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Archive for May, 2008

Keswick burnout

Wednesday, May 28th, 2008

I was raised in a church group with abusive and cultic tendencies called The Assembly which was deeply influenced by Keswick “higher life” teachings and piety, including its famous hymnody. We were constantly told that we needed to “get out of Romans 7″ (defeated and constantly struggling with sin) and “into Romans 8″ (the higher Christian life).

So I was intrigued when I stumbled on these lectures by Andy Naselli which provide a historical survey and critical analysis of the movement.

The problem with the super-duper spirituality of Keswick (and the Charismatic movement that continues its legacy today) is that it inevitably numbs you to spiritual things and is thus counter-productive. 

First of all, the constant devotional exercises, mountain-top experiences, and retreats begin to get real old after a few years. They become a grind that you have to go through in order to constantly re-energize your flagging spirituality. 

Second, you can only lay yourself on the altar and consecrate yourself to the Lord so many times before you realize that your struggles with sin aren’t going away this side of glory.  

Third, this realization can lead to one of two things:  either you give up on the whole thing, perhaps on Christianity altogether, or you begin to lie to yourself and to others about how victorious you are, and you end up a pompous Pharisee.

For me personally, the challenge of my spiritual life for the last 19 years (I left The Assembly in 1989) has been how to recover a genuine spirituality in which one can enjoy communion with God and grow in sanctification by grace rather than by legalism.

I view the hyper-spirituality of Keswick like guys who work out and are all roided up but who have low self-esteem. They are constantly flexing their muscles in your face but they don’t know the first thing about true strength. True spirituality is more like the lean muscularity of the gangly Kenyan long-distance runner. The Christian life is a long haul, and there are times when we feel closer to the Lord and feel like we’re doing better in the area of sanctification, and there are times when we just have to put one foot in front of the other and slog on.

I think Christ lets us struggle with sin because he doesn’t want to let us get to the point where we think we don’t need him any more. The goal is not sinless perfection, or even reducing our sin quota. The goal is the deepening of our faith in Christ, our love for him, our enjoyment of him, and deep-seated loyalty to him. I say “loyalty” because it is too easy to say “obedience.” You can do all the right behaviors and avoid all the bad behaviors and yet not be loyal to Christ. Conversely, you can struggle with sin and be loyal to Christ. There is more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over 99 “righteous persons” who need no repentance (Lk 15:7).

Keswick theology fosters a self-centered spirituality where we are always preening in front of the mirror so we can revel in how spiritually ripped we are. But as Paul said, God forbid that I should boast, save in the cross of Christ.

HT: For His Renown

Authorship of Fourth Gospel

Friday, May 23rd, 2008

It is not surprising that the external evidence for Johannine authorship of the Fourth Gospel is casually dismissed by critical scholars. More surprising is the fact that even conservative commentators like Morris, Carson, and Köstenberger don’t actually lay out the external evidence as fully as one would like. So I had to go and collect it myself. Here are the most important testimonies from the church fathers:

AD 170:  Theophilus, Bishop of Antioch, apologist

“Hence the Holy Scriptures and all the inspired writers teach us as one of these, John, says, ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God’” (To Autolycus II.22)

AD 180:  Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyons 

“Matthew also issued a written Gospel among the Hebrews in their own dialect, while Peter and Paul were preaching at Rome, and laying the foundations of the church. After their departure [i.e., death], Mark, the disciple and interpreter of Peter, did also hand down to us in writing what had been preached by Peter.  Luke also, the companion of Paul, recorded in a book the Gospel preached by him. Afterwards, John, the disciple of the Lord, who also leaned upon his breast, did publish a Gospel during his residence at Ephesus in Asia” (Against Heresies III.1)

Although not directly affirming Johannine authorship, the following quote by Irenaeus is important for establishing the credibility of his testimony, given his acquaintance with Polycarp, who himself knew John:

