Thursday, January 28, 2010

Preaching from the Synoptic Gospels

At yesterday's Ministers' Fraternal at Bradford on Avon, Phil Heaps gave a talk on "Preaching from the Synoptic Gospels". I can't replicate his illustrative white board doodlings, so you'll have to make do with these notes:
1. Form
The Synoptic Gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke share some unique characteristics that cannot be found in other examples of New Testament literature (although there is some crossover with the Gospel According to John). For example, in Mark we have an extended passion narrative that is preceded by short self-contained units of narrative and teaching. Mark 8:27-33 is the turning point of the Gospel. After that point Jesus and his followers travel the road to Jerusalem (8:34-10:52), a journey that culminates in Passion Week (11:1-15:47) and the resurrection narrative (Mark 16).
Matthew and Luke's Gospels are similarly structured, but each includes an introductory nativity narrative that is lacking in Mark, (Luke 1 & 2, Matthew 1 & 2). Narrative sections often have a verse that clearly sets out the purpose of the story. Luke 19:1-10 is not primarily about Zacchaeus seeking Jesus, but Jesus seeking the lost tax collector - Luke 19:10. Luke 15:1-7 & 8-10 are about seeking and finding lost a sheep and coin respectively, but the parable of the lost son (Luke 15:11-32) carries an unexpected twist. The "prodigal son" is lost and found (Luke 15:24), but questions remain concerning the Pharisaical older brother (Luke 15:28-32). The twist addresses the problem raised in Luke 15:1-3.
2. Opportunity
Preaching on the Synoptics give us the opportunity to address the central issues of the Christian faith:
1) Person of Jesus - who is he?
2) Mission of Jesus/Nature of God's Kingdom
3) Radical call to discipleship
3. Challenge
We need to be sensitive to the redemptive-historical setting of the Synoptics. The Gospels have one foot in each testament, being rooted in the Old Testament and anticipating the fullness of New Testament revelation. The Evangelists wrote with historical integrity, not reading later church issues back into the period of Jesus' earthly ministry. We ought to be aware of this in our preaching. When Jesus is called the "Son of God" in the Gospels we should not always read the title in the light of later Nicean orthodoxy. Sometimes it simply means that Jesus is the true King of Israel (Psalm 2 cf. John 1:49). Come the Epistles, "Son of God" often means "God the Son". That fuller understanding is certainly not absent altogether from the Gospels. Witness the Trinitarian baptismal formula in Matthew 28:19. Jesus is "Immanuel, God with us", Matthew 1:23 & 28:20. Note also Matthew 11:27.
All of the Gospels are grounded in the Old Testament.
John the Baptist's ministry is set against an Old Testament background. Mark 1:2 cites Isaiah 40 and Malachi 3. In Luke 1 & 2 we have a story of barrenness overcome that is redolent of Old Testament incidents, (Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, Hannah etc), plus Old Testament-style songs of praise by Mary and Zacharias. Matthew 1 & 2 begins with a genealogy in the style of Chronicles followed by five fulfilment texts citing the Old Testament.
Sometimes the Gospels simply allude to the Old Testament. The wise men who visited Jesus in Matthew 2 remind us of foreign dignitaries paying homage to Solomon. That Jesus faced his enemy, the devil in Matthew 4 immediately after his anointing with the Spirit in Matthew 3 is similar to David's experience with his enemy, Saul after his anointing. John the Baptist baptized people in the river Jordan, reenacting Israel's passage through the Jordan to the land of Canaan. All that was lacking was a Joshua (Jesus) to lead them to the Promised Land. Old Testament covenant blessings and curses are mirrored in Matthew 5 & 23.
One of the ways the Gospels bear witness to the deity of Christ is by applying Old Testament Scriptures to him, Matthew 3:3 cites Isaiah 40 and Malachi 3, which are about the coming of the Lord God to his people. In preparing the way for Jesus, John the Baptist was preparing the way for God.
The New Testament Epistles present a clear doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement (1 Corinthians 15:3). This teaching is also found in the Gospels. Luke 22:1, 7 & 13 connect Christ's death with the redeeming Passover sacrifice. Luke 22:20 refers to the new covenant in Christ's blood cf. Jeremiah 31:31ff. Luke 22:37 cites Isaiah 53, the Suffering Servant's substitutionary death. The cup in Luke 22:43 alludes to the cup which the Lord makes the wicked drink in the Psalms. Also, the passion narratives deliberately allude to the covenant curses (Jesus is crowned with thorns, handed over to the Gentiles, mocked, plunged into darkness ect), making the point that at Calvary Christ was made a curse for us.
Case study: Mark 4:35-5:43
Mark 4:35-41 (Storm)
Mark 5:1-20 (Demoniac)
Mark 5:21-34 (Sick woman)
Mark 5:35-43 (Jairus' daughter)
In each case we have a problem: a storm, evil in people, sickness and death.
Also, each episode exposes human helplessness. The disciples are helpless in the face of the storm. The Gadarenes cannot to rid the demoniac of the evil power that possessed him. Doctors were unable help cure the sick woman. All are helpless when it comes to the death of Jairus' daughter.
The solution to each of the problems is the same: the word of Jesus, Mark 4:39, 5:8, 27, 34, 41.
By way of application we should not try to spiritualise these events. Rather they should be seen in the setting of the kingdom of God. Jesus' ministry prefigures the age to come. He will deal with chaos in nature, evil in people, sickness and death. Charismatics make the mistake of expecting Jesus to act in exactly the same way now. They assure the sick that they can come to Jesus for healing. He certainly may heal the sick by his power. But the kingdom has not yet been consummated. Natural disasters, evil, sickness and death will still occur. But all will be dealt with when Jesus returns. This has apologetic value. We live in a fallen world. Tragic events like the earthquake in Haiti will happen. But in Jesus God has acted to rescue this world from the the effects of sin. The atheist has no hope that things are going to get better. Those who belong to God's kingdom and follow Jesus the King will seek to show compassion to their fellow human beings (Matthew 5:3, 43-48). Inspired by Jesus' healing ministry Christians have cared for the sick and helped those in need.
This led to some stimulating discussion on issues connected with preaching on the Synoptics. After lunch we drew up a programme for fraternals in the coming year. We'll be looking at "The Christian and the State", "Preparation for Baptism", "Structure and freedom in worship" and "Preaching for a decision".

