel of Jesus Christ must keep true to the Word even if it warrants enduring hardships from time to time.
· “…do the work of an evangelist…” In the midst of confronting the casual Christianity that emerges out of heretical teaching, Paul reminds Timothy that the chief aim of the gospel is to save lost sinners. This is why the work of evangelism must be kept front and center. Developing new truth that appeases the otherwise sinful heart is not the issue; the issue is that the desperately wicked heart needs to be renovated and regenerated by the life-changing gospel of Jesus Christ.
· “…discharge all the duties of your ministry.” Simply stated, Timothy must be a faithful minister of the gospel of Jesus Christ. And while ministry can be tedious and even boring, God honors the faithfulness of his servants.
Conclusion: God desires for his church to be built up in the “…most holy faith…” (Jude 20), ministering and serving in ways that honor Christ. In order to do this, it is essential that God’s people – his ministers and his people – remain faithful to God’s Word, avoiding error and rejecting untruths, half-truths and various kinds of heretical teachings. As Jude 3 urges, “Dear friends, although I was very eager to write to you about the salvation we share, I felt I had to write and urge you to contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints. For certain men who condemnation was written about long ago have secretly slipped in among you. They are godless men, who change the grace of our God into a license for immorality and deny Jesus Christ out only Sovereign and Lord.”
Such a warning is needed today. Men such as Gerd Lüdemann, who has served as theology professor at Vanderbilt University and the University of Göttingen Germany, are teaching heretical truths under the guise of mature Christianity. Ludemann would write in his 1994 publication, The Great Deception: And What Jesus Really Said and Did, the following denunciation of Christianity: “I have come to the following conclusion. My previous faith, related to the biblical message, has become impossible, because its points of reference, above all the Resurrection of Jesus, have proved invalid and because the person of Jesus himself is insufficient as a foundation of faith once most of the New Testament statements about him have proved to be later interpretations by the community. Instead, the church came; it recklessly changed the message of Jesus and in numerous cases turned it against the mother religion of Judaism.” As a result, Lüdemann calls himself a non-theist theologian. His views are so radical that even the liberal University of Göttingen as removed him from his tenured chair of theology, a move that Lüdemann still doesn’t seem understand or comprehend.
Contrast Lüdemann’s descent into heresy with the faithfulness of R.G. Lee, who for thirty-two years faithfully proclaimed God’s truth as pastor of Bellevue Baptist Church (1927-1960). R.G. Lee was a man bent on remaining true and faithful to God’s Word, to God’s church and to doing God’s work God’s kingdom way. Rather than being dazzled by his own intellect, which could have easily taken him down the same road Lüdemann traveled, Lee understood that the human mind, as well as the human heart, was sinful and reprobate apart from a saving, transforming experience with Jesus Christ. Lee was not open for error. Instead, he was open to hear God’s Spirit speaking to him through the Bible. May God give us more men and women in the church who are more open to God’s truth than they are open to error.
Written by: Dr. Kevin L. Shrum, Pastor
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Dr. Kevin L. Shrum has been pastor of Inglewood Baptist Church in Nashville, Tennessee since 1995. He also currently serves as President of the Tennessee Baptist Convention (2002). Dr. Shrum earned the bachelor of arts degree from Missouri Baptist College and holds the master of divinity and the doctor of ministry degrees from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He and his wife Janet have three children: Sarah, Caleb, and Isaac.
 David Basinger, “Practical Implications,” in Clark Pinnock, Richard Rice, John Sanders, William Hasker and David Basinger, The Openness of God: A Biblical Challenge to the Traditional Understanding of God (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1994), 156.
 Bruce A. Ware, God’s Lesser Glory: The Diminished God of Open Theism (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway Books, 2000), p. 17.
 Luke Timothy Johnson, The Real Jesus: The Misguided Quest for the Historical Jesus and the Truth of the Traditional Gospels (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1996). Johnson deals a devastating blow to the Jesus Seminar’s main arguments.
 David S. Dockery, Christian Scripture: An Evangelical Perspective on Inspiration, Authority and Interpretation (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman, 1995). Dockery gives three full chapters (Chapters 3,4,5) to a thorough discussion of the various options and nuances of the issue of inspiration.
 Rob Simbeck, “The Body of Jesus Rotted in the Tomb,” The Nashville Scene 28 Feb. 2002 [Nashville, TN.]
 Editors, PayDay Everyday: The Incomparable Memoirs of a Pulpit Giant (Nashville, TN.: Broadman & Holman, 1974), p. 86.