Deconstructing1Jonathan Leeman offers a full discussion of de-construction here. and departing from the Christian faith appears to be a popular conversation right now. It should be noted that the problem of apostasy and sin within the church is not a new phenomena. The total depravity of man and deceitfulness of sin have been with man since the Fall. With that being said, Paul Maxwell’s recent “Joe Rogan” like interview with Anthony Bradley brings this conversation up again.
Dr. Paul Maxwell was a popular young theologian/ philosopher who left the Christian faith a year ago. He has written numerous journal articles, was a contributor to TGC and Desiring God, and has studied under some notable Reformed scholars. Also, his dissertation was recently published: The Trauma of Doctrine. By all accounts, Paul appeared to be a rising scholar, who many men in evangelicalism flocked to due to his straightforward writing and podcast at Self-Wire. Given these details, it is to no wonder that Paul’s “sudden” departure from the Christian faith was unsettling to some.2One of the things I appreciated about Paul’s content was his willingness to ask hard questions and to speak plainly about issues many in the broader evangelical culture were afraid to even touch. … Continue reading
In light of Paul’s recent interview explaining his “journey from Calvinism to atheism,” I want to offer a few observations on the interview itself, and then move to how these observations give Christians a timely reminder.
First, there is no doubt in my mind Paul Maxwell has dealt with some real hurt in his family upbringing and experience within the church and academy. Certainly, the hurt in the former shaped how he received and dealt with the hurt the in latter.3Some of that hurt from the latter was likely self-caused given his upbringing/ aggressive posture and perpetuated by his “conversion” and attraction to “evangelical culture” in contrast to … Continue reading
Second, what is telling throughout the interview (“Maxwell’s” deconversion story) is that Maxwell came to “evangelicalism” out of a deep need of belonging and finding love due to his poor home life- where love was contractual. As he describes his “conversion” at age sixteen, there is little to anything said about the gospel and his need for reconciliation with God. It appears he found a warm home with Christianity because “love” could be found there. Christianity gave him a way to live to be loved by God and others.
Paul’s draw to Christianity appears to be something other than the gospel. This further plays into how he dealt with hurt from those within Christianity. This is neither an excuse for those who “actually” did hurt Paul nor is it placing blame solely at Paul’s feet. The point is that what drew Paul to Christianity likely became his foundation and identity of what being a Christian means. A Christian identity or belief built on something other than the gospel will always erode and crack under the pressure. Jesus’ parable of the seed and the sower is helpful on this point.
Third, there is a real sense in the interview that he pursued academic theology divorced from the local church and the foundation of the gospel. He pursued knowledge and credentials to understand the trauma of his life and to further belong in “evangelicalism” as a “good solider.” This approach to theology is a foundation that is ripe for deconstruction and leaving the faith
Fourth, the last fifteen minutes of the interview are the most heart-breaking. As Bradley asks Paul about the advice he would give to young guys who are trying to understand where he is at, Paul goes on an pretty animated piece about how people should not waste their time emailing him, telling him why he is wrong, and that he is going to hell. He says that he has tried with more effort and energy to be a Christian than any of those young guys. He goes on to say no one has read more, studied more, and wrestled more with Christianity than he has.
The reality is Paul tried to be a Christian on the basis of his works and never really understood the gospel in the first place, which was highlighted early in the interview when he speaks of being a supporter of N. T. Wright. It is understandable why there would be relief and even “happiness” for someone who departed the faith after years of “trying to be a Christian” on their own merit. That is a miserable pursuit that always ends in ruin. Sin will ensure it and the law will expose it.
Reminders for Christians
Deconstruction is simply disbelief and a departure from Christianity, fashioned with fancy postmodern language. Our hearts should be broken and should lament for those who have left the Christian faith, praying for their salvation, but we should not be shaken by their departure.
First, it is evidence that they were not really among the people of God (1 Jn 2:19). Second, the security and assurance of our salvation and hope is rooted in the object of our faith and not our faith itself. Jesus Christ is a sure anchor for our souls, who secured salvation for us through mediatorial work as our high priest (Heb 6:19–20). Our hope and trust is fully in God alone (1 Pt 1:19–21), who elected us in eternity, redeemed us at the cross, and applied salvation to us at our conversion all according to God’s great mercy (Eph 1:3–14).4For more reading on perseverance of the saints and assurance see the Second London Confession, chapters 17–18.
Paul Maxwell’s departure from the faith serves as a reminder for Christians of the foundation of their faith, the purpose of theology, and the glory of Christ.
The bedrock foundation of our Christian faith cannot be placed in people, pastors, or some sort of social mission. The local church and Christian community are a vital part of the Christian faith. However, they are not the foundation, and the church is full of imperfect and sinful people. God has given pastors and teachers to the church to equip the saints for the work of the ministry, but no pastor or “hero” of the faith is free of error or impervious to moral failing. Loving neighbor, taking the gospel to the nations, and being salt and light in the world is part of the Christian’s calling, but again, our faith cannot be grounded in how well the church or individual Christian does these things. The point is, if we build our hope and faith on anything other than Jesus Christ clothed in the gospel, then we are building our faith on sinking sand. The moment a church hurts you, a pastor fails you, or the church fails in living out the gospel in the world, your faith will be shaken because you have built it on these things (sinking sand).