“I have a more vivid recollection of what occurred at that time than of recent events (inasmuch as the experiences of childhood, keeping pace with the growth of the soul, become incorporated with it); so that I can even describe the place where the blessed Polycarp used to sit and discourse – his going out, too, and his coming in – his general mode of life and personal appearance, together with the discourses which he delivered to the people; also how he would speak of his familiar discourse with John, and with the rest of those who had seen the Lord; and how he would call their words to remembrance” (Letter to Florinus, quoted by Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History V.20)

AD 170-200:  The Muratorian Canon

“The fourth book of the Gospels is that of John, one of the disciples. When his fellow disciples and bishops urged him, he said, ‘Fast together with me today for three days and, what shall be revealed to each, let us tell it to each other.’ On the same night it was revealed to Andrew, one of the Apostles, that with all of them reviewing it, John should describe all things in his own name … What marvel, therefore, if John so constantly brings forward particular matters also in his Epistles, saying of himself:  ‘What we have seen with our eyes and have heard with our ears and our hands have handled, these things we have written to you.’ For thus he declares that he was not only an eyewitness and hearer, but also a writer of all the wonderful things of the Lord in order.”

AD 200:  Clement of Alexandria

“Last of all, John, noticing that the physical things had been set forth in the other Gospels, being urged by his companions and inspired by the Spirit, wrote a spiritual Gospel” (fragment quoted by Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History VI.14)

AD 400:  Jerome

“John, the apostle whom Jesus most loved, the son of Zebedee and brother of James … most recently of all the evangelists wrote a Gospel, at the request of the bishops of Asia, against Cerinthus and other heretics and especially against the then growing dogma of the Ebionites, who assert that Christ did not exist before Mary. On this account he was compelled to maintain His divine nativity.” (Lives of Illustrious Men)

“Last is John, the Apostle and Evangelist, whom Jesus loved most, who, reclining on the breast of the Lord, drank the purest streams of teachings and who alone merited to hear from the cross:  ‘Behold, your mother.’ He – when he was in Asia, and at that time the seeds of the heretics, Cerinthus, Ebion, and others, who deny that Christ came in the flesh, whom he himself also calls Antichrists in his epistle and [at whom] the Apostle Paul frequently lashes out, were already shooting up – he was urged by almost all the bishops of Asia at that time and by delegates of many churches to write more profoundly about the divinity of the Savior and, so to speak, to break through to the very Word of God – not so much with boldness as with fortunate haste*, as the Ecclesiastical History relates. When he was urged by the brethren to write, [he is said] to have replied that he would do so, if, when a general fast had been proclaimed, all would pray to God. When it was carried out, saturated with revelation, he burst forth into that heaven-sent prologue:  ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and this Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God.’” (*Fortunate in view of the fact that John died shortly afterwards.) (From Jerome’s preface to his Commentary on Matthew.)

Theodor Zahn writes:  “All tradition which is ancient and in general worthy of notice agrees in representing John as writing after Matthew, Mark, and Luke, at a great age, and during his residence in the province of Asia, or more specifically in Ephesus” (Introduction to the New Testament, 3.179).

Call me a traditionalist, but I agree with Zahn that in the field of New Testament introduction (or NT Einleitung as the Germans call it) we should give the evidence of tradition the benefit of the doubt and only question it in the face of strong evidence to the contrary.

Who are the top three NT authors?

Wednesday, May 21st, 2008

Can you guess who the top three New Testament authors are? I’m referring to quantity of their writing. The answer is Luke, Paul, and John, in that order. Here is the full list:


 John, 1-3 John, Revelation
 1-2 Peter

Of course, this list presupposes traditional views of authorship (e.g., the Pastoral Epistles were written by Paul, Revelation was written by John, etc.).

I derived these percentages using a Word document I found on the Internet that contains the Nestle-Aland text of the Greek New Testament (edition 26/27) without text critical data. Using the “Word Count” feature of Microsoft Word, I took the number of lines for each author and divided it by the total number of lines in the GNT. (Practically identical percentages are created using the number of characters. Similar but not identical percentages arise using the number of words.)

It may be surprising that Luke comes in at number one, but once we have been told that Luke is first, we could easily guess that Paul is next. 

