Dr. Joseph Tson – a well-known pastor and author, perhaps the preeminent Romanian Baptist theologian of the past few decades – has recently declared his theological agreement with a charismatic group (“Strajerii” – “Watchmen”) that promotes a type of Word-Faith, prosperity-gospel teaching.
Tson’s recent revelation has affected Romanians all over the world. The Baptist Union recently excluded Tson from the Baptist Union and revoked his ordination for his deviation from the Baptist Confession of Faith.
In the uproar online over Tson’s recent changes, I found Dr. Radu Gheorghita’s “Letter from a Younger Theologian” to be a helpful source of biblical insight and brotherly persuasion. Dr. Gheorghita is the Associate Professor of Biblical Studies at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. He was a mentor to me when I was a student at Emanuel University of Oradea. With Radu’s permission, I have translated the letter into English and am happy to provide it here.
A YOUNGER THEOLOGIAN’S LETTER TO JOSEPH TON
Dear Brother Joseph,
We thank you for the message you sent with your supplemental clarifications. Before I can respond, I want to appreciate the decent tone of dialogue in your most recent messages, and I assure you that I don’t take that for granted. As for me, I desire to maintain the same parameters. I hope that at least one good thing might come from the tumult of recent weeks – that Romanian theologians will know how to dialogue decently, not merely to argue and thrash one another in public. Ideally, we would have a meeting face to face to debate these things. Since this luxury is not afforded us, we must be content with the internet, not the ideal place for substantial dialogue. I will come back to this later…
I would like to respond to you, interacting briefly with a few of the ideas you included in your message… I won’t spend much time on every point because that would take too much time and space. I want to concentrate on just a few things I see as most vulnerable in the position you presented to us.
1. … I have come to understand that from Martin Luther on, Protestant theology has been constructed on the Epistle to the Romans (to be exact, it is considered that “the gospel” is reduced to what Paul wrote in Romans 3:1-5:2). I have become convinced that “the gospel” is in the four Gospels and I have made the decision to construct my theology on the teachings of the Lord Jesus in these four Gospels. As far as I know, no one in the modern era has tried this kind of course. What I have gained is a new Christian theology, or, if you like, a new kind of Christianity!
There would be so many things to discuss here that I find it difficult to decide which aspects to limit myself to. I will deliberately avoid interacting with the two or three phrases that I hope you meant to be taken hyperbolically. I have noticed many times, in your sermons as well as your books, that you appeal to these kinds of affirmations. But one would think that the fact that Christianity and its ideas are already 2000 years old and are spread across the whole globe would cause a certain restraint toward affirmations of this kind (even if they are qualified with “in the modern era”).
How do you want us to understand these affirmations? Are you claiming that no one from the time of the apostles until you yourself has thought in this way? Or, that ever since the Gospels were written true Christianity has entered a shadow until the 21st century? Do you realize the implications of these affirmations, and the reason why they cannot be taken seriously?
I go now to the heart of the problem. Notice how you force a breach by tearing the Word of God (New Tesament) in two: Paul versus the Gospels. What is understood from the above paragraph is that trying to construct your theology (evangelism, sanctification, service, etc.) on the theology of Romans is inferior to that constructed on the Gospels. In essence, you are considering the Gospels more “authentic” than the teaching of Paul.
You are making here two capital mistakes, which biblicists are very acquainted with. First, you are introducing a hierarchy in the canonical writings – which is exactly what Luther also did, the only difference being that he moved closer to Paul. It’s like you are saying, borrowing colorful vocabulary: “The epistles of Paul are epistles of straw; I go back to the Gospels”…
I affirm with the most seriousness that no Christian has the right to do such a thing. The voice of God in the Scriptures of the New Testament is just as clear, valid and necessary in the epistle to Jude as in the Gospel of John. No one has the right to classify and structure the writings of the New Testament according to what they think (whether their size, their “authenticity”, their date of composition, etc). All are equal! And the true Christian will position himself at an equal distance from them. This is the foundation that sola scriptura is based upon. Surely I don’t have to remind you that the preference of the liberal theologians from the 19th century on was exactly this division of the teachings of Jesus in the Gospels from those of the epistles of Paul, which they say are responsible for the derailing of original Christianity.
The second mistake you are making is the exact opposite of the first: you aren’t trying to observe, appreciate and explore the true value of the theological diversity of the New Testament writings. On the one hand, you are in effect placing Paul beneath the Gospels. On the other hand, however, you are putting John in the same category as the Synoptics.
