August 2, 2014

Tim Horton….uh…Challies: The IM Interview

tim_and_tommy.jpgHow much does Crossway want to get Tim Challies’ new book on the New York Times bestseller list? Apparently, not much, because they’ve sent him down here for a blog-tour interview. The change of atmosphere from teampyro to here must be pretty stressful, but Tim’s a hardy Canadian and can handle the transition.

Seriously, Tim’s book The Discipline of Spiritual Discernment is a unique, thorough and practical look at a topic that increasingly is creating controversial discussions among evangelicals. Blogosphere readers will know that Tim is a serious and conservative reformed Baptist, but his work on discernment is even-handed and useful to more than just those identifying with reformed Christianity.

Those of you looking for an argument can move along. I’m sure Tim and I disagree on many things, but scripture tells us that it’s a good thing when brothers dwell together in unity. Our agreement on the Good News of Jesus outweighs our disagreements.

Tim’s a fine writer, much in the style of Jerry Bridges. I appreciate his willingness to field a few ground balls from me. Support Tim and The Discipline of Spiritual Discernment. So here’s the interview:

Let’s start with a definition of discernment that doesn’t use the word “discern” in any form. Synonyms allowed and encouraged.

At its simplest discernment is the ability to distinguish between good and evil (and this is drawn directly from Hebrews 5:14). When we understand that the world was created good and when we understand that evil has since come into it, we realize that good and evil are now in constant opposition to one another. To be discerning is to be able to distinguish between the two using the Bible as guide. I provide a longer and more thorough definition in my book, but this one is simple and cuts right to the heart of the matter.

Without the discipline of discernment, what happens in the life of the typical believer? In the local church?

Well, if we understand that discernment is the ability to distinguish between good and evil, we must see that a lack of discernment will mean that a person or a church will be unable to distinguish between them and will then accept what is evil under the banner of what is good. What happens next will depend on just how lacking they are in discernment. Some churches may allow unbiblical songs or forms of worship that displease God. Others may go further and allow teaching about Jesus and His work that strike right at the heart of the gospel. Discernment functions in a way similar to the body’s immune system, keeping out what is foreign—what will pollute and infect and destroy. A person with no immune system will very quickly succumb to disease and illness. A person or church with no discernment (no “spiritual immune system”) will eventually suffer the same downfall.

Almost every disagreement among Christians is diagnosed by at least one side as a failure of the other side to exercise proper discernment. How does discernment apply to those areas of historic disagreement where Christians read the Bible with similar views of authority and still come to differing conclusions on issues?

In our practice of discernment we need to keep in mind just how close a doctrine lies to the gospel. Those doctrines that are critical to the faith—the doctrines of the person and work of Christ, the doctrine of justification and the like—these are doctrines where we can allow no significant disagreement. The Bible gives us no latitude for disagreement. But as we move further away we can begin to allow a little bit more room. We will see there are some doctrines where we can disagree and where perhaps we may need to affirm that we cannot be in close, local church fellowship, even while loving each other and affirming our common faith. And then there are issues that may still be important, but about which we can disagree even while staying in close fellowship within the local church. Discernment will allow us to understand just how important a doctrine is or how central it is to the faith. And then it will teach us how to react in a godly fashion.

Is a solo Christian writing a blog and calling it a “ministry of discernment” exercising a ministry in the normal, Biblical sense of the term? Or is “freelance” discernment a non sequitor?

Discernment cannot be understood as a practice that stands on its own. Neither is it something we do for its own sake—we are not discerning for the sake of discernment but rather for the sake of purity in doctrine and in practice. A person who wishes to be discerning must also be willing to take into account the Bible’s other teachings about loving one another, about speaking the truth in love, and so on. Many of these “discernment ministries” and “discernment blogs” seem to understand the importance of separating truth from error, even while falling into error in their responses. The Bible does not account for a lone wolf Christian making it his business to critique every author or teacher or ministry who happens to stumble into his crosshairs. In the book I suggest that the local church is the best and most natural context for the practice of discernment and I’ll stand by that!