Four observations:

(1) We tend to underestimate the importance of Luke-Acts. It is a significant 2-part volume intending to explain “how we got here,” narrating how Christianity arose from its Jewish roots to become a world-wide religion composed of both Jews and Gentiles who believe in Jesus. Even though we don’t study Luke-Acts as much as we ought, we tend to presuppose the basic facts that it narrates, e.g., the gift of the Spirit at Pentecost, the conversion/call of Saul the persecutor, the Gentile mission, the decision that the Gentiles do not need to be Law-observant proselytes, and so on. If we did not have Acts, we would still be able to piece some of these things together, but I suspect our thinking would be more hazy.

(2) Although Luke is number one, let’s not forget that Paul is number two. His literary contribution to the New Testament is immense. Again, we tend to presuppose basic things about Christianity that we get mainly from Paul without realizing it. We presuppose the concept of the atoning death and resurrection of Christ. The death-formula that Christ died “for our sins” is primarily found in Paul, and certainly it receives its greatest NT exposition in his letters. We (at least Protestants) assume the importance of salvation by grace, not by works. These things are not impossible to learn from the non-Pauline writings, but Paul surely makes them much clearer.

(3) Never forget that John is number three. To be sure, Paul and Hebrews have some key passages teaching a high Christology, but John stands apart in his emphasis on the deity of Christ. John 1:14 is the main proof text that explicitly teaches the concept of incarnation (”the Word became flesh”). The concept of a pre-existent Son who was sent by the Father into the world is taught more clearly by John than any other NT writer. There is also the Farewell Discourse in John 13-17 which was a key passage for the church when it was hammering out the doctrine of the Trinity in the first four centuries.

(4) The other writers (Matthew, Mark, Hebrews, Peter, et al) are important as well. They have unique emphases to bring to the table, especially the Sermon on the Mount and Hebrews’ teaching on the high priestly office of Christ. Nevertheless, Luke, Paul, and John are the key to the NT. The other writers play a secondary role that fills in our overall NT theology but does not fundamentally alter what we already know about the person and work of Christ. Luke gives us the historical framework - how did we get here? Paul is the teacher of the church on soteriology. And John takes us into the inner sanctum of the mysteries of Christology and the Trinity.

Biblical Theology & Systematic Theology

Thursday, May 15th, 2008

Everyone agrees that systematic theology must be rooted in Scripture. The whole point of systematic theology is to say, “This is what the whole Bible teaches about a given topic” (John Frame’s definition). Therefore, by its very nature, systematic theology must be engaged in exegesis. It is also engaged in the process of taking the results of exegesis of various passages and trying to see how they fit into a coherent pattern.

The problem is that a lot of systematic theologians are poor exegetes. Frequently, they appeal to proof-texts taken out of context to “prove” a doctrinal point which they already believe to be true.

What is needed is for systematic theologians to become better exegetes. This is where biblical theology comes in. For what are the first three rules of good exegesis?  Context, context, context. And what is the ultimate context of any given passage?  The historical unfolding of the kingdom of God, from creation, to fall, to the promises, to the fulfillment of the promises in Christ, both already and not-yet. In other words, the key to good exegesis, and therefore to good systematic theology, is biblical theology.

Furthermore, biblical theology is the key to understanding the Christological unity of Scripture. This is probably the number one difficulty that systematic theology faces. It is easy to fit passages into a preconceived logical system. It is much harder to figure out the Bible’s own system. Biblical theology helps us to see the Bible’s own system, which is not a timeless set of propositions (although it includes many), but the self-revelation of God in Christ. The Bible’s system is the unfolding drama of the kingdom of God, with the Son of God made flesh, crucified and risen, revealed in all his glory at the center of the stage.

Therefore, to be a good systematic theologian, one must be a Christ-centered biblical theologian.

For more on this, see my paper Biblical and Systematic Theology: A Digest of Reformed Opinion on Their Proper Relationship.

