The Statement on Social Justice and the Gospel: Some Thoughts

John MacArthur and company have riled things up with their Statement on Social Justice and the Gospel; indeed, they even pushed Union Theological Seminary to offer a counter statement via a Twitter-storm. I would like to do a more researched post on this, but my off-the-top thoughts will have to suffice for now. Here is the SJ&G’s Introduction:

In view of questionable sociological, psychological, and political theories presently permeating our culture and making inroads into Christ’s church, we wish to clarify certain key Christian doctrines and ethical principles prescribed in God’s Word. Clarity on these issues will fortify believers and churches to withstand an onslaught of dangerous and false teachings that threaten the gospel, misrepresent Scripture, and lead people away from the grace of God in Jesus Christ.

Specifically, we are deeply concerned that values borrowed from secular culture are currently undermining Scripture in the areas of race and ethnicity, manhood and womanhood, and human sexuality. The Bible’s teaching on each of these subjects is being challenged under the broad and somewhat nebulous rubric of concern for “social justice.” If the doctrines of God’s Word are not uncompromisingly reasserted and defended at these points, there is every reason to anticipate that these dangerous ideas and corrupted moral values will spread their influence into other realms of biblical doctrines and principles.

We submit these affirmations and denials for public consideration, not with any pretense of ecclesiastical authority, but with an urgency that is mixed with deep joy and sincere sorrow. The rapidity with which these deadly ideas have spread from the culture at large into churches and Christian organizations—including some that are evangelical and Reformed—necessitates the issuing of this statement now.

In the process of considering these matters we have been reminded of the essentials of the faith once for all handed down to the saints, and we are re-committed to contend for it. We have a great Lord and Savior, and it is a privilege to defend his gospel, regardless of cost or consequences. Nevertheless, while we rejoice in that privilege, we grieve that in doing so we know we are taking a stand against the positions of some teachers whom we have long regarded as faithful and trustworthy spiritual guides. It is our earnest prayer that our brothers and sisters will stand firm on the gospel and avoid being blown to and fro by every cultural trend that seeks to move the Church of Christ off course. We must remain steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord.

The Apostle Paul’s warning to the Colossians is greatly needed today: “See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ” (Colossians 2:8). The document that follows is an attempt to heed that apostolic command. We invite others who share our concerns and convictions to unite with us in reasserting our unwavering commitment to the teachings of God’s Word articulated in this statement. Therefore, for the glory of God among his Church and throughout society, we offer the following affirmations and denials.

We aren’t going to get into the body of the statement, but I wanted to at least offer the Introduction as an introduction into my own reflection.

In itself the introduction doesn’t seem out of line with what we should expect from anyone in the church of Christ concerned with maintaining clarity and faithfulness to the whole Gospel reality. In itself I don’t have any problems with the introduction as it stands; I’d doubt anyone would, per se. Okay, so there’s that. But let me share further what I tweeted in response to Phil Johnson (Mac’s right hand man), and Johnny Mac in regard to this very statement:

One of the problems is that *social justice* seems to presuppose a natural law and thus universalizing binding and innate understanding of what justice actually is. For my money this comes back to a question of knowledge of God in general, which indeed makes it a Gospel issue.IOW, this whole morass is a morass because things are not being defined carefully. I think JMac ought to spend more time developing his theory on knowledge of God, and how that implicates how justice is strictly understood from theology proper and the Gospel itself.IOW, so called social justice warriors use the language of *justice* vis a vis God equivocally which invites a defintional understanding of justice on other ideologically derived terms other than God’s holiness and righteousness.It seems that many Christians aligning themselves w/ the social justice movement seem to think that there is an univocal identity between the way they understand justice and the way SJWs understand justice; but it’s only an semantic identity of language.So I don’t, in principle, strangely, disagree w/ JMac when it comes to the problem that social justice presents (ideologically vis a vis the Gospel), but when it comes to theology proper and theory of revelation this is where my critique arises in re to JMac.

Let me expand on this further. If we are going to think about justice from Christian premises then I’d contend that we must do so as Christians in a participatory relationship with God through Christ wherein not only is God known, but his idea of justice can genuinely be conceived of. It is here that I think Johnny Mac is onto something (as I’ve noted). How can an unbelieving world have any sense of what God’s justice/righteousness entails when they have—by definition—rejected the reality of God in Christ for them? How can anyone who has rejected the shed blood of Christ for themselves, who has rejected the new creation who is the resurrected Christ for them, have any light to see the darkness they proclaim to see? Clearly, the ‘world’ can recognize that something is wrong, that there are inequities afoot of the most sinister type; but is their recognition something they have come to themselves, or is it a borrowed recognition that comes from the light of the witness of those who genuinely name the Name of Jesus Christ? If it is a borrowed recognition it is only going to be a mixed recognition of the actual source of darkness and inequities they are seeking to right.

When Jesus confronts people as the Light of the World he doesn’t leave them in their sins; he doesn’t give them half of themselves to mix with the other half of themselves shaped by this world system—the one run by the ‘prince of the power of the air.’ God has come decisively in Jesus Christ to confront us in our sins, and he tells us to REPENT. This is not an unclear exhortation; it comes with the force of the One who holds the world, seen and unseen reality together by the Word of his Power. Can the world genuinely identify the root problems in-built into this ‘evil age’ by social analysis and arrive at not only accurate descriptions but prescriptions in regard to what righting the wrongs actually ought to look like?