As you may know, I’m immersing myself in a study of Roman Catholicism. It is not unusual at all to read the story of a convert who was drawn to Roman Catholicism precisely because of significant theological disagreements among Protestants. Roman Catholicism solves the discernment issue with authoritative teaching that can be found in encyclicals, councils and the catechism of the Catholic Church.

How would you answer the Roman Catholic assertion that Protestant claims to be able to discern the truth are self-refuting because every Protestant with a Bible functions as her/her own final authority? Is Catholicism’s understanding of discernment as the responsibility of apostolic leadership and tradition wrong?

I understand that this is a stumbling block for those who turn their backs on the Protestant faith and a source of ridicule for many of those who look at it from outside. By way of response I offer this: Roman Catholics delude themselves when they suggest that they enjoy far more unanimity than we do. When it comes to the faith of the person next door, these ruling bodies often have little impact. Many of the Roman Catholics I know or that I have been close to in the past hold all manner of teaching that is directly opposed to encyclicals, councils and catechism. Just recently someone I know converted to Catholicism and embraced the church, even while living with a series of boyfriends and (obviously!) using birth control. Many Catholics hold foreign beliefs and yet remain within the church. If you’ve immersed yourself in a study of Catholicism you know that there are many, many Catholics, and I would not be surprised to learn that it marks the majority, that simply do not hold to the beliefs of their own church. They have significant theological disagreements of their own, even if they remain quiet about them or if the church someone holds onto a semblance of unanimity.

This is not to excuse Protestants for their lack of unanimity. When we squabble we once again prove our unworthiness to call ourselves by the name of Christ. I think we all look forward to the day when we will enjoy perfect harmony with the Lord and with each other. But until then, sin continues to cloud our eyes and keeps us from enjoying that kind of unity. Like many Christians, I am excited by the Together for the Gospel movement and its emphasis on putting aside secondary differences to focus on what is of utmost importance—the gospel of Jesus Christ. I pray that more movements like this show that, despite differences, those of us who affirm the gospel can work together for the glory of God.

It appears to some of us- myself included- that evangelicalism has an informal “magisterial” of preachers and ministers that function in the present as authoritative arbiters of discernment.

How does the citing of well known pastors and teachers function in the discipline of discernment, particularly in relation to well known ministers who are not the elders or pastors or an individual Christian’s church. (Example: How far does “Pastor Piper says,” for example, extend into the discernment of truth for the larger church?)

This may be true, though I believe there is more to it than the idea of a “magisterial.” There are some men who are specially gifted in studying, interpreting and teaching the Scripture. When we refer to these men we acknowledge the blessing they are to the church and we rely to some degree on their expertise. We are wrong to assign them a place of infallibility or to refer to them without looking to Scripture to ensure that what they teach is true. But I think the Bible allows and even encourages us to sometimes defer to the expertise of the “experts” or at least to acknowledge their special training or special skill. This may be especially important for those of us who do not have the formal theological training that, though not necessary for a Christian to be equipped for service, truly is helpful.

And before we get too down on the more conservative wing, it must be admitted that every group within Christianity and without has its leaders—those to whom we refer with more respect than others. It could hardly be any other way.

Are you surprised that some have reacted critically to your step from blogger to author? Have you learned anything about the negative side of being a well known, well endorsed blogger?

First we should put this in context and realize that there have only been a few people who have really objected to the book. But I think the irony is that the people who have reacted most critically are the ones who are most concerned with discernment. To this point I have not heard from a single discernment ministry that they have read my book. Nor have any of the watchbloggers indicated that they have read it. Whether they just have no interest in it or whether they’ve written me off, I do not know. But I will say that the book has received more of a positive acceptance from those closer to the mainline than those who overtly focus on discernment.

tim_hortons_logo_original.gifWhat’s the deal with Tim Horton’s?

As a non-coffee-drinker I have never developed the same level of affection for Timmy’s that you’ll find in many of my countrymen. To me, Tim Horton’s is a place to go to find a decent sandwich, a Coke and, if necessary, a clean bathroom. It isn’t the best food you’ll find (and not the cleanest bathrooms, either), but it’s consistent and it’s good enough for stopping at when you’re on the road.