Narrative framework of the Gospels

Wednesday, May 14th, 2008

D. A. Carson has some very helpful insights on the necessity of interpreting the words of Jesus in light of the narrative context of the Gospels. Commenting on Red-Letter Christians (Tony Campolo, Jim Wallis, Brian McLaren, et al) Carson writes the following:

Their actual grasp of what the red letter words of Jesus are actually saying in context far too frequently leaves a great deal to be desired; more particularly, to read the words of Jesus and emphasize them apart from the narrative framework of each of the canonical gospels, in which the plot-line takes the reader to Jesus’ redeeming death and resurrection, not only has the result of down-playing Jesus’ death and resurrection, but regularly fails to see how the red-letter words of Jesus point to and unpack the significance of his impending crosswork. In other words, it is not only Paul who says that Jesus’ cross and resurrection constitute matters “of first importance” (1 Cor 15:3), and not only Paul who was resolved to know nothing among the Corinthians except Jesus Christ and him crucified (1 Cor 2:1–5), but the shape of the narrative in each canonical gospel says the same thing. In each case the narrative rushes toward the cross and resurrection; the cross and resurrection are the climax. So to interpret the narrative, including the red-letter words of Jesus, apart from the climax to which they are rushing, is necessarily a distortion of the canonical gospels themselves.

[In “The SBJT Forum” section of The Southern Baptist Journal of Theology 12 (Spring 2008)]

Carson’s words remind me of a famous quote by the German theologian Martin Kähler near the end of the 19th century. He said that the Gospel of Mark is “a passion narrative with an extended introduction,” an apt description that could be applied equally to the other three Gospels.

HT: Between Two Worlds

Doug Moo online

Tuesday, May 13th, 2008

Doug Moo has made many of his articles available in PDF format. The following were especially influential for me in developing my view of the law (in conjunction with the covenantal insights of Meredith Kline and T. David Gordon):

“Law,” “Works of the Law” and Legalism in Paul (1983)

Jesus and the Authority of the Mosaic Law (1984)

Paul and the Law in the Last Ten Years (1987)

And especially: 

The Law of Moses and the Law of Christ (1988)

The Law of Christ as the Fulfillment of the Law of Moses (1993) - this one is from the Zondervan five views book The Law, the Gospel, and the Modern Christian - Moo’s interaction with Bahnsen is definitely instructive.

HT: Matt Morgan

Mainline madness

Monday, May 12th, 2008

First, from the progressive Catholic or Anglican world (not sure which). This is hilarious. It’s a YouTube showing some pretty bizarre liturgical innovations. The giant puppet heads are the best!

Now from the mainline Presbyterians. The PC(USA) had a recent judicial case in which their highest judicial committee ruled that the Rev. Jane Spahr committed no offence by performing multiple same-sex ceremonies. The reasoning was that the PC(USA)’s constitution defines marriage as between one man and one woman. Since these were not marriages, Spahr did not violate the constitution. Gruntled Center comments:

Suppose you brought your baby to your pastor to be baptized. Before the church and all the world, your pastor splashed your infant with water from the font and pronounced “I baptize thee in the name of Moloch, Baal, and Asherah.” The dumbfounded church brings disciplinary charges against the minister. Then, in the end, the GAPJC rules that your pastor committed no error in baptizing your baby, because baptism as defined in church law is done in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

The law in the hand of Christ - more

Thursday, May 8th, 2008

In my previous post, I said that the charges were false. It might be good to spell out what the charge was: 

The Presbytery of Southern California of The Orthodox Presbyterian Church charges you, the Rev. C. Lee Irons, with violating your ordination vows by teaching, contrary to the Scriptures and the Westminster Standards, that the Decalogue is no longer binding on believers as the standard of holy living.

I always freely admitted that I taught that “the Decalogue is no longer binding on believers as the standard of holy living.” I stated this on page 2 of my paper. The part that isn’t true is the claim that by teaching this I violated my vow of subscription to the Westminster Standards. Why not? Because I don’t believe the Westminster Standards teach that the Decalogue is the standard. It teaches that the moral law is the standard, and that the moral law is summarily comprehended in the Decalogue but not equivalent to it. The opening paragraphs of WCF XIX do come close to equating the Decalogue and the moral law, and so I take exception to that implication in the Confession, but not to the teaching of the Confession as a whole that the moral law is binding on us in Christ. For example, I fully and unreservedly endorse WCF XIX:5, which is arguably the most important paragraph in the chapter on the law of God:

The moral law doth forever bind all, as well justified persons as others, to the obedience thereof; and that, not only in regard of the matter contained in it, but also in respect of the authority of God the Creator, who gave it. Neither doth Christ, in the gospel, any way dissolve, but much strengthen this obligation.