Here you are guilty of a methodological inconsistency that cannot be ignored. The same reasons that cause you to read Paul with other eyes than the Gospels ought to be the same reasons for which John should be read differently than the Synoptics. You cannot divide the New Testament authors from one another in some cases and then mix them in others, according to your fancy. If Paul says something other than the Synoptics and can’t be harmonized with them (and I believe you claim this to be true) then John also says something different than the Synoptics and even he can’t be harmonized with them.
To make myself more easily understood: The New Testament has many forms of evangelism (I am speaking of evangelism because this is what you have brought up). I agree with you up to a point. Where I do not agree is the fact that the affirmations that evangelism in the style of the Gospels (where you place John, Mark, Matthew and Luke together without differentiating the theological nuances specific to each) is superior, more correct, more authentic than the evangelism in Paul’s style. I am inclined to believe that Paul would not agree with you.
In the last instance, the first century of evangelism and subsequently, the explosive spread of Christianity among non-Jews was mainly the result of the type of evangelism of Paul and not the Gospels. So, I don’t believe you were wrong in the way you did evangelism in the past. Your request for forgiveness that you made before the church of Mănăștur were unnecessary.
The spirituality that you promote has support in the Gospel of John – but not any farther than this Gospel. The Holy Trinity’s indwelling the believer is John’s theological nuance, but you won’t find it in the Synoptics. This nuance is found under other emphases in Ephesians (filled with God, filled with Jesus Christ, filled with the Holy Spirit) but since you prefer to renounce Paul as you color your own spirituality, you can no longer claim him as support. Likewise, I must affirm with the same strength that the Gospel of John must be balanced with the other Gospels and epistles. That’s why we have them all. No wonder the Gnostics favored the Gospel of John and searched it for support for their mystical, elitist teachings!
2. First, the fact that He speaks to me is part of the non-cessationist faith that God still speaks today and generally is part of the phenomenon of prophecy. Secondly, the expression of God’s love through the words of Song of Songs is for some a cause for scandal! Third, have you not also seen here a deviation from the “Baptist tradition” that says that we can today have fellowship only with the written Word, not with a living Person?
I have never understood the reason why you limit the Baptist creed to “fellowship with a book” and not with a living Person. I believe the Baptist creed is well-formulated in this case, because the Living Person that you refer to is the person who chose to usually address his church in this way: through the Scriptures written and preached. It is this voice that the church needs, not the “audible, mysterious” voice of God.
Please observe that I am not saying that God could never or will never speak to a Christian audibly. All I am saying is that God has chosen to speak to us through Scripture. It is the instrument chosen and used by the Holy Spirit to address us. And if God has chosen this method, should it not honored? What right does someone have to call it insufficient, old-fashioned, “a relationship with a book, not a living Person”?
Herein lies the greatness of the Scriptures: they are a book, but they are much more than a book! I do not see any reason to accept the degradation of the Scriptures that you suggest when you affirm that the voice of God in Scripture is inferior to the (audible?) voice of God.
20 years ago, you told me something like this: “Radu, you need to learn to listen to the voice of God.”
I responded, “Bro. Joseph, I agree with you. That is why I devote myself to the study of the Scriptures.”
You continued, “No, Radu, God speaks today too. You need to get used to hearing his voice”.
Then, I answered, “Yes, I know that he speaks, but he speaks through his voice in the Scriptures. That is the voice I seek, the voice I want to discern, the voice I want to hear, the voice that I will take as guidance.” You did not like my response, and since then, we have both remained in our respective positions.
I say, then, that Scripture written and preached is sufficient as the voice of God. Without this foundation, the Christian faith ceases to remain the Christian faith. Does God speak today through other methods? Of course. He is God and he is free and sovereign to choose a method of communication. And yet, he has given us the Scriptures to verify the other methods of communication, so we might see if they are from him or not.
In fact, the issue of an audible voice that you hold to has always bothered me from a theological and practical point of view. Theologically, because of the very fact that Scripture does not emphasize or promote or encourage this kind of communication. Where in the epistles of the New Testament or even in the other writings do you find encouragement to “listen for” the audible voice of God? If it is so important, why have the apostles not left us with good guidance in this regard? Of course you know that this was one of the preferred doctrines of the Gnostics. True knowledge of God, they claimed, is only for those who have been initiated, for the Christian elite, for those who take part in direct communion with God. It wasn’t for nothing that orthodox Christianity distanced itself from them at the beginning of the second century.
The practical difficulties are even greater. Please forgive me for resorting to anecdotal material, but on more than one occasion you have made categorical affirmations about something, after the fact that God “revealed/communicated” his will; yet only a few days later you sought to convince us of the very opposite.
I did not appreciate at all the tone of brother Daniel Chiu’s open letter – it was unnecessarily harsh. But several things he says there confirm this exact problem. Oscillations of this kind (which you cannot deny) are the best argument against the sufficiency of guidance through hearing the “audible” voice of God.