Monday, January 25, 2010

Catholicism: East of Eden by Richard Bennett

Catholicism: East of Eden, Insights into Catholicism for the 21st Century,
by Richard Bennett, Berean Beacon Press, 2005, 339pp
I bought the wrong book. With its subtitle, Insights into Catholicism for the 21st Century, I thought that this volume offered a calm and reasoned assessment of post Vatican II Roman Catholicism. That isn't quite it. Catholicism: East of Eden is a passionately written and deeply personal account of the author's disillusionment with the Rome as it dawned on him that the Church he had served as a priest did not stand up to biblical scrutiny. By passionate I don't mean that this is a ranty "hot-Prot" diatribe. As a former insider Bennett gives a fair and accurate account of Roman Catholicism, carefully referencing teachings he criticizes in the light of Scripture. But what we have here is an urgent tract rather than a detached scholarly treatise.
Bennett tells the story of his conversion from Roman Catholicism to salvation in Christ. Along the way he includes some detailed discussion of the distinctive doctrines and practices of the Roman Catholic Church. Chapters are devoted to the authority of Scripture, the Papacy, Confession, the Mass, Marian teachings and so on. A chapter entirely devoted to justification by faith alone would have been welcome. The author certainly shows that Rome's teaching on this matter is not in accord with the Bible. But it would have been helpful to have had a more in-depth treatment of the differences between Rome and Evangelical Protestantism on great doctrine that lay at the heart of the Protestant Reformation.
Too often it is assumed that the differences between Rome and Evangelical Protestantism are of little magnitude. "Sure we disagree" it is said, "but what's a few differences between Christian friends of equal standing?" From his experiences as a practicing Catholic and armed with the teaching of God's Word, Bennett knows that such a laidback attitude is misplaced. Eternal issues are at stake. The controversy with Rome is nothing less than a battle for the gospel of saving grace. Evangelicals need to wake up to this and realise that Rome only engages in ecumenical discussions such as Evangelicals and Catholics Together with one objective in mind. That is to encourage Evangelicals to renege on the gospel and return to the Roman fold. If that sounds to you like a typical Protestant "Jesuits under the bed" conspiracy theory, then take a look at Chapter 15 of this book where Bennett exposes the Roman Catholic ecumenical agenda.
On the question of ecuminism, the author rightly stresses that a shared commitment the gospel rather than outward institutional uniformity is the basis of Christian unity. True enough. But this gospel unity is to be made manifest in the life of the local church and in the way Bible believing churches relate to each other. It is regrettable that Protestants have tended to divide on issues not essential to the gospel or the well being of the church. We seem to have forgotten that our Lord prayed that the evident unity of his people would bring the world to believe that the Father sent him (John 17:21).
Bennett highlights the way in which Roman Catholicism tends to emphasize the importance of the Church to such an extent that Christ is relegated to the sidelines. That is a fair point. But we also need to bear in mind what the New Testament says concerning the role of the church in bearing witness to the gospel and nurturing believers in the faith. Put in rather simplistic terms, if Rome is all "church" and no gospel, Protestants should not give the impression that for us it is virtually all gospel and no church.
To conclude, Catholicism: East of Eden serves as a reminder that the Reformation is far from over. The big doctrinal issues that separate Evangelical Protestantism from Rome have yet to be resolved. It is a mistake to try and play down the serious theological differences that remain. Such an approach does no service to Romans Catholics who are beginning to realise as did Richard Bennett that their church preaches "another gospel" (Galatians 1:6-7). We need to be absolutely clear that according to the witness of Scripture alone, salvation is through grace alone, by faith alone, in Christ alone, to the glory of God alone.
With its autobiographical style the book is a useful counterpart to Francis Beckwith's Return to Rome, where the former President of the Evangelical Theological Society explains why he returned to the Roman Catholic Church (see my review here).

Friday, January 22, 2010

The Gospel According to Avatar

Just after Christmas we went to see the blockbuster film Avatar. If you haven't already seen it, I don't want to spoil the plot for you. I simply offer some thoughts on the message that the movie attempts to convey. The film is set in 2154 on the moon Pandora in the Alpha Centauri star system. Human beings have discovered that the moon has reserves of the energy rich mineral, “unobtanium”. The film is visually stunning in glorious 3D. Pandora's natural environment is beautifully realised, teeming with strange and exotic life forms. The jungle is the home of the indigenous natives the Na'vi, who with their exceptional height and striking blue skin colour have been unkindly compared to elongated Smurfs. Ex-US marine Sam Worthingon assumes the form of a Na'vi avatar in order to infiltrate the group and broker a deal that will allow mining of the unobtanium that lies beneath their Home Tree.

Apart from a few honourable exceptions the human beings are depicted as grasping, violent and unscrupulous. They will stop at nothing to get their hands the hugely valuable unobtanium deposits. The Na'vi on the other hand seek to live in harmony with nature. The centrepiece of their religion is a sacred Tree of Souls. The film is a parable of man's greedy exploitation of nature. For “unobtanium” read “oil” and you’ve got the picture. One newspaper columnist argued that Avatar would do more to generate concern for the environment than the recent Copenhagen Summit. But there is something stubbornly self-destructive in human beings that a bit of nature worship will not cure. The gospel according to Avatar can't help us.