Now it may seem strange or shocking to say that the Decalogue per se is no longer binding. But on further reflection this shouldn’t be surprising. The Decalogue was the central, summarizing core of the Old Covenant, and therefore it cannot be the immediate standard of conduct for the New Covenant people of God. If it was, we would be required to observe the Sabbath on the seventh day of the week (as the fourth commandment teaches:  “Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is the Sabbath of the LORD your God” (Exod 20:9-10). 

If the Decalogue per se, as given to Israel on Mt. Sinai and recorded on tablets of stone, were the immediate standard of conduct for the New Covenant people of God, then we must all move to modern day Israel so that our obedient children can live long in the land that the LORD our God is giving us (the fifth commandment). But even if we did move to Israel, the reality of common grace and common curse suggests that, in reality, our obedient children would have the same percentages of sickness and death as the children of unbelievers.

If the Decalogue per se, as given to Israel on Mt. Sinai and recorded on tablets of stone, were the immediate standard of conduct for the New Covenant people of God, then the church is potentially under the theocratic covenant curses attached to the second and third commandments, thus putting the church under a covenant of works and denying the finality of Christ’s work of becoming a curse in our place (Gal 3:13). 

I heard some men in the OPC say, “Well, all of these changes you’re talking about, that’s just window dressing.” I beg to differ. It is no small matter whether the moral law comes to us as in an Old Covenant administration as a covenant of works or in a New Covenant adminstration as part of the covenant of grace, from the hand of Moses or from the hand of Christ. No, this is not “window dressing.” This issue gets to the heart of the New Covenant ethic, of grace-motivated living in light of the fundamental, life-changing reality of our union with the crucified and risen Christ.

The charge that the Presbytery found me guilty of states that I am in sin because I won’t affirm what they want me to affirm, namely, that the Decalogue, the Mosaic Law, is directly binding on the new covenant people of God apart from the changes that have taken place when taken up and delivered to us in the hand of Christ. Of course, I repeat, these are changes that have been made to the Decalogue, not changes to the moral law. The moral law has not changed, but the Decalogue was a particular covenantal enshrinement of the moral law given in a form suited to Israel’s theocratic context in the land.

The Presbytery (which, it should be noted, was Greg Bahnsen’s former Presbytery) ruled against the “law-in-the-hand-of-Christ” view that was taught by an earlier generation of Reformed theologians like Samuel Bolton, the Marrowmen, Thomas Boston, et al. Reformed theology has always recognized this as a legitimate strand of teaching on the third use of the law. For example, Ernest Kevan in The Grace of Law (Baker, 1965), pp. 186-87, writes:

Although the historical fact of The Marrow controversy suggests that many at that time thought that the author was an Antinomian, the perspective of later years acquits him of such a charge … Provided the pitfalls of Antinomianism on the one side and of Neonomianism on the other be avoided, the conception of the Law “in the hands of Christ” is unexceptionable. It implies no change in the demands of the Law, nor in the obligation of the believer to recognize its binding authority, but signifies a different administration of it, with a different and deeper motive than is found outside of the experience of Christ.

As Kevan says, the view that the moral law is given in the hands of Christ is “unexceptionable” and “implies no change in the demands of the Law [i.e., the moral law] … but signifies a different administration of it, with a different and deeper motive than is found outside of the experience of Christ.”

