Book Review: Risking the Truth: Handling Error in the Church, by Martin Downes
Risking the Truth is one of the most innovative and interesting books I have come across this year. Structurally, I have never encountered a book quite the same: in addressing a unified question, that of heresy within the Church, it draws on the insights and contributions of many leading Christian pastors, teachers, and theologians across the world (and the selection of contributors, by the way, is absolutely superb!); and yet it is not exactly like any other example of multi-author works available. It is not a collection of essays or chapters on assigned topics, but rather a series of one-on-one interviews, conducted by Downes, which make for a unique set of enjoyable benefits that I discovered to be consistently threefold at least: first is the benefit of a personal glimpse into the lives and ministries of humble and capable men of God; second, immense collective insight into how to discern and address heresy within the Church; and third, analyses and reflections upon specific modern errors and heresies by those who are leading experts in their particular fields.
Although the scope of each interview varies according to the interests and accomplishments of each contributor, the basic theme is always the same, and many of the same questions, as appropriate, are asked repeatedly. This gives the reader the opportunity to consider the basic, troubling questions of heresy â€“ how does it arise in the Church? how can I be on guard against it in my own life? how do I address it without becoming either too soft and complacent or too negative and polemical? â€“ from a variety of insightful vantage points. Although the answers supplied are different in every case, and bring out many thought-provoking facets peculiar to each different contributor, it is striking to note the broad concerns and emphases that show up in virtually every interview â€“ things such as the importance of being aware of Church history, since there are no new heresies, only the same repackaged and modernized lies of the devil that have been soundly defeated by generation after generation of genuine biblical scholars. From every side, we are warned of the dangers of being lifted up in pride as we combat heresy; we are admonished of the importance of winning people, not arguments, of feeding the sheep and focusing on positive, accurate expositions of the whole bible more than focusing on every error in currency; we are reminded that doctrinal conflict is God's means for spurring his true Church to growth in the knowledge of the gospel and for testing the hearts of his people to see if they truly love him; we are constantly taught to remember the great creeds and confessions of the faith, and referred a couple of times to the Westminster Directory of Public Worship: â€œIn confutation of false doctrines, [the preacher] is neither to raise an old heresy from the grave, nor to mention a blasphemous opinion unnecessarily: but, if the people be in danger of an error, he is to confute it soundly, and endeavor to satisfy their judgments and consciences against all objectionsâ€. When such a variety of men whose orthodoxy and orthopraxy have been tested and tried speak so unitedly on such topics, how great an inducement we have to listen and take counsel!
There are also bits of wisdom and insight on specific topics, from eminently qualified theologians. I greatly enjoyed Kim Riddlebarger's emphasis on errors germane to Dispensationalism and eschatology, for example, and Gary L. W. Johnson's discussion of Norman Shepherd and the fallout from his ideas; Ligon Duncan's phenomenal insights into the New Perspective; Robert Peterson's outstanding contributions to combating the widespread denial of eternal, conscious punishment of the lost; and many others, which the reader will have to discover for himself.
Martin Downes has done an excellent job, not just of asking insightful questions often geared specifically toward the interests and proficiencies of each contributor, but also of introducing and concluding the book with a couple of insightful chapters of his own. The introductory chapter lays out with biblical examples the grave importance of heresy in the Church; and the concluding chapters give some very appropriate warnings and caveats to take away from the whole discussion. I also appreciated that, with a few well-selected quotes, he introduced us in brief, not just to what modern champions of the truth have to say about heresies, but also the thoughts and attitudes of ancient champions â€“ men such as Irenaeus, Hilary of Poitiers, John Calvin, and John Owen. I found especially insightful a little snippet from one of Calvin's letters to an up-and-coming heretic of his own day, Laelio Socinus:
â€œCertainly no one can be more averse to paradox than I am, and in subtleties I find no delight at all. Yet nothing shall ever hinder me from openly avowing what I have learned from the Word of God; for nothing but what is useful is taught in the school of this master. It is my only guide, and to acquiesce in its plain doctrines shall be my constant rule of wisdom.
â€œWould that you also, my dear Laelius, would learn to regulate your powers with the same moderation! You have no reason to expect a reply from me so long as you bring forward those monstrous questions. If you are gratified by floating among those airy speculations, permit me, I beseech you, an humble disciple of Christ, to meditate on those things which tend toward the building up of my faith...â€
Would that Laelius had heeded this wise admonition. God grant that we all may do so as we pursue doctrinal purity for the building up of the flock.
Downes seems to have a greater delight in building up the people of God than in endless debates and controversies. May God grant the same spirit to us. May he be faithful to fulfill Downes' introductory prayer:
â€œO Lord our God and Father, please look upon us in mercy and grace, please keep us from the sin of idolatry.
"O Lord, grant that we would always be satisfied with your truth, and submissive to your Word whatever the cost. Thank you that by your Spirit you have given us your Word, and by the Spirit's power have opened our eyes to believe and understand your Word.
"Keep us from the wilful pride that would place your Word beneath the authority of our own thoughts and wisdom. Lord, in your perfect and infinite wisdom you have permitted your Church to be in danger of deception to test the hearts of your people to see if they love you.
"Keep us O Lord from abandoning your gospel, and from turning aside to that which is no gospel at all.
"And may your Church submit to the teaching of your Word and not to the thoughts of men, the ways of the world, or the dressed up lies of the evil one. For the sake of the glory of your Son, without the true knowledge of whom no man may know you. Amenâ€
Risking the Truth: available at Monergism Books.