Christians believe that Jesus the Son of God became one of us. He was not an avatar who merely seemed to be human, but a true human being. Jesus came as Man to break the power of sin and evil by dying for our sins and rising from the dead. His great mission was not merely to rescue individual people from sin, but to renew the whole creation and restore harmony and peace in the universe. This he will do when he comes again. Living in the light of that hope believers will seek to make this world a better place. But it will take more than environmental concern to redeem humanity. We cannot save ourselves, let alone the planet. Only the power of Jesus can do that. I recommend some concerted tree hugging,
Nothing in my hand I bring,
Simply to the cross I cling;
Naked, come to Thee for dress;
Helpless look to Thee for grace;
Foul, I to the fountain fly;
Wash me, Saviour, or I die.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Take action on the Equality Bill

The Government's Equality Bill will be subject to a vote in the House of Lord on Monday 25th January. It is important that Christians voice their concern about this legislation. If the Bill were to be passed in its current form it would be an attempt on behalf of the Government to foist its secular values upon the church. We cannot render to Caesar that which belongs to God. According to the Christian Institute,
"The Equality Bill will place a duty on public bodies - like schools and the police - to promote homosexual and transsexual 'rights'.
"Christians are concerned that the Bill also narrows the current exemption in employment law for "organised religion". The Bill is shrinking the exemption so that it will only apply to posts that wholly or mainly involve leading or assisting worship or promoting or explaining doctrine.
"Yet church ministers have many pastoral and administrative tasks which do not directly involve leading worship or teaching doctrine, even more so in the case of pastoral or youth workers. So the law may require that these posts have to be open to adulterers or practising homosexuals."
Christian Concern for our Nation urges Christians to act now:
1. Sign the petition

This petition asks the Government to remove the amendments that would make the law more restrictive for religious organisations:

2. Write to Peers

Please write to one or more Peers listed at this link and ask them to vote for Baroness O'Cathain's Schedule 9 amendments, explaining that the vote will take place on 25th January
See here for a CCFN video presentation on the Equality Bill. Act and pray, 1 Timothy 2:1-2.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Blogging in the name of the Lord: Phil Johnson

GD: Hello Phil Johnson and welcome to Exiled Preacher. Please tell us a little about yourself.

