There are some sounds in any language that some non-native speakers struggle with. In fact, more often than not… they never quite get it. Often times, the language-learner simply substitutes a similar sound. A classic, albeit stereotypical, example of this phenomena is found in the many caricatures of native speakers of Asian languages substituting /l/ sounds for /r/ sounds and vice versa. Any seminary student who has struggled to properly pronounce the Hebrew Resh knows exactly what I’m saying.
This phenomenon plays a central role in what I want to talk about today. But first, let’s look at some Scripture.
A Shibboleth for an Ancient Age
In the twelfth chapter of Judges, we come upon a strange account. The men of Ephraim were upset with Judge Jephthah for not calling them to battle against the Ammonites. Because of this slight, the Ephraimites and the Gileadites went to war. When we come to verse six we see something interesting:
they said to him, “Then say Shibboleth,” and he said, “Sibboleth,” for he could not pronounce it right. Then they seized him and slaughtered him at the fords of the Jordan. At that time 42,000 of the Ephraimites fell. 1
In this period in history, there were very few distinguishing markers between various groups in Canaan. People looked the same, they wore the same clothes, they ate the same foods. For the most part, an Ephraimite would have been indistinguishable from a Gileadite. This posed a problem for the Gileadite army. How could they tell if someone fleeing from the region of Ephraim was an Ephraimite (as opposed to a Levite or some other tribal identification)?
They came up with an ingenious solution. Apparently, there was a difference in the regional dialects which made it so the Ephraimites could not pronounce the Hebrew consonant Shin (Roughly equivalent to the English sound /sh/). So when they asked the person in question to say the word Shibboleth the respondent replied with the closest dialectical substitute which was the Hebrew consonant Sin (Roughly equivalent to the English sound /s/).
This dialectical distinction enabled the Gileadites to determine who was who, despite many other outward similarities.
A Shibboleth for a Patristic Age
Theological phrases and slogans often serve the same purpose. Nowhere in the history of the Church do we see this more clearly than in the conflict between the Pro-Nicene party and the Arian contingency of the 4th century.
Both the Pro-Nicene and Arian parties could cite scripture in support of their position. The liturgy and piety of the two groups were virtually indistinguishable. It was impossible to tell them apart without some kind of specific delineating factor. Unfortunately, this factor did not exist.
That is… until the Church invented one.
The Church realized that in order to distinguish the Arians from within their midst, they had to formulate a Creed which they could not affirm. This was difficult and took many attempts, but ultimately it was accomplished with the advent of the Greek word homoousious (Which means “Of the same substance”). With this word, placed within the Creed of Nicaea and later the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed, even those who were not theologically trained could easily identify those who were faithfully following the Apostolic teaching regarding the full equality and divinity of the Son with the Father.
A Shibboleth for a Reformation Age
A similar effect took hold in the Protestant Reformation. Although there were many controversies that distinguished the Papal Church from the Protestants, the issue of the exclusive magisterial authority of Scripture was the formal dispute.
Both the Papists and the Protestants used the concept (although not formally sloganized until later) of Sola Scriptura as a Shibboleth of identity.
And this Shibboleth was not taken lightly. Like the Shibboleth/Sibboleth difference in the book of Judges, mispronouncing your bibliology could cost you your life. The issue was life and death because the men of the day understood that this was a matter of spiritual life or death. They took it seriously because it was serious.
A Shibboleth for Our Age
The Visible Church of our age has spent the last 100 years or so defending central tenets of the Reformation from those within our midst. Men like RC Sproul and W Robert Godfrey gathered for the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy. Michael Horton and many others stood for the doctrine of Justification sola fide against the encroachment of the New Perspective on Paul, the Shepherd Controversy, and the Federal Vision. Men like John MacArthur (even though I think he overcorrected in significant ways) fought against the Antinomianism of Zane Hodges and the so-called Free Grace movement.
Our age, no less than those which preceded it, has been marked by controversy and a need to defend the Gospel from those who would seek to undermine it.
But many have lost sight of an even more foundational systematic truth.
In his recent book All That is In God, baptist scholar James Dolezal details the departure from the classical theism of our Reformed forefathers by many prominent evangelical and Reformed thinkers. Confessional men like Scott Oliphint and John Frame have opened the door for God to change, thereby denying the divine immutability that the author of Hebrews grounds our assurance in. Evangelicals like William Lane Craig and JP Moreland reject the divine simplicity that men like Athanasius and the Cappadocians utilized to establish the biblical nature of the concept of homoousios. We are renegotiating who and what the very God who justifies us is.
Moreover, and perhaps most significantly, men like Bruce Ware and Wayne Grudem have articulated views which make the Son an eternal servant of the Father, instead of a consubstantial and conglorious equal… and have compared the Holy Spirit to the procreated offspring that results from the sexual union of a man and wife instead of the personal bond of love which is the ontological ground for the unity between Father and Son rather than the effect caused by it.
These compromises in the area of Theology Proper must not be tolerated. They strike at the very vitals of the Christian religion. If we abandon these truths, we have abandoned Christianity.
That is why we must make Theology Proper, and specifically the doctrine of divine simplicity, a Shibboleth for this age.
Now, the question always comes… are you saying that Bruce Ware isn’t saved? Are you saying that John Frame isn’t a Christian? Are you condemning Wayne Grudem and Scott Oliphint to hell?
I am not saying any of those things. It is above my pay grade (or any one person’s pay grade) to make those kinds of assessments. The Church, not I, holds the power of the keys.
What I am saying is that someone who says Sibboleth instead of Shibboleth is speaking a different dialect. They are speaking the language of those who reside outside the faith. The words that they are saying are heresy. There is no avoiding this conclusion. Could such a person be a regenerate Christian with terrible theology? Perhaps. We are saved by grace through faith in Christ, not by a proper articulation of theology proper. However, when someone speaks the language of the Ephraimites we should not immediately assume that they are actually just confused or misunderstood Gileadites. This is especially true of those who have dedicated their lives to studying the Scriptures. Could this person be among the elect, whom God will in some future point correct theologically? Definitely (and that is my daily prayer for these men)!
However, we must not act like this central issue is no big deal. For many (including the men mentioned here), this may be a matter of spiritual life and death. We do them no favors by refusing to confront this error in the strongest terms. We do not show them love by allowing their heretical statements to stand unchallenged. We are commanded to save some by snatching them out of the fire, and sometimes the process of snatching causes some theological bruises which manifest in our egos and relationships. We must, at times, take drastic action and make strong statements for the sake of men who have wandered astray. We do this out of love and concern, not malice or pride. We snatch them out of the fire because we were first snatched by Christ.
- Judges 12:6 ↩