On losing faith, in the ministry

17 Mar

This article, on five men in ministry who have given up belief in God (in any normal sense of the term), is interesting for all sorts of reasons. At the very least, it shows that Machen’s antithesis between Christianity and liberalism is alive and well in modern American churches. The faith-destroying role of seminary in these men’s lives is also striking, as is the seeming assumption that scholarship cannot be genuine and conservative.


Posted by on March 17, 2010 in Society, Theology


14 responses to “On losing faith, in the ministry

  1. T. J. Klapperich

    March 17, 2010 at 5:32 pm

    I quickly read the article and I found one point in particular quite interesting: the men struggle with believing less than their congregations. I wonder if the opposite of that would be true for believing pastors. I often find that most pastors I know believe more than their congregations. I don’t mean they believe more strongly than anyone in their congregation. I mean their belief is more aligned with Scripture than the average person’s. I am afraid too many of our congregations hold to a folk theology that respects God-talk, but is sometimes different than biblical Christianity. I think that is why the average professing Evangelical (I include Fundamentalists in this) would be happy attending a broad spectrum of churches. They could attend the United Methodist Church, the IFB Church, the Southern Baptist Church, or the Presbyterian Church as long as they find the God-talk familiar. In other words these men have found a way deny the existence of God and still talk acceptable God-talk on Sundays. This seems to have implications not only for this handful of men, but also for the state of our churches.

    • Joel Tetreau

      March 18, 2010 at 2:56 am

      Mike and TJ,

      Thanks for posting and commenting. Very interesting article. TJ…..right on the money! The common evangelical God doesn’t always match up with the Biblical one. Faith that fizzles at the finish had a flaw at the first!

      Straight Ahead my brothers!


  2. Don Johnson

    March 18, 2010 at 3:03 am

    Hi Michael

    Re: The faith-destroying role of seminary

    I’ve always wondered about this description. How can true faith be destroyed?

    Don Johnson
    Jer 33.3

    • TR Jones

      March 18, 2010 at 12:27 pm


      Not to speak for Michael, but the way I understand it is that true faith is not the only kind of faith (“believe for a while,” Luke 8:13). Instead of a time of “committing to faithful men” what has been entrusted, seminary is at even professedly conservative places (cf. Erskine?) a time of what that verse would call “temptation.” This can probably happen at thoroughly conservative seminaries too; familiarity breeds contempt if it does not breed love.

      Todd Jones

    • Michael Riley

      March 19, 2010 at 12:55 pm

      Don and TR,

      Yeah, I’d say TR nailed my thoughts on this pretty much exactly.

      • Don Johnson

        March 19, 2010 at 1:04 pm

        Fair enough, but why then lament its destruction? If it wasn’t real faith, what good would it be to hold on to a false facade and go through life pretending you had real faith?

        Don Johnson
        Jer 33.3

      • Michael Riley

        March 19, 2010 at 1:12 pm

        I lament because I don’t believe that my thorough-going Calvinism somehow prevents me from being pained by someone turning from the faith he once professed.

        Now, I readily admit that some of the men interviewed here professed a sort of Christianity that, even in their most faithful days, I would not have acknowledged as a genuine commitment to the biblical gospel. Perhaps that’s the source of the confusion.

        But perhaps the two examples of “literalist” believers hit closer to home. Or, to cite a different example, there is a blogger named Ken Pulliam who used to teach theology at International Baptist College, where I also taught for several years. In fact, I used Dr. Pulliam’s notes as the basis for my own teaching in a handful of classes. Dr. Pulliam is now a self-professed “atheist agnostic.” My theology dictates that, as an apostate, he never truly believed. But for me not to lament his defection from the faith that he professed, I think, would be a sign of a sub-Christian set of affections.

  3. Don Johnson

    March 19, 2010 at 1:51 pm

    Right, but in the case you cite, was it a “faith destroying seminary”?

    In other words, your original statement laments the seminary, not so much the lamentable departure of apostates. That’s what I’m getting at. In a way, to whatever extent liberal seminars contribute to these departures, it is actually a blessing, don’t you think? Now the sheep’s clothing has been stripped off the back of the wolves.

    I also think that 1 Jn 2 doesn’t seem to lament these departures. It rather teaches those who remain how to think about these departures.

    But I guess that is another issue…

    Don Johnson
    Jerimiah 33.3

  4. Ken Pulliam

    March 19, 2010 at 4:23 pm

    Hi Michael,

    May I make a couple of comments? I understand that your theology dictates that you must say I never truly believed. I actually said the same thing about apostates such as Charles Templeton when I was a Christian. Pastor Singleton had a saying, not sure where he picked it up, a faith that fizzles at the finish had a fatal flaw at the first . This, of course, is what a consistent Calvinism would demand. However, other than the fact that the theology you presuppose is correct demands it, how can you say I never really believed? You do not know my heart. I was as sincere in my faith as I think anyone could be. I believed with all of my heart. I trusted Christ and Christ alone for my salvation. This was not just for a couple of years but for nearly 20 years. So, if I was not really saved, how do you know that your are really saved? How do you know that you have not deceived yourself and that you will fall away sometime before you die? Calvinism teaches the perseverance of the saints which means that if you have faith you will persevere but how do you know you have genuine faith? You can only know it after you have persevered to the end.