PJ: I was born and lived my whole life (except for three years in central Florida) on historic Route 66. I was born in the middle (Oklahoma City); spent my college years (and more) where the Mother Road starts (Chicago); and I’ve lived the past 27 years in the Los Angeles area, where the road ends.
I grew up as a regular, weekly churchgoer, but in a very liberal denomination. In high school, I suddenly realized that liberal theology is really just unbelief papered over with a religious veneer, and I stopped going to church completely for a year or more. That left me with a sense of guilt and a massive spiritual void in my soul, which I attacked by becoming a political activist. My highest goal in life was to become a political pundit and write columns for some newspaper syndicate. I threw myself into it with a whole heart, convinced that politics could be a means of redemption for me if not for the whole culture. I was convinced that if I pursued wisdom and integrity, God would bless and reward me, even though I wasn’t religious. I convinced myself that politics was actually better than religion because it could accomplish more. I would seek to be good, and wise, and God would be pleased with me because I was going to devote my life cultivating wisdom and disseminating it through my punditry. It never occurred to me how arrogant that whole perspective was.
Then in April 1971, as my senior year in High School was drawing to a close, almost on a whim, I picked up a Bible, opened it at random, and started reading. I opened to the first page of 1 Corinthians and decided to try to read the whole epistle—which was more of the Bible than I had ever read in one sitting before.
But from the first page, I began to sense the Holy Spirit’s conviction. “It is written, I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and will bring to nothing the understanding of the prudent. Where is the wise? where is the scribe? where is the disputer of this world? hath not God made foolish the wisdom of this world?” (1:19-20). First Corinthians 3:18-19 especially gave me a jolt: “Let no man deceive himself. If any man among you seemeth to be wise in this world, let him become a fool, that he may be wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God.” By the time I reached chapter 4, I knew I was lost. By the time I read 12:3 (“Wherefore I give you to understand, that no man speaking by the Spirit of God calleth Jesus accursed: and that no man can say that Jesus is the Lord, but by the Holy Ghost.”), I was a repentant believer.
A year later, I enrolled at Moody Bible Institute. After earning my bachelor’s degree there, I stayed on as an editor at Moody Press. I met my wife there, got married (in the plaza at Moody Bible Institute), spent 3 years in St. Petersburg, FL, as a youth pastor, then went back to Moody Press as acquisitions editor. I met John MacArthur because Moody had begun publishing his books while I was in Florida, and when I came back, I took over the editing of most of his books. In 1983, I left Moody Press to come on staff at Grace to you, and I’ve been here ever since.
GD: You are the founding member of the Pyromaniacs team blog. What prompted you to get into blogging on the first place?
PJ: Self defense. Some things I had written and published in the UK had found their way back to America and were being deconstructed in the post-evangelical blogosphere. When I tried to enter the “conversation,” the blog that had critiqued me most harshly suddenly closed their comments and the lead blogger started making insulting posts about me on the blog. (It seems those who talk most about “conversation” and “transparency” are the least willing to have an open, honest conversation. And sometimes those who are most adept at giving criticism are least likely to take it graciously.) But that’s the blogosphere. I had participated in several e-mail forums and even a couple of Usenet newsgroups over the years, and I knew that Internet forums can sometimes be hives of cruelty and small-mindedness. (I hadn’t even been much of a blog-reader for that very reason.) Still, blogging seemed a more fruitful way than e-mail forums to express and defend one’s opinion. I was editing a book at the time and needed to meet a deadline, so I registered a blog address at Google’s Blogger but left the blog blank except for an announcement that I would begin blogging there in a month. When I finally began posting at the blog I was shocked at how many readers and how many comments I got just within the first half hour.
GD: Originally you were a solitary Pyromaniac and then you invited Turk, Peccadillo and Dan to join the team. Why the change from solo to team player?
PJ: Too much feedback and too many comments to deal with. It was beginning to dominate my life. I didn’t answer every comment, of course, but I needed to read every comment, because there was this little cadre of miscreants who tried to comment when I wasn’t looking, and they would use the combox at my blog to insult John MacArthur or post other things trying to embarrass to me. Shortly before I closed the solo blog, I had recently begun a series on evangelicalism’s increasing flirtation with trivial, false, and imaginary “words from the Lord.” It was going to be a critique of Blackaby-Gothard-style mysticism and the notion that God regularly speaks to people through strong impressions and voices in their heads. It wasn’t about the charismatic movement per se, but it seemed to draw angry charismatics out of the woodwork, demanding that I debate them on the issue of cessationism. I never did manage to get the thread back on track.
That kind of thing took far more time to manage than I was willing to invest. When I realized I couldn’t keep blogging at that pace, my first thought was to wrap it up and close the blog completely. I decided instead to ask a handful of guys whose blogs I enjoyed to help me share the load. I had never even met Dan Phillips before that (we’d only exchanged a couple of e-mails), but I loved everything he wrote. I had met Frank Turk face to face only once, but he had the cleverest blog I had ever read, and he was fiercely unrelenting when he knew he was right. (I love that about him.) Pecadillo is my son, and he had a very popular humor blog, so I added him for comic relief. He responded by entering the police academy and reducing his writing to about one blog-post a year. Even though he almost never posts, he’s still a favorite of many of the home-school moms who read our blog.
GD: It has been suggested that Turk, Peccadillo and Dan are in fact deviant expressions of a multiple personality disorder on your part. When I interviewed "Dan" he failed to deny this. Care to comment in which ever guise you please?
PJ: I wish I had Frank’s wit and Dan’s ability to write pithy prose. Pecadillo is a clone of his dad, but he’s real and distinct from me. Dan, Frank, and I really are three totally different personalities who happen to agree on just about everything that is really important. Considering our vastly divergent backgrounds and the hasty way I assembled the team, it is truly remarkable how well we mesh. We try to meet up at T4G (or some other conference in the T4G off-years), and I look forward to it the way I used to wish for Christmas when I was a kid. They’ve become great friends.
GD: Some will fail to be convinced by that denial. Has anyone ever seen Phil, Dan, Frank and Pecadillo in the same room at T4G or otherwise? We want cast iron proof of your separate identities. Photographic evidence won't do given your photoshop wizardry. Moving on, Jim Packer recently said, "I'm amazed at the amount of time people spend on the internet. I'm not against technology, but all tools should be used to their best advantage. We should be spending our time on things that have staying power, instead of on the latest thought of the latest blogger—and then moving on quickly to the next blogger. That makes us more superficial, not more thoughtful." Does he have a point? What are the strengths and weaknesses of blogging as a medium for theological reflection?
PJ: He’s absolutely right, and it convicted me to read that. Virtually everything I do in my job and my ministry utilizes the Internet in one way or another. The blog, which is basically my hobby, also keeps me in front of the computer screen. I don’t read half as much published material as I did in the early 90s, and I’m sure that is to the detriment of my intellectual and spiritual life.
Recently I got a Kindle, though, so things are bound to get better. :-)
GD: That's alright then, but sticking with blogging for the moment, Pyromaniacs has the coolest graphics. Most of us have to make do with "borrowing" a picture from Google Images. How do you create all that snazzy artwork?
PJ: That’s what I do instead of watching O’Reilly. When my brain is fatigued or I just need a break from a writing project, I’ll make graphics for the blog. There are at least 100 in the pipeline that have never been used. Dan and Frank have favorites that they use again and again, and frankly, some of the images in the never-used pool are less than stunning, but we try to keep it fresh, and there’s a variety of images with wildly differing themes, and I never know how they might be used. I just make random graphics and try to have a mix of funny, serious, grotesque, and stunningly beautiful. The only thing almost all of them have in common is the TeamPyro logo. (I’ve never seen an image I couldn’t photoshop our logo into.) The clever ways the guys tie the pictures into their posts never ceases to amaze me.
The heavy-graphics look is deliberate, BTW, and the overuse of our logo is a deliberate caricature, too. I wanted the blog to stand out from day one, and I didn’t want it to look like an academic discussion or a conclave of somber old men. I designed the original template and had the basic look of the graphics weeks before I had any idea what my first blogpost would be. The blog name was actually suggested by the original blog-header graphic, which was a match. I chose it for the color combination and the simplicity and shape of the horizontal image, and then I gave the blog a name that fit.
(Incidentally, as it turned out, at the last minute I scrapped the idea I had in mind for my inaugural post’s topic. I don’t even remember what it was. Instead, I dashed off “Quick-and-Dirty Calvinism” after 10:30 PM the night before I launched the blog.)
GD: Pyromaniacs must be up there with Adrian Warnock and Tim Challies as one of the biggest Calvoblogs on the planet. What's the secret recipe for worldwide blog domination? I won't tell anyone, honest.
PJ: I honestly have no idea. Before I launched, I was hoping to get 300 readers a week by the end of the first year. I think my original solo blog was averaging 1000 a day by the end of the first week. I don’t look at stats anymore, but I’m pretty sure the average is more than double that now.
I can’t explain it. I think the announcement that I would start blogging in a month inadvertently started a buzz of expectation that was out of proportion to the actual importance of the event. In retrospect it looks like deliberate hype, but that was the furthest thing from my mind. I couldn’t start the blog till a month after I first conceived the project because I had a deadline to meet.