Comments

  1. Tim Horton’s has more than coffee.
    It’s a comfortable and reasonably priced place to meet up with friends, neighbours for conversations. They keep things simple.

    It’s in most neighbourhoods and is a good gathering place to find out what is going on with neighbours you haven’t met yet. It’s a place set up for conversations.

    If you think the washrooms aren’t clean enough, you can say so, and the chain is committed to following up. It is a place where you are welcomed and not rushed. On the 401, okay, the volume of bathroom traffic is high, local shop bathrooms are very clean and well stocked.
    I worked for one, cleanliness standards are very high.

    Since you don’t drink coffee I can appreciate you wouldn’t comphrend the value for the price, or the commitment on keeping coffee fresh. And if you are working hard for yourself and your company, I can also appreciate you may not need or want a central public meeting place this chain offers.

    It’s such a part of our landscape, people are comfortable there, I’ve done my best interviews and gotten good investigative information partly because they are seen as safe places.

    I read what was available of your book at Crossway Tim, I’m sorry about your controversy, did the behaviour help book sales?

  2. You know Michael, if you wanted to drive a bit more traffic here you would have mentioned Ken Silva by name and not just made veiled references to him. ;-)

    Re: the watchbloggers… Tim, if you haven’t been mentioned that means you’re not a heretic and you’re not on the level of the watchblogger pope (MacArthur – no offense to him, BTW).

  3. It started my morning with a good laugh that the first challenge to Tim in this comment section was over his ability to correctly discern the cleanliness of bathrooms at Tim Horton’s. Surely this cast doubt on the usefulness of his book. ;-)

  4. Interesting read, although I’m not sure I’m understanding the concept. This book on “discernment” is simply a book of how to distinguish good from evil? I guess I’m just not clear in what way the term “discernment” in being used in this context. Are we talking about discerning what is true as far as what the Bible says or a particular denomination says? Are we talking about discerning God’s will in our lives? I don’t feel like I got a real good idea of what the content of a book about discernment within protestantism really is. A little help would be appreciated.

  5. Was there anymore “controversy” beyond the opinions set forth at Justin Taylor’s blog? In that case the question dealt with the fact that a few thought perhaps Tim wasn’t seasoned or qualified enought to be writing a book. But has there been anything about the CONTENT of the book that has been a source of any meaningful controversy?

    It may just be the fact that Tim is just a laid-back Canadian, but I’m of the thinking that he has got a good handle on what it means to be a thoughtful, gracious believer. The fact that he’s gone to various blogs with some divergent views has been neat to see.

    Psalm 133

    How good and pleasant it is when brothers live together in unity!

    It is like precious oil poured on the head, running down on the beard,
    running down on Aaron’s beard,
    down upon the collar of his robes.

    It is as if the dew of Hermon
    were falling on Mount Zion.
    For there the LORD bestows his blessing,
    even life forevermore.

  6. I got a question for Tim:

    These days you have gotten some feedback over your knowledge of philosophy and formal logic. I’ve heard you say that those that drift towards Roman Catholicism seem to have an affinity for philosophy that rivals biblical studies. Here’s my question: do you think learning formal logic and reasoning skills as you would in philosophy is part and parcel of biblical discernment? Is philosophical training necessary or unecessary with regard to this discipline?

  7. Memphis Aggie says:

    Awesome timing, I’ve been struggling with this very issue.

  8. I read what was available of your book at Crossway Tim, I’m sorry about your controversy, did the behaviour help book sales?

    I really don’t know. I have no real sense of how the book is selling (though Amazon sold out of their copies, so I guess that’s a good sign).

  9. “Is Catholicism’s understanding of discernment as the responsibility of apostolic leadership and tradition wrong?”

    I wonder if the question should have been…

    “Is Catholicism’s understanding, that the laity try and ascend to the teachings found in scripture and sacred tradition as best as possible (keeping in mind general ignorance among the laity)wrong?”

    They way you phrased he question makes it sound like the laity within the Catholic Church are not to have any responsibility, or freedom, in discerning God’s will in relation to scripture and tradition.