(I added the words in brackets. Obviously, if Kevan were referring to the Mosaic Law as a whole or even to the Decalogue his statement that the Marrow view implies “no change” would be incorrect.  Everyone admits that there have been changes to the Mosaic Law, e.g., the ceremonial laws are abrogated. And I would argue that in the hands of Christ, there are also important redemptive-historical changes to the Decalogue, e.g., the Sabbath has changed, possibly even abrogated as Kline argued in his last book; the promise of long life in the land of Canaan was modified by Paul in Eph 6:3; and the sanctions attached to the second and third commandments have been fulfilled by Christ’s having become a curse for us, leaving no curses to threaten us.)

On my main site, I provide full documentation about my trial if you’d like to know more.

The law in the hand of Christ

Wednesday, May 7th, 2008

There is a stream within the Reformed tradition which holds that the believer is not bound to the moral law as given by Moses but as taken up, renewed, and handed to us in Christ. It was for holding this view that I was disciplined by the OPC. (For more information on my judicial case, read my paper defending myself against their false charges.) I have even heard that some in the OPC still consider me to be an “unrepentant offender.” I cannot imagine ever repenting of this glorious doctrine. If I must be labeled an “unrepentant offender,” I am glad to bear the reproach of Christ.

To put it very simply, the issue is this: the Mosaic Covenant is not the covenant under which we as Christians stand. Although all (let me repeat:  all) of the moral teaching of the Old Covenant continues over into the New, it comes to believers in a new covenantal context, mediated by Christ himself. The authority has changed — not Moses but Christ. The covenantal motivation has changed — not a covenant of works, “Do this and live” (Lev 18:5), but a covenant of grace with its indicatives and imperatives. None of the moral stipulations has changed, but they have been deepened and intensified in Christ – see the Sermon on the Mount and John 13:34.

Anyway, here are some Reformed theologians who would apparently be regarded as “unrepentant offenders” by the OPC were they alive today.

Samuel Bolton, The True Bounds of Christian Freedom (Edinburgh: the Banner of Truth Trust, 1994), p. 57:

We are freed from the law, as given by Moses, and are only tied to the obedience of it, as it is given in Christ: and though … we are subject to those commands and that law which Moses gave, yet not as he gave it, but as Christ renews it, and as it comes out of His hand and from His authority: “A new commandment I give you, that ye love one another” (John 13:34).

Edward Fisher, The Marrow of Modern Divinity with notes by Thomas Boston (1645; repr., Edmonton, Canada:  Still Waters Revival Books, 1991), pp. 173-75:

Seeing that you are now in Christ, beware that you receive not the ten commandments at the hand of God out of Christ, nor yet at the hands of Moses, but only at the hands of Christ; and so shall you be sure to receive them as the law of Christ.

Thomas Boston comments at this point:

The receiving of the ten commandments at the hands of Christ, is here opposed, (1) To receiving them at the hands of God out of Christ. (2) To receiving them at the hands of Moses, namely, as our Lawgiver … The first is a receiving them immediately from God, without a Mediator; and so receiving them as the law of works … The former manner of receiving them is not agreeable to the state of real believers, since they never were, nor are given in that manner to believers in Christ … The latter is not agreeable to the state of New Testament believers, since the true Mediator is come … However, the not receiving of Moses as the lawgiver of the christian church, carries no prejudice to the honour of that faithful servant.

John Colquhoun, A Treatise on the Law and the Gospel (1819; repr., Morgan, PA: Soli Deo Gloria, 1999), pp. 26-27:

This law issues to true Christians from Christ, the glorious Mediator of the New Covenant, and from God their Creator, Proprietor, Benefactor, and covenant God. It proceeds immediately from Jesus Christ, the blessed Mediator between God and men. It is taken in under the covenant of grace, and, in the hand of Christ, the Mediator of that covenant, it is given to all who believe in Him, and who are justified by faith, as the only rule of their obedience. The Apostle Paul accordingly calls it ‘the law of Christ’ (Galatians 6:2).

I’m glad to join the ranks of such godly, Christ-centered men, even if it is costly to do so.

Greek Syntax Notes - John

Thursday, May 1st, 2008

I’ve added my Greek Syntax Notes for John. Or, if you want to navigate there, click here and scroll down to “Greek New Testament” where you can also find the notes for Matthew, Mark, and Luke. 

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