Obviously, we’re provocative, and that probably draws a lot of readers. But let’s be candid: readers who are drawn to controversy aren’t always the highest class of readers. Besides, Challies isn’t provocative, and he draws more readers than we do. So I don’t know. We don’t have any agenda to be provocative or start controversies; we just write about things we care about, and our passion is reflected in the way we write. I don’t know any other way to write. These days, any strong conviction is going to be controversial, and I think it’s a serious mistake to cater to the postmodern spirit by softening truths or toning down convictions just because people don’t like hard truths and settled certainty. So we don’t apologize for being provocative.
GD: Who has had the greatest influence on your theological development?
PJ: That’s a hard one. I think it’s both Francis Turretin and R. L. Dabney—both of them for the clarity of their logic. The two of them have settled more hard doctrinal questions for me than any other theological writers. Obviously, as a Baptist and abolitionist I disagree with them both on several major issues, but they have nevertheless influenced my theology profoundly.
GD: Who has taught you most of what it means to preach the Word of God?
PJ: That’s easy. John MacArthur. I also have to give a lot of credit to Warren Wiersbe, who was my pastor and mentor for almost a decade before I came to California. He taught me the basics of homiletics and how to structure a sermon. John MacArthur showed me how to handle the Word of God, how to deliver the message with conviction, and what it means to be bold, steadfast, and courageous, without sacrificing humility in the process.
GD: If time travel were possible, which figure from post-biblical church history would you most like to meet and what you say to him/her?
PJ: Cotton Mather. I’d want to show him the 21st century, because I know that would be fun and fascinating for him. He had that kind of investigative mind. He was also flawed enough that I’m pretty sure I could ride around in a car with him, or watch him learn to surf the Internet, and not be constantly reminded what a worm I am.
You probably thought I would say Spurgeon. I’d of course like to meet him, too, but I would definitely be intimidated by him, and I think I would feel like a total paramecium in his presence.
GD: What are your impressions of the "Young, Restless and Reformed" thing?
PJ: I think there’s entirely too much young and restless and not enough “Reformed.” (Do I sound like an old guy with a crew cut who yells at kids about staying off his lawn? Gack.)
Frankly, my spirit sunk when I saw that original article in CT. Don’t misunderstand; it was a good article. (I like just about everything Collin Hansen writes.) But I knew lots of young people would take it as a signal that Calvinism is where the cool kids are hanging out, and Calvinism would become little more than a fad—another evangelical bandwagon. And that’s pretty much my impression of what has happened. Sadly, because it’s just a fad, it will pass before long. I hope when that happens there will be enough people with true Calvinist convictions left to keep the movement alive.
GD: Mark Driscoll: friend or foe?
PJ: Neither, really. I’ve never actually met Mark, and we’ve only had a couple of brief phone conversations. My criticism of Mark has been limited to one issue. I hope he takes it to heart. We’ll see. In the meantime, I have no animosity or ill will toward him, nor has he ever expressed any malice toward me. I’ve heard from a few of the young and the restless who think personal rancor is the only possible explanation for anyone to have concerns about Mark. That’s an immature perspective, which means they will eventually grow out of it. I’ll wait for that, rather than perpetuating the conflict or continually dissecting it.
GD: Has the Emerging Conversation run out of steam?
PJ: Well, yes and no. It never really was a conversation, was it? You weren’t allowed to participate in the first place unless you agreed to the postmodern ground rules: here.
However, the movement has clearly ground to a halt. I wrote about that last week: here.
And yet I think what killed the movement was moral scandal on the one hand and doctrinal stigma on the other. The writings, life-styles, and off-the-wall statements of key Emergent leaders became an embarrassment to the movement as a whole, and finally the very word Emergent, so cool and mysterious in 2005, became a serious liability by the end of the decade. Everyone with any sense wants to shed the label.
As I have said elsewhere, although the movement may be dead, the ideas and values spawned by the movement are not. Emergent thinking is being dispersed into the broad evangelical movement like dandelion seeds. The doctrinal and philosophical issues we argued about with Emergents are now becoming fodder for debate in more mainstream communities. The battle for those truths is by no means over, and I think the evangelical movement is in deep trouble.
GD: Have you signed the Manhattan Declaration? If not, why not?
PJ: No. I think it’s unclear and self-contradictory. On the one hand it declares that “it is our duty to proclaim the Gospel of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ in its fullness, both in season and out of season. May God help us not to fail in that duty.” And yet on the other hand, the document itself doesn’t proclaim the gospel. It leaves the content of the gospel in a haze of ambiguity, obliquely referring to “the Gospel of costly grace,” but not mentioning who pays the “cost” of redemption or how sinners can be justified. The ambiguity about the gospel was clearly deliberate, so as not to alienate those who proclaim different gospels. That being the case, the document should not have implied that the signatories are bound together by a common commitment to Christianity. Why not open it up to Mormons, Muslims, and Buddhists, if there’s no agenda to imply that all signatories are in spiritual union with Christ?
I’m not a fan of declarations in any case. Evangelicals produce them all the time, with all kinds of pomp and gravity, but to what end? We should put the energy into evangelism that we invest in drafting and publicizing statements.
GD: Is co-belligerency possible without compromising faithfulness to the gospel?
PJ: Sure, on a very limited basis. But we must not blithely ignore the dangers. It’s a fine line between ecumenism and co-belligerency, and the people who talk most about co-belligerency are usually the very worst at guarding the line. Evangelicals overrate the importance of political clout, and they underestimate the power of gospel preaching. When the gospel is proclaimed with power, all of society is impacted for the better. But the evangelical thrust for political activism has (historically, not just theoretically) had a very negative ecumenical tendency.
Is co-belligerency possible without compromising the gospel? Probably, but I think that’s may be the wrong question to be asking. Ask, rather, How much of your message or your testimony will you have to stifle in order to "team up" in some kind of formal, public alliance? If your allies are Jewish and you hold back from declaring the exclusivity of Christ in order to hold your coalition together; or if your allies are Roman Catholic and you carefully avoid any discussion of sola fide or sola Scriptura—then you are sacrificing your distinctives for a lesser cause than the proclamation of the gospel. It happens all the time.
GD: Every self-respecting Calvinist is Amillenial, just like Calvin himself, right?
PJ: Actually, I know self-respecting Calvinists of the pre-, post-, and a-millennial varieties. Every view seems to have its crazies who are obsessed with eschatology but seem to care little for the gospel or the life of the church. I don’t aspire to be like that.
GD: Care to name your top three songs or pieces of music?
PJ: That’s a really hard one. I could easily give you a list of 3,000, but narrowing it down to 3 is well-nigh impossible. I like practically all kinds of music, including Hindi film soundtracks and Cuban Mambo. I also like Weird Al and Spike Jones. But my favorite styles are are classical and baroque. (I’ve been a classical music aficionado since I was 14.)
I have a special love for Bach cantatas, and I suppose one of them would have to be first on my list. I’d probably pick BWV 106 “Gottes Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit” a sweet cantata with a Calvinistic message. It opens (uncharacteristically) with a sonatina, which Darlene and I used as wedding music 32 years ago.
Number two on my list would be Ravel’s “Le Tombeau de Couperin,” (the full orchestration, not the piano version) which is a perfect piece of music. I have about least 20 recordings of it, and I listen to at least one of them every week.
Third place on my list would go to John Rutter’s Requiem. I heard the original Cambridge Singers’ recording on the radio 1n 1986, when the work was less than a year old, and I have loved it ever since.
I hate that I have to leave out all of Mahler’s Symphonies, Mendelssohn’s Elijah, Morton Laurdsen’s Lux Eterna, and Bach’s “St. Matthew’s Passion”--not to mention Perez Prado, Ernesto Lecuona, A. R. Rahman, JoaquĆ­n Rodrigo, and a lot more. I currently have 42,783 tracks in my iTunes collection, so you see the size of the problem.
GD: Yes, but that's still no excuse for not sticking to your top three by listing lots of pieces that you might have chosen but didn't. Now, what is the most helpful theological book that you have read in the last twelve months? It is a must read because...
PJ: H. M. Gwatkin, The Arian Controversy. It’s actually historical theology. Does that count? [OK by me - GD]. That’s a book I found that’s downloadable for free from Project Gutenberg. I read on my Kindle. I had done some study on the Arian Controversy a few years ago. Cardinal Newman wrote a definitive history, and it’s good but hard reading. Gwatkin (bless him) writes readable prose and brings that era alive.
It’s a must read because the culture that gave rise to Arianism had the very same attitude toward truth and controversy our generation has cultivated. We need to take a lesson from that era, which most Christians don’t even know about.
GD: What is the biggest problem facing evangelicalism today and how should we respond?
PJ: The greatest problem I see is the ever-broadening boundary of the evangelical movement and (corresponding to that) the increasingly ambiguous definition of evangelicalism. Evangelicals are too concerned with gaining collective clout and publicity and not concerned enough with being evangelical (being faithful to the gospel). Many of evangelicalism’s most visible and popular leaders and institutions—including evangelicalism’s self-styled “house organ,” Christianity Today magazine—have been tearing down evangelical boundaries instead of guarding them. Consequently, a host of dangerous influences have infiltrated the evangelical movement and people in the pews don’t see the danger, because it’s considered impolite to be critical of a fellow “evangelical.” In an era where everyone from Benny Hinn to Brian McLaren wears the evangelical label, it is sheer folly to be so blithely accepting of everything and everyone who claims to be evangelical. That attitude has already ruined the evangelical testimony and done much to render the evangelical movement spiritually impotent.
How should we respond? We need to recover our love of the truth, our courage in standing for it, and our will to defend it.
GD: Amen to that and thanks for dropping by for this bracing conversation, Phil. Great talking to you. Bye!