  10. Take the y away from they and add a t to he.

  11. Nice interview. I’m really looking forward to reading the book – I’m waiting to get it until I can get one signed when we host Tim next month.

  12. Tim,

    I have not yet read your book so feel free to answer my question by saying, “Read my book.” In the interview you describe discernment in terms of keeping the church pure (good) from what comes in from the outside (unbiblical forms of worship and teaching). Might there not also be an outward focus to discernment? What I mean is something like discernment aids us in bringing good food to a hungry world.

  13. As I hold up the really big mirror I have here in the bookstore, let me ask the asker here:

    So what’s the difference between what you do here, iMonk, and what happens over at Ingrid’s blog or at Steve Camp’s place, given the grid you’ve organized here for the blessed Challies to interpret through?

    Not a trap, dude — there are plenty of those in the meta of my blog right now. Just a question to drive the answer deeper than into someone’s poster.

  14. Excellent interview. You ask some great questions, and provoke some great answers. Being a Canadian, I appreciate the Tim Hortons jab at the end. Being a voracious coffee drinker, I was once a huge fan of the place, but (surprisingly) after moving to Florida, my tastes got better (a surprise because American coffee has a reputation of being weak and watery). But that is a tangent, and unimportant. Thanks for the interview.

  15. centuri0n:

    >So what’s the difference between what you do here, iMonk, and what happens over at Ingrid’s blog or at Steve Camp’s place, given the grid you’ve organized here for the blessed Challies to interpret through?

    I’m not clear on what you mean about the grid I’ve organized for Challies.

    I can’t speak for Ingrid or Camp in terms of their blog concepts. I don’t read Camp, and I haven’t read Ingrid much since she the first Slice retirement and certain blogs removed her from the sidebar. (ahem) I do get the idea that there’s sort of a “we own the reformation” idea there that I don’t subscribe to, and obviously I sponsor a larger conversation with more defense for the minority reports.

    This is a personal blog, not a mission to anyone. It’s my place to write what I want. It’s my hobby. That it creates community is not my doing any more than the fact that I work at writing. I do have a post-evangelical point of view, but that term is totally misused and abused by Phil and James White so it really needs to be clear that I mean: 1) reaching back into the larger Christian tradition to 2) move beyond the current state of evangelicalism (as I define it.)

    If you can clear up the grid comment I’ll be glad to respond.

    And btw, several people are pretty sure that “truth unites…” is c.t. I’m not ready to vote, but it’s a strong possibility. No one else on the net gets that personal in their name calling.

    peace

    MS

  16. The IP addresses don’t match. She might be spoofing haloscan, but I think TUAD is just a n00b who frankly is a little overheated right now.

    As to “the grid”, you asked Tim about “a solo Christian writing a blog and calling it a ‘ministry of discernment’”. I know you eschew calling what you do either ‘ministry’ or ‘discernment’, but then you use phrases like you did in this response which say things like “reaching back into the larger Christian tradition” and “defense for the minority reports”.

    You might prefer the words ‘project’ and ‘working it out with a pencil’ for what you do here (allusion to the punch line of the same name intended), but it amounts to the same thing — with more or less gravitas, depending on where you are right now.

    I think that it’s possible to see your blog (and let’s be serious: my blog) as the same kind of thing you’re inquiring to Challies about. You say “no”. I’m kinda wondering how you justify that.

    I think you tried here, so you can revise and extend if you see fit.

  17. Cent:

    It would be ridiculous of me to say that I am never guilty of the kinds of errors I sometimes write about. Hopefully, I take enough self-effacing shots at myself to make it clear that I do not believe Christianity arrived with me or is defined by me.

    Part of my writing grows out of my own ordained and vocational ministry. To that extent, I believe I am set aside to preach, write, encourage, think, communicate, etc. as it pertains to what I do in my own ministry. The “post evangelical journey”- and I again note the misuse of that term by Phil J and others at least as it pertains to me- does take place for me in the context of passing on the faith to my students and working with our staff. I don’t preach what I blog by and large, but I don’t stop being me when I blog or when I preach.

