There are many reasons for which I have given thanks for The Gospel Coalition Canada, the most recent being the first National Conference held in Mississauga, Ontario. These were rich days of worship in song, fellowship, and feasting on the gospel of Mark. On a smaller scale, I’ve deeply appreciated newfound relationships with faithful brother-pastors that may not have developed otherwise. Knowing there are men preaching gospel-saturated biblical sermons across our nation is a source of deep joy and encouragement. There are many who have not bowed the knee to any but Christ. For this, we must give thanks to God. Such a movement is one that has garnered not only personal support but also congregational support from the church I pastor.
All of this to say, what follows is written as a friend, not as a ravenous, frothing at the mouth critic. What follows also comes on the heels of private, personal interaction, which I hope will long continue, and which I would be worse off without.
Nevertheless, bearing in mind that open rebuke is better than hidden love (Proverbs 27:5), and that the wounds of a friend are faithful (Proverbs 27:6), I offer here some reflections on why I believe TGC Canada’s recent theological statement on Bruxy Cavey, The Meeting House, inerrancy, and penal substitution said both too much and too little.
In the event that the circumstances warranting TGC Canada’s statement are unknown, it comes on the heels of recent interactions between Paul Carter and Bruxy Cavey. When Cavey, I believe rightly, came under scrutiny for his well documented views, Carter and Cavey engaged in a prolonged dialogue with the aim of seeking clarity on Bruxy’s theology and practice (for a more extensive recap, see here). Out of respect for the process, and for the TGC Council, I’ve waited until all was said and done before engaging publicly.
Saying Too Much
There were many sections in the theological statement that were a delight to read, to see reaffirmed, and to reconsider once more, for we can all too easily gloss over what is central to our most precious faith. I will admit, that when I first read this concluding theological statement, my initial opinion was that the language was not strong enough nor clear enough to explain the deeply troubling teachings that have come from Bruxy Cavey and The Meeting House. After re-reading the statement, I realized that the convictions and warnings were actually present.
For example, on inerrancy, the statement reads, “Scripture constitutes “the verbally inspired Word of God” and is “without error in the original writings.” Since God upholds all things by the word of his power (Hebrews 1:3), the inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture are guaranteed by God’s comprehensive providence. As Jesus says, “Scripture cannot be broken” (John 10:35).” (See Rich Davis from Tyndale’s philosophy department for short yet punchy commentary on this topic)
On penal substitutionary atonement, the statement reads, “We believe that by his incarnation, life, death, resurrection, and ascension, Jesus Christ acted as our representative and substitute. He did this so that in him we might become the righteousness of God: on the cross he canceled sin, propitiated God, and, by bearing the full penalty of our sins, reconciled to God all those who believe.”
I was also glad to read about the importance of precision given comments at the recent national conference that TGC Canada’s aim isn’t to be smart, orthodox, precise people, but to be Jesus people. I scratched my head wondering why those categories were mutually exclusive. Can’t we aim to be all of the above? These words and Scripture references from the statement were thus a wise inclusion:
“…doctrinal precision is what the Lord requires:
James 3:1: Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.
2 Timothy 2:15: Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth.
Titus 1:9: [An elder] must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it.”
However, I would suggest that what was clear and strong was somewhat obscured by an over-the-top congeniality which, throughout this process, has seemed more important than the theological content being considered. This was not the time to commend, nor was it time to discuss present or past behaviour of those deemed overly harsh or critical in defense of the truth. Now was the time to be clear.
For example, the waters were muddied by the odd appraisal of a minister and a ministry whose view on the atonement is, and I quote the statement, of “grave concern.” Can we truly “appreciate [The Meeting House’s] attempts to reach younger Canadians in winsome ways” if they are being reached with a message that is significantly erroneous? Ought this not rather be an occasion for a measure of grief on the one hand and greater urgency for gospel clarity on the other? Commendation when souls are endangered and Christ’s sufferings are diminished hardly seems appropriate.
The statement also reads: “We also hope and pray for the day that the Meeting House comes into full agreement with the best explanations of penal substitutionary atonement just as Bruxy hopes and prays “for the day that the Evangelical Church modifies the way it preaches Penal Substitutionary Atonement.””
My hope and prayers match the first half of this sentence, but was it really necessary to include what it is that Bruxy hopes and prays for? Unless he has changed his mind, and there is no indication that he has done so, his desired modification is that the evangelical church wouldn’t preach penal substitutionary atonement (if the first video doesn’t convince, see this). That’s quite the modification, to which we know full well what the Scriptures conclude when it comes to tinkering with the gospel (see Galatians 1:6).
The TGC statement rightly says, in response to this, that “To deny any aspect of penal substitutionary atonement is a grave problem. It is one thing to be ignorant of a doctrine; it is another to argue against it.”
Yet again, the punch is pulled by saying too much: “Keeping in mind this different history we are eager to be sympathetic toward The Meeting House and other like-minded churches but must urge them to look at this matter more closely.” Wouldn’t warning, or correction, or rebuke be far more fitting to reach for than sympathy?