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Mediate Regeneration

Some concluding thoughts (see also here and here) on Stuart Olyott's article in the Banner Magazine for December 2009 entitled Where Luther Got It Wrong - and Why We need To Know about It. I especially want to focus on his claim that the doctrine of "mediate regeneration" as he calls it will be the ruin of gospel work in the UK. Why does he take issue with the idea that the Word is the instrument by which the Spirit brings a person to new life in Christ? We start with his proposed definition of the new birth,

"Regeneration is a supernatural enlightenment of the human soul brought about by the direct and immediate energy of the Holy Spirit working within that soul. There is nothing 'mediate' about it. It is not brought about by some influence or instruction from outside, but by the implanting of new spiritual life inside." (p. 26)

This statement is typical of what might be found in the standard works of Reformed systematic theology. Olyott stresses the unmediated character of regeneration in order to safeguard the sovereignty of the Spirit. He wants to avoid any suggestion that the Word inhrently contains the Spirit's saving power. But is it right to suggest that regeneration is ordinarily an immediate act of the Spirit apart from the instrumentality of the Word? Part of the problem is that the discourse of systematic theology is not always the same as that of the Bible itself. Systematics in its drive for conceptual clarity can sometimes ride roughshod over the differing nuances of the biblical material. Regeneration, or being born again is sometimes described in the Bible as a work of the Spirit without mention of the instrumentality of the Word. The classic passage is John 3:3-8. But this is not the whole story. Other texts attribute the new birth to God working by his Word, James 1:18, 1 Peter 1:23. Olyott is aware of this and addresses the issue in his article. He suggests (p. 28) that these verses are "not [about] the act of germination (where new life comes into being) but to the moment of birth (where a new life becomes visible)." But I'm not sure that such a distinction can be justified. Biblical writers use a variety of terminology to refer to the same saving event. In the Gospel According to John Jesus speaks of being "born again" (John 3:3, 8), Paul writes, "if anyone is in Christ he is a new creation" (2 Corinthians 5:17), he teaches that the dead in sin are "made alive" (Ephesians 2:5), and uses the language of "regeneration" (Titus 3:5). In each case Scripture is referring to God's great work of bringing the dead in sin to new life in Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. Also, take Peter's teaching on the new birth in his First Epistle. In 1 Peter 1:3, we read that "the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ...has begotten us again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead". This stands in parallel with what Paul says in Ephesians 2:4-5, where God makes those who were dead in sin alive together with Christ. In neither case is the Word explicitly mentioned as an instrument of regeneration. However, Peter uses the same Greek word in 1 Peter 1:3 (translated "begotten again" NKJV) and 1 Peter 1:23 (translated "born again" NKJV). Note that in the latter text we read, "having been born again... through the word of God". The word is the "incorruptible seed...which lives and abides forever". This "word" is identified with the gospel that was originally preached to Peter's readers, 1 Peter 1:23-25. For Peter the Word of the gospel is clearly the means by which God begets us again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. Reformed systematic theology needs to be revised to take this fact into account (see John Murray's attempt to do this in The Collected Works of John Murray Volume 2, Banner of Truth Trust, p. 196-198).