If a Christian sins against you, remember the gospel. If a pastor fails you, remember the gospel. If a whole church or denomination maligns you, remember the gospel. Christ is the sinless and sufficient mediator for you and those “Christians” who wronged you. He is your life, your hope, and your joy, even when you taste the bitter drink of “church hurt.” This does not make light of the sin against you, nor does it ignore the need for church correction and discipline when applicable. But the gospel, as our foundation, prepares us to be sinned against, responding with forgiveness and hoping for reconciliation. Also, the gospel causes us to love Christ’s body because she is a beautiful yet imperfect bride being purified for her wedding day.
Saving faith accepts, believes, and receives Christ alone for justification, sanctification, and glorification. Fullness of eternal life and the Christian faith is found in Christ alone (Jn 1:12; 17:3). He is the foundation of our faith, the center of Scripture, and the one who reveals the Father (Jn 1:18). In Christ alone our hope is found. He is the cornerstone. Our faith may be assaulted and weakened at times in the Christian life, but so long as we hold on to Christ our faith will always have the victory. Faith is the instrument by which we take hold of Christ, but the instrument itself is not the grounds of our salvation. It is the means by which we receive the Savior (Eph 2:8–9; Php 3:8–9).5Second London Confession, chapter 14. Take up the shield of faith Christian and do not allow the Evil One to tempt you to find your hope and assurance anywhere outside of Christ (Eph 6:16).
False motives or wrong ends in theology lead to disastrous results. Theology matters, but theology as a cold academic exercise or pursuit of bare knowledge turns theology into a monster. Theology is not merely another natural science or a field of natural knowledge through which observation and reason may be applied to the creation.6Herman Bavinck, Wonderful Works of God (Glenside, PA: Westminster Seminary Press, 2019), 10–14. The object of theology is the Creator, and the theologian is merely a creature. He does stand over God in cold abstract reasoning, making judgments based on what he sees under the microscope. While theology is a science in a sense, it is not natural science that is conducted in the laboratory. Theology is a science of the highest order, dealing with the knowledge of God, and is to be conducted within the church from the Word of God.7Herman Bavinck., Reformed Dogmatics: Prolegomena, Volume 1 (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003), 1:38, 40–41.
The objective revelation of God in Scripture is the sole ground for any knowledge of God,8Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, 1:93. and the theologian is bound to this revelation. He cannot go beyond what God has said. The theologian’s knowledge of God is but a transcript or a tracing of God’s thoughts revealed in his revelation. The theologian can never surpass faith in his knowledge, for it is saving faith alone that truly accepts God’s revelation.9Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, 1:43 Saving faith alone wrought by the Spirit can understand God’s Word. The Spirit takes the Word of God and brings it to bear on the heart of the believer (1 Cor 2:10–16).10Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, 1:92.
The motive and end in studying theology is communion with and the glory of the Triune God, by whom we were created for religious fellowship. The end is not mastery, and the motivation is not acceptance. The end is worship. Theology must be done before God’s face and for God’s glory from a heart that loves God. All other reasons, even valid reasons, are second to this. Theology forms and fuels doxology. Any pursuit of the knowledge of God that ends anywhere else is deformed and deficient. It’s a theology either pursued in pride or wrong in its conclusions. Theology pursued from faith strengthens our faith in God, humbles us, moves us to wonder and mystery, and ends in adoration and thanksgiving for the wonderful works of God revealed to us through Christ in the Scriptures. “Faith is knowledge which is life, ‘eternal life’” and communion with God.11Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, 1:602.
Glory of Christ
For we are the circumcision, who worship by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh 4 though I myself have reason for confidence in the flesh also. If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more. . . .8 Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ 9 and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith.Philippians 3:3–4, 8–9
Self-confidence, self-glory, and self-trust are antithetical to the gospel. Paul lists all of the “worldly” reasons he has more cause to boast in his flesh than anyone else (Phil 3:4–7). Yet Paul, the apostle, counts them all as loss so that he might gain Christ., Paul makes it even more emphatic by going on to say he counts them as excrement. The gospel frees us from pursuing “Christianity” on the basis of our effort or works and calls us to put all of our confidence and all of our trust in Christ on the basis of his sufficient work for us as sinners. The righteousness of God is received by faith in Christ, and this good news of the gospel frees us of self and moves us to glory in Christ alone. Our only boast is Christ.
In a world of deconstruction, reminder how firm our foundation is Christian in Jesus Christ, and let us plunge the wonderful depths of Scripture to know the Triune God more through Jesus Christ.
|1||Jonathan Leeman offers a full discussion of de-construction here.|
|2||One of the things I appreciated about Paul’s content was his willingness to ask hard questions and to speak plainly about issues many in the broader evangelical culture were afraid to even touch. However, there is an equal danger in constructing and studying theology devoid of the fruits of the Spirit and the wisdom from above that James talks about.|
|3||Some of that hurt from the latter was likely self-caused given his upbringing/ aggressive posture and perpetuated by his “conversion” and attraction to “evangelical culture” in contrast to his family upbringing.|
|4||For more reading on perseverance of the saints and assurance see the Second London Confession, chapters 17–18.|
|5||Second London Confession, chapter 14.|
|6||Herman Bavinck, Wonderful Works of God (Glenside, PA: Westminster Seminary Press, 2019), 10–14.|
|7||Herman Bavinck., Reformed Dogmatics: Prolegomena, Volume 1 (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003), 1:38, 40–41.|
|8||Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, 1:93.|
|9||Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, 1:43|
|10||Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, 1:92.|
|11||Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, 1:602.|