    My critique of evangelicalism is largely a critique of my own tradition. I do not write as a McLaren who claims to have recovered Christianity. I write honestly of the failure of my tradition, the hypocrisy in it and its own evolution/devolution into whatever it has become. You have hit me hard in the past for “hating conservatism” etc, but I simply do not believe any of us profit from an uncritical attitude towards what has shaped us. So I am not trying to a Ken Silva number when I critique shenanigans in the SBC. I’m a family member talking about my own house. (As you are in the alcohol discussion.)

    My criticisms of the TR side of evangelicals is, again, my own journey. I’m not a sheriff of the blogosphere, and no one’s doctrine has to account to me. I simply don’t care for a monolog, and I naturally side with minority reports. The attitude of a CRN that applies a standard to all other churches and blogs is too big a pair of britches for me. My own writing has stirred up most of that dust for me. Remember: “I’m Not Like You” was an apologia for my individual journey, not for anyone’s church.

    My theological questions about Calvinism aren’t an attempt to police the blogosphere either. Saying I am moving on past Piper isn’t saying he’s a bad guy or everyone else should follow me.

    I do admit to discernment motives in my Osteen material, and I won’t defend that. We all should be discerning in such blatant error.

    Part of my problem is that I started writing and the audience came to me. I don’t look at stats, lists, etc. I don’t try to promote the blog. It all came to me. I’m glad it did, but it’s still just my blog and the writing side of what’s in my head and heart.

    peace

    MS

  18. Ain’t you fancy exceeding your bandwidth? Is it thanks to Andrew Sullivan? But in that case this site would probably have gone down first.

  19. Great questions.
    Good food for thought.

  20. In the interview you describe discernment in terms of keeping the church pure (good) from what comes in from the outside (unbiblical forms of worship and teaching). Might there not also be an outward focus to discernment? What I mean is something like discernment aids us in bringing good food to a hungry world.

    Read the book. :)

    But seriously, in the book I show that discernment has two goals. The first is to understand what God teaches to be true and the second is to live in a way that honors Him. We first need to understand who God is and then we can understand what He requires of us. So discernment does account for both areas of the Christian life.

  21. I do not think that the reply of Mr Challies to the effect that lots of Catholics do not follow the “authoritative teaching that can be found in encyclicals, councils and the catechism of the Catholic Church” answers the question.

    Is teaching authorative only based on the actions of all who claim some allegiance to the teaching?

    Furthermore, how is the situation of various Protestant groups any different other than in having less explicit clear teaching upon which to evaluate action & belief? What advantage is there in that?

  22. Discernment has basically been distilled into linguistic badminton between people with some level of doctrinal acumen. The average pew dweller has opted out quite willingly. One man’s discernment is another man’s divisiveness usually due to the low level of Biblical knowledge and/or the caustic self righteousness of some of the discernment proletariat. In short – a mess.

    Good interview from a lowly blogger (bourgousie)

    http://judahslion.blogspot.com/2007/12/death-of-discernment-ps.html

  23. Tim said:

    This is not to excuse Protestants for their lack of unanimity. When we squabble we once again prove our unworthiness to call ourselves by the name of Christ. I think we all look forward to the day when we will enjoy perfect harmony with the Lord and with each other. But until then, sin continues to cloud our eyes and keeps us from enjoying that kind of unity. Like many Christians, I am excited by the Together for the Gospel movement and its emphasis on putting aside secondary differences to focus on what is of utmost importance—the gospel of Jesus Christ. I pray that more movements like this show that, despite differences, those of us who affirm the gospel can work together for the glory of God.

    I quote:

    My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one: I in them and you in me. May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.
    John 17:20ff

    I ask:

    Why are we not committed to the “complete unity” that our Lord prayed would be ours? The Gospel is a great starting place, but Christ seems to be saying that we find the same unity he had with his heavenly Father in the Glory they shared. When dear brothers of all Christian expressions going to get this right? Christ did not make concessions anywhere in these verses. I really would love your answers.

    PEACE, AND UNITY.