Now, Olyott knows that regeneration ordinarily takes place in the context where the Word of God is proclaimed (p 27), but he denies that the Word is the means by which the Holy Spirit regenerates people. But from what we have just seen in 1 Peter, the gospel does not simply provide the context in which the new birth takes place. We are born again "through the word of God". Of course, this does not mean that the Word in itself contains the saving power of the Spirit. The Word is only an instrument of the regenerating power of God. But it is just that. Is regeneration any the less a monergistic act of God if he uses his own Word to bring those who are dead in sin to new life in Christ by the power of the Spirit?
Sinclair Ferguson comments helpfully on this,
"For the New Testament writers, however, there is not hint of a threat to divine sovereignty in the fact that the word is the instrumental cause of regeneration, while the Spirit is the efficient cause. This is signalled in the New Testament by the use of the preposition ek to indicate the divine originating cause (e.g. Jn. 3:5; 1 Jn. 3:9; 5:1) and dia to express the instrumental cause (e.g. Jn 15:3; 1 Cor 4:15; 1 Peter 1:23).
"Since the Spirit's work in regeneration involves the transformation of the whole man, including his cognitive and affective powers, the accompanying of the internal illumination of the Spirit by the external revelation of the word (and vice versa) is altogether appropriate. Since faith involves knowledge, it ordinarily emerges in relationship to the teaching of the gospel found in Scripture. Regeneration and the faith to which it gives birth are seen as taking place not by revalationless divine sovereignty, but within the matrix of the preaching of the word and the witness of the people of God (cf. Rom. 10:1-15). Their instrumentality in regeneration does not impinge upon the sovereign activity of the Spirit. Word and Spirit belong together." (Contours of Christian Theology: The Holy Spirit, Sinclair B. Ferguson, IVP, 1996, p. 125-126).
The big issue then is not "mediate regeneration". It is how we construe the relationship between Word and Spirit in the preaching of the gospel. I have enormous respect for Olyott and agree with the main burden of his piece. He is right to point out that Spirit's power is not so tied to the Word that the Word in effect contains the saving power of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit is sovereign and his use of the Word is subject to variation as he pleases. We cannot therefore take his power for granted. Rather, we need to plead with God that the proclamation of the gospel of Christ will be accompanied by the empowering presence of the Spirit, Acts 4:31, 1 Corinthians 2:1-5. Failure to grasp this will lead to preaching being seen as little more than a well-delivered exposition of the Bible. Such an outlook will indeed have a damaging effect on gospel work in this country. The New Testament presents an altogether more dynamic picture of the relationship between Word and Spirit in preaching. The Spirit’s empowering presence enables preachers to proclaim the Lord Jesus with boldness, liberty and life-transforming effectiveness. His presence makes preaching an event where the God of the gospel is encountered in all the fullness of his grace and power. That is the crying need of the church and the world today. We should give God no rest until we know more of what it means to preach the gospel with the Holy Spirit sent from heaven.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Word and Spirit

The main point of Stuart Olyott's article in the Banner Magazine for December 2009 entitled Where Luther Got It Wrong - and Why We need To Know about It is to criticize the doctrine of "mediate regeneration". Apparently this teaching stands poised to "soon take us over completely" and if it does so, "gospel work in the country will be ruined." (p. 26). What is this pernicious doctrine? Olyott offers a definition,
"when the Holy Spirit transforms somebody into a new creature in Christ, he uses an instrument to bring this about. That instrument is the Word - the Holy Scriptures. The work of the Spirit is so intimately tied to his instrument, that we can say that the Word of God actually contains the converting power of the Holy Spirit. If you let the Word loose, you are letting the Holy Spirit loose." (p. 26).
I wonder whether Olyott has slightly oversated his case here? What he says in the first two sentences of the quote, that the Spirit works by the instrumentality of the Word does not necessarily imply what is said in the remainder of the citation. It is perfectly legitimate to hold that the Spirit ordinarily works by and with the Word in granting sinners new life in Christ. Indeed, some Scriptures seem to teach this, for example James 1:18, 1 Peter 1:23. But this does not necessarily mean that the Holy Spirit always works in the same way and with the same effect so that, "If you let the Word loose, you are letting the Spirit loose." According to Charles Hodge this is how Lutherans tended to describe the relationship between Word and Spirit. The Princeton theologian argued that this construction is both unbiblical and detrimental to church life, see here. Perhaps it was with this in mind that Olyott took exception to the Luther saying with regard to the Reformation, "I did nothing: I left it to the Word." Although as I pointed out in a previous post, there is nothing fundamentally wrong with the Reformer's statement in itself.
However, I believe Olyott is right to raise an alarm that Lutheran-type teaching is gaining ground in Reformed circles. It is believed by some that all that is needed is for preachers to teach the Bible for Holy Spirit to work. Consequently there is no need for men to pray for a special empowering of the Spirit when they preach. Spirit and Word are so indissolubly tied together that whenever the Bible is taught the Spirit's power is invariably active. However, this is quite wrong. The Holy Spirit is a sovereign divine Person who works by and with the Word as he pleases. He is not a prisoner of the Word, but its Master. In some instances he may even work apart from the Word, see here. To quote Paul, what we need is a kind of preaching that is "not in word only, but also in power, in the Holy Spirit and much assurance" (1 Thessalonians 1:5 - emphasis added).
Of course in a sense the Holy Spirit is always at work when the Word is preached. Our authority is "the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture" (WCF I:X). Whenever the Bible is read or its message proclaimed we are subject to the communicative action of the Spirit. By the Word he is revealing truth about God, making promises, issuing commands and so on. But something more is needed if revealed truth is to be understood, promises believed and commands obeyed. The Spirit who speaks in the Scripture must also apply the Word to those who hear and enable them to respond appropriately. This is what drives us to our knees in prayer - that the Holy Spirit will make the Word effective and fruitful in the lives of those who hear its message, 1 Thessalonians 2:13. For me this is the point at issue - the relationship between Word and Spirit in preaching rather than "mediate regeneration" per se. I hope to reflect further on the issue of "mediate regeneration" itself in a future post. See here for more on Word and Spirit in preaching.