Saying Too Little
Those are some of the sentiments clouding otherwise clear language as examples of saying too much. The following would be an illustration of saying too little:
“…we contend that anything less than a robust proclamation of the penal substitutionary atonement of Christ will diminish our joy, peace, and delight in our Lord and Saviour.”
A hearty amen to this, but much more can and should be said.
While the last sentiment is certainly true, the bigger objection is that anything less robs Christ of his glory for the manner in which he accomplished the salvation he did. I believe we ought to expound the fullness of the atonement in order that Christ duly receive the reward of his sufferings, which we undoubtedly benefit from through faith in his name.
Furthermore, I believe there is value in pointing out what J.I. Packer, quoted in the statement, also teaches regarding the doctrine of Penal Substitutionary Atonement. He writes, “And a gospel without propitiation at its heart is another gospel than that which Paul preached (In My Place Condemned He Stood, 32).” Packer is not alone in this regard. One of the books mentioned later in the statement contains the following, “…differences over penal substitution ultimately lead us to worship a different God and to believe a different gospel (Pierced for Our Transgressions, 217, emphasis mine).” An eager reader of the statement willing to pick up the books would eventually encounter such sentiments, but as those are likely few and far between, I believe it would have been better to give a sampling of how central the doctrine of penal substitution is to the gospel of our Lord Jesus.
This would certainly be in line with what was recently stated publicly by council member John Neufeld at the National Conference, namely, that a denial of penal substitution is a denial of the gospel. Hearing this was relieving and refreshing. Jonathan Griffiths, another a TGC Canada council member, wrote an article following the theological statement on penal substitution that was also on point.
The omission of such clear wording from the statement gives the impression of a hesitancy to be as candid as necessary throughout this process. To be sure, how we have the conversation matters. I am often reminded of a phrase I first heard from Mark Dever about the difference between visual acuity and depth perception. One individual may have 20/20 vision and can easily discern faults. In striking for the jugular of error, however, they fail to take in their surroundings and are quite capable of hurting themselves or others in zeal for truth. Another individual, on the other hand, is capable of an equally opposite danger. The one, having learned from past, well-intentioned mistakes, can focus exclusively on surroundings, not wanting to repeat injury to self or others, yet unintentionally allowing the continued presence of dangerous, even damnable error.
While none of us would wish to fall into either extreme, I submit that the requisite balance was not expressed in TGCC’s response to Bruxy Cavey’s false teaching. In fact, if anything, it seems that throughout the process, harder blows have been dealt publicly in blogs and social media to those trying to bring to light the errors in Cavey’s teaching than towards the errors themselves. This is not only puzzling, but disheartening, and sadly, has raised some confidence-shaking questions about the courage of TGC Canada. As a non-native Canadian, I say, tongue in cheek, that in this instance, there has been too much 21st century Canadian politeness in The Gospel Coalition Canada, and that perhaps we have been shaped too much by our cultural stereotype in the church in this part of the world.
Indeed, there seems to be a greater willingness at times to be vicariously courageous than actually courageous. We admire courage of the past or at a distance. We have heroes of old whom we celebrate for their willingness to contend for the faith once for all delivered to the saints. We cheer on from afar those taking needed stands today. This doesn’t make us courageous. This only provides cover for our cowardice. I’m regularly sobered by the fact that the cowardly and the faithless are number one and number two on the list of people excluded from the New Jerusalem in Revelation 21:8.
Different Landscape; Different Tactics
Now, if all of this seems petty, or divisive, or a conversation that should be held in private rather than public, consider the following analogy. The landscape of this battle, which has always been spiritual in nature, has changed in similar ways to conventional warfare. In conventional warfare, there used to be a time when there was an identifiable front. Enemy territory could be mapped out. No man’s land was clearly demarcated. Advance and retreat was measurable by feet and inches. Today, in conflict, a discernible front is much harder to define. IEDs explode in crowded nightclubs. Vehicles mow down innocent public on sidewalks. Suicide bombers detonate in busy marketplaces.
With the rise of digital technology, the same changes are observable in the battle for the truth of the gospel. In the past, if a church member was in danger of influence by someone preaching a different gospel, it was more apparent because they would have to drive across town to another church building on a Sunday morning to hear it. They would be conspicuous by their absence, and a diligent pastor or elder could follow up.
Today, a dangerous preacher can show up in the car of a church member while they are on their way to work through a recent podcast, and the local pastor, who will give an account for the soul of that church member, would be none the wiser. This indiscriminate, rapid infiltration of erroneous teaching via different media calls for heightened vigilance, courage, wisdom, clarity, discernment, and prayer in the lives of pastors, elders, gospel movements, and local churches.
For the sake of Christ, for the sake of our local churches, for the sake of those who look up to The Gospel Coalition Canada, for the sake of those under the influence of Bruxy Cavey, and for the sake of those growing up in our country who need models of what it looks like to guard the good deposit entrusted to us in the face of the storm clouds brewing, by God’s grace, this is what I hope to see more of in this movement in times to come.
May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with us to that end,