Furthermore, if the “audible” voice is accessible to more than one person, what happens in cases where the two voices heard are contradictory? For example, there are many voices (on the internet) that are trying to demonstrate that you are listening today to other voices, not the voice of God. Notice that ultimately it is the Scriptures that offer us light in these situations. Why not begin and end then with only the Scriptures?!
3. Instead of saying that I have changed my theology and through this “betrayed” you, and instead of saying that I am an inconsistent and unstable man, why not put forth the effort to see that in all these years I have accomplished a pioneering work and that I have opened up new roads in theology?
I won’t spend too much time on this statement because I have spoken of it already in my first point. I limit myself merely to providing a provisional list of theologians whose studies are relevant to this discussion. In fact, any theologian that is concerned with studying the historical Jesus of Nazareth, has formed – in some way or another, a theology of Jesus Christ, for example, a summary of Jesus’ teachings. I begin with one of the most recent and complete: Scot McKnight, The Jesus Creed. Scot deals with the questions you raise: What if we were to extract the teaching of Jesus in the Gospels? What would it look like? I recommend Scot’s study because he has studied these things intensely in the past twenty years.
Alongside Scot’s study, you will find a synthesis of Christianity seen through Jesus’ lens in the three reference studies of the past fifty years: N.T. Wright, James Dunn, John P. Meier. Each one of these studies treats exhaustively the teachings of Jesus from different angles. They are first class theological syntheses of Jesus’ teachings, in hundreds of pages written with much attention given to the text, history and the theology behind it. Also deserving mention are the studies of Ben Witherington, Craig Blomberg, I.H. Marshall, Tom Schreiner, Frank Thielman, Graham Stanton, Craig Evans, Robert Stein, T.W. Manson, G.B. Caird, Craig Keener, Darrell Bock, Don Carson – all of which in one way or another have brought together the teachings of Jesus and have tried to systematize them. As you have seen, I have limited myself to evangelical theologians. If I were to include those with liberal orientations, the list would triple easily. If I were to add the studies of biblical theology limited to a book or a Gospel (Andreas Kostenberger put out last year a theology of John that is 600 pages), or serious commentaries on the Gospels (each one including a theological synthesis of Jesus’ teachings), the volume would multiply by 10. These are only studies of biblicists in English. In what way are your studies “pioneering works?” Since Albert Schweitzer (at least) until now, the study of Jesus’ teachings is a well-worn path!
4. In September of this year, Dora received from the Lord the thought to call Bro. Nelu Demeter la Baile Felix, where he lives (she was in Portland, OR). They arranged a counseling session for healing through deliverance, and after three hours of counseling, Dora was healed by the Lord of her allergy. She began to eat bread and is now healthy. Her husband, Oliver Ghitea, who is a doctor, was profoundly changed through the experience of his wife, and through subsequent personal conversations with Nelu Demeter.
Of course, we rejoice very much in the healing of Dora. I would be the last person to want to attribute the healing power of the Lord to other spirits. The warning that the Lord gives in the Gospel is very clear to me. At the same time, however, we also read in the Gospels that wonders are done by those who are not known by the Lord (Matthew 7). I am not personally interested in discovering the Spirit/spirit responsible for healing. But Scripture does tell us to evaluate and test the spirits.
Here is my problem. You present Nelu Demeter the way you do when you want to appreciate someone. But on the internet, we meet another Demeter – I think you have watched the video clip known for “the throne of Satan in Berlin and those twenty virgins”; I won’t say more about “the Chinese wall and eating of rice”. Please explain to me how it is possible that from the same mouth (James 3) can come words of healing (in Dora’s case) and monstrosities of this kind? Are you not bothered by the discrepancy?! Or are you convinced that God truly spoke to him, giving him the prophecy regarding Berlin? Perhaps you will say that one of the issues is serious (Dora’s case) but the other (Berlin) is less so. You realize that this kind of explanation does not resolve anything for me. Of course, I realize that I am discussing a particular case and not treating thematically the principle of healings. But I am doing nothing but thinking out loud about the example that you gave us.
There are so many things left to say, but I have said too much already. I am striving to finish on a positive note, returning to the idea of a common friend, who has suggested that we try to find a way to meet together, you with many “young theologians”, and have a face-to-face discussion about these things, with the Scriptures in hand. If you are open to something of this sort, please let me know and we will work out the details. Do not think I envision a counsel that would burn you. On the contrary, more than you realize, we still respect and appreciate you. Yet at the same time, our hearts burn for biblical clarification of these controversies.
One of these,