Friday, January 08, 2010

The Word of God did it?

“I opposed indulgences and all papists, but never by force. I simply taught, preached, wrote God’s Word: otherwise I did nothing. And then, while I slept, or drank Wittenberg beer with my Philip of Amsdorf, the Word so greatly weakened the papacy that never a prince or emperor did such damage to it. I did nothing: the Word did it all. Had I wanted to start trouble . . . I could have started such a little game at Worms that even the emperor wouldn’t have been safe. But what would it have been? A mug’s game. I did nothing: I left it to the Word." Martin Luther

According to Stuart Olyott, writing in the December 2009 edition of The Banner of Truth magazine, Luther got it wrong in the statement quoted above - and we need to know why. I am in broad sympathy with the drift of Olyott's article. He is right to say that the Word alone can accomplish nothing and that the power of the Spirit is needed to make the Word effective. But I don't believe that Luther was incorrect to speak as he did. The first thing to remember is that what we have here is not a piece of dogmatic theology where Luther was attempting to capture all the nuances of biblical teaching in one statement. It was a quickfire response to someone who asked him how the Reformation happened. We don't need to include everything the Bible teaches on a subject in order to say something meaningful and true. To suggest that we do is to go beyond the pattern of Scripture itself.

Luther's words are comparable with what Luke says in Acts where he attributes the growth of the church to the Word of God (Acts 6:7, 12:24, 19:20). Now, Luke sets such statements in the context of the outpouring of the Spirit on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 1:5-8, 2:1-4). He makes it clear that preachers need to be filled with the Spirit to empower them to proclaim the word boldly and effectively, (Acts 4:31). But he did not feel the need to qualify what he said in Acts 6:7 in order to bear this out by saying something like, "Then the word of God spread by the power of the Holy Spirit and the number of the disciples were multiplied greatly". Where the agency of the Word alone is mentioned in Scripture it is assumed but not always stated that it was the Holy Spirit who made the word effective in the salvation of sinners. Often Scripture explicitly links Word and Spirit together (1 Corinthians 2:1-5, 1 Thessalonians 1:5), but not in every case. This is analogous to Calvin's point that whenever Scripture attributes salvation solely to the cross of Jesus, his resurrection is always assumed and when salvation is attributed solely to his resurrection, the cross is always assumed.

Luther knew very well that the Reformation was not the product of the bare Word of God. He would have agreed entirely with Olyott that, "the Word, on its own, did nothing." The Reformer taught clearly that the Holy Spirit enables us to savingly believe the Word. In his Small Catechism he asks,

Why do you need the Holy Spirit to begin and sustain this faith in you?

By nature I am spiritually blind, dead, and an enemy of God, as the Scriptures teach; therefore, I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him.

What has the Holy Spirit done to bring you to faith?

The Holy Spirit "has called me by the Gospel," that is, He has invited and drawn me by the Gospel to partake of the spiritual blessings that are mine in Christ.

When we bear this in mind, Luther wasn't wrong to say, "I did nothing: I left it to the Word", unless we are willing to charge Luke and other biblical writers with a similar error. In a future post I hope to reflect on what Olyott had to say in his article concerning "mediate regeneration" .

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

More blessings than their father lost

Preparing to preach on Genesis 2:7-17 made me reflect again on how in redemption Jesus gives us far more than we posessed in Adam by original creation. Salvation is not simply a matter of Paradise Regained. In Christ we have Paradise Plus Infinity. Note the "much more" that shatters the symmetry between Adam and Christ in Romans 5:17. Also consider Paul's sustained contrast between first and last Adams 1 Corinthians 15:42-49. The first Adam was made of the dust of the ground. He had a natural or "soulish" body, animated by the breath of God. Due to Adam's sin the body will return to dust in corruption, dishonour and weakness. Then we have Jesus, the last Adam and the Lord from heaven. He became a life giving Spirit at his resurrection. In him believers will raised from the dead with a spiritual body - a body transformed and empowered by the Spirit. This spiritual body is characterised incorruptibility, glory and power. In Christ we will be raised immortal to die no more. Along similar lines, see how the splendour of the new creation as portrayed in Revelation 21 & 22 puts Eden as depicted in Genesis 2 into the shade. The costly obedience of Jesus culminating in his atoning death on the cross won for us far more than Adam possessed before the fall. Herman Bavinck comments,
"Christ was the second Adam. He came not only to bear our punishment for us but also to obtain for us the righteousness and life that Adam had to secure by his obedience. He delivered us from guilt and punishment and placed us at the end of the road Adam had to walk, not at the beginning. He gives us much more than we lost in Adam, not only the forgiveness of sin and release from punishment but also and immediately - in faith - the not-being-able to sin and not-being-able to die." (Reformed Dogmatics Volume 3: Sin and Salvation in Christ, Baker Academic, p. 395).
Where He displays His healing power,
Death and the curse are known no more;
In Him the tribes of Adam boast
More blessings than their father lost.
Isaac Watts, Jesus Shall Reign Where'er the Sun. See here for the whole hymn.

Monday, January 04, 2010

Friday, January 01, 2010

A New Year's Resolution

Here is the first of Jonathan Edwards' 70 Resolutions:

1. Resolved, that I will do whatsoever I think to be most to God's glory, and my own good, profit and pleasure, in the whole of my duration, without any consideration of the time, whether now, or never so many myriads of ages hence. Resolved to do whatever I think to be my duty and most for the good and advantage of mankind in general. Resolved to do this, whatever difficulties I meet with, how many and how great soever.