    • Michael Riley

      March 26, 2010 at 12:49 pm


      Sorry for the delayed reply.

      You asked, “…other than the fact that the theology you presuppose is correct demands it, how can you say I never really believed?” The answer, of course, is that I can’t. I have no access whatsoever to your inner life; no evidence of any sort can tell me, with certainty, what you believe currently, much less what you believed a decade ago.

      It seems obvious to me, however, that if a given ultimate belief system is true, that belief system has a privileged status in defining what it means to believe. When we’re talking about Christianity, you are quite aware that the most consistent biblical case can be made that those who depart from the faith never truly believed.

      If this is so, we’re driven back to the broader question: is Christianity itself actually true? Because we answer that question differently, we will, of necessity, come to different conclusions about whether you truly believed.

      Regarding my own assurance: I believe the professing Christian can claim confidence in his belief, but because I am not God, I do not have infallible knowledge of anything, even my own heart. As you note, our hearts are capable of self-deception.

      This doesn’t drive me to some sort of morbidly-introspective, despair-ridden existence (though I have seen professing believers who do live that way), nor do I think it ought to. If you think otherwise, I’ll open the floor for you to make that case.

      • Michael Riley

        March 26, 2010 at 12:52 pm

        Re-reading my post, I should clarify one sentence: “(if we disregard from the outset the Christian worldview) no evidence of any sort can tell me…”

        Thus, I am not saying (as should be clear) that there is no evidence whatsoever that is relevant to my determining whether you used to believe; there is evidence, but it is evidence that is only acceptable to those who accept Scripture as authoritative.

  5. J.N. Olmstead

    March 21, 2010 at 7:12 pm


    Forgive me for playing devils advocate the first time I ever dialogue with you, but I am compelled to highlight a flaw in your questioning of Michael. This advocacy is my own, I also do not need to speak for the very capable professor Riley.

    You seem to have a strong point in asking how he knows you did not really believe, seeing that he does not/did not know your heart. But this only seems strong at first blush, for if you *did* really believe with your whole heart, enough belief to obtain salvation in Christ, how is it that you do not believe now? Or, put another way, if you do not believe now (regardless of the reason[s]) how do *you* know you really believed? How would you know what saving faith actually is since it ended up being less-than-durable, and since it seems to be the case that your fail was prone to failure – a potentiality embedded in your faith which blossomed into actuality?

    Again, I’m playing the advocate, but I wouldn’t dismiss Michael’s theology too quickly if I were you. Yes, his Calvinism states your original faith was less-than-genuine, however genuine it might have seemed to you at the time. Since you did give it up, *how do you know* what saving faith actually is? I ask that again because it seems that fully-genuine faith is of such a nature as being incapable of renunciation. If that be true, Michael is untouched in his assessment of your faith, and you may not be unscathed in your assessment of saving faith, seeing that doubt remains whether you’ve ever experienced saving faith.

    Perseverance to the end, from our temporal vantage point, is the best we can do if we did not have God’s testimony of eternal security. Good thing looking out for perseverance isn’t a requirement for treating folks like they know Christ, or even for being saved. I love you, Ken, and I meant no offense above.

    Best wishes.


  6. Ken Pulliam

    March 26, 2010 at 7:00 pm


    Thanks for the response. I agree with you 100%. IF one presupposes the truth of a consistent Calvinism, then you would have to conclude that a person such as me never truly believed. I also agree that a person who currently believes such as you could be deceived and wind up eventually leaving the faith.

    All I can say is that when I was a believer, I had full assurance based on my faith in the testimony of Scripture and what I perceived to be the inner witness of the Spirit.

    If I were still a Christian and encountered some real live apostates (something I never did), I might be inclined to re-think the whole assurance of salvation teaching. As you know, there are plenty of warning passages in Scripture (which Calvinists like to explain away), There are also passages about “making your calling and election sure”; “take heed lest ye fall”, “unless you have believed in vain,” etc. Because evangelicals and especially fundamentalists want absolute certainty about everything, it could be that they are misreading the Scripture in an attempt to speak about their “certainty of salvation.”

    Anyway, good luck to you at Westminster. When I was a believer, I was convinced that presuppositional apologetics was the best option. Now as I read and listen to debates between people like William Craig and Bart Ehrman, I am more convinced than ever that classical apologetics has no cogency. Of course, I also think now that presuppositional apologetics is just “begging the question.”

  7. Ed Clark

    August 12, 2010 at 1:36 pm


    How do you not know, upon further inquiry, that you shall not once again embrace the faith of the gospel of Christ? And if indeed this were to happen, your current state would not be a loss of salvation, but a temporary lapse in faith. We do not know the whole story until we reach the last chapter.

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