It might be because I have such a strong commitment to anti-natural theology, and natural law theory that it sounds like I am agreeing with the Macites. I don’t think non-believers have any ultimate sense of what justice actually is because I don’t think non-believers have any capacity for a genuine knowledge of the true and living God. If they don’t have a capacity for a genuine knowledge of the true and living God, then they can have no true and genuine knowledge of themselves (per Calvin), and as such cannot come to understand the deep problems that are sourcing the darkness they can only tacitly identify (based upon a borrowed witness they live off of as they inhabit the same space that God’s children do in the world). If this is the case, then how can anything good come from something based upon a profane social analysis; further how can justice ever be genuinely thought if it is based upon an ideology sourced from a social analysis grounded in and from the rock hard hearts of a fallen people with no access to the holy of holies of God’s life in Christ?

Okay, so at the above level I can agree, in principle, with the concern of the Macites. But when it comes down to who the Macites think God is this is where I offer a grand critique. Since I’ve spent years making that critique (against the sort of classical theistic five point Calvinist God that MacArthur et al. posits) here at the blog I won’t do that now (since I’ve already gone long). Suffice it to say I don’t think MacArthur et al. has the proper theological proper to follow through on providing a statement that best reflects the heart of the living God as that is understood from a properly framed Trinitarian theology. Further, because of this lacuna in MacArthur’s theological universe, his doctrine of salvation, ethics, so on and so forth also suffers blights that do not allow him to offer the sort of thick and robust theological alternative and critique that he would like to offer as a counter to the so called social justice warriors he is seeking to repudiate and correct.

Do I think there are inequities in the world? Yes, of course! But I don’t think so called social justice offers much more than a pottage of stew concocted from the ingredients that an unbelieving world has to offer. The Gospel distinguishes; it rounds; it draws bright lines; it brings the sword and division. The Gospel does not flatten, it does not universalize, and it particularizes as it identifies the center of God’s reality in the man, Jesus Christ.

 

 

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Irenaeus Against John MacArthur: What Hath Creatio Ex Nihilo to Do With the Genesis and Exodus of Biblical Interpretation?

I am going to apply the following quote on theological interpretation of scripture (TIS) from Colin Gunton to a popular pastor among many conservative evangelical Christians; i.e. John MacArthur. The reason I am going to apply the following quote to MacArthur is because part of my passion is to take deep school theology and use that to help correct what I consider to be wayward theological method and application as that is distilled, indeed, through people like John MacArthur. We could apply the quote and its content to many other evangelicals in North America and abroad, but MacArthur, because of his ubiquitous presence (at least in the circles I grew up in) works well as a typological character who I think needs correcting. What might seem ironic (or asinine, depending on the person) to some is that I would dare to correct someone like MacArthur; someone who prides himself on being slavishly committed to biblical exegesis in order to establish every jot and tittle of his exposition and sermonic form. In principle I think, at least for us Protestant Reformed, I can certainly get behind the idea that we want to establish all of our doctrine and teaching based upon biblical exegesis. But the problem arises, especially for folks like MacArthur, when one simply presumes upon some sort of prima facie mode of biblical exegesis; as if what counts as Literal-Grammatical-Historical is simply a neutered or generic way of engaging with texts, in particular the biblical text, such that whatever is produced through thorough application of this method will simply be just what the Bible says. This is the mode of MacArthur; he believes that his exegesis comes prior to his theology, but I am countering that he has a prior commitment to a certain theological paradigm that informs his exegesis in ways he can’t seem to imagine (we all have theological premises informing our engagement with Holy Scripture).

Colin Gunton as he is engaging with a Christian doctrine of creation, particularly the notion of creatio ex nihilo (creation out of nothing), and as he has been developing Irenaeus’ theology in this direction, brings theological interpretation of scripture into his discussion. I am just going to quote him at length (as is typical of my blogging style), and then we will draw off of what he has to intone about TIS and how I think we can apply that to MacArthur in particular and to many conservative evangelical pastors in general. Gunton writes:

What, then, is to be understood by a theological interpretation? At the very least we must essay an integration, if not systematisation, of the various biblical witnesses to creation, and not simply Genesis, in the light of the God made known in Jesus Christ and by the Spirit who relates the world to the Father through him. If we accept Irenaeus’ strong contention that the God of Jesus Christ is the one who created in the beginning, we must interpret Genesis in the light of God’s involvement in the material historicity of Jesus of Nazareth. This enables us not to read trinitarian themes directly into the book of Genesis, as if the author were in some way theologising in a consciously trinitarian way, but to understand the forms of divine action there depicted as the acts of the triune God. This is particularly well illustrated if we see that part of the divine engagement with creation in Genesis 1 involves the ministerial use of parts of the created order in the forming of others. When God says ‘Let the earth bring forth’ we have a picture of divine action enabling the sovereign creator intends. As we shall see, this has important implications for the way we shall understand the relation of creation and evolution.

A theology of creation does not in any case limit it biblical basis to Genesis 1, but is concerned with the meaning of the scriptural understanding of creation as a whole. Because Irenaeus’ focus is incarnational he looks at the whole of scripture through what happened in Jesus Christ, and refuses to become preoccupied, as were some of his opponents, with the exchange of ‘proof-texts’. This is not to say that we should hold that the biblical writers were consciously trinitarian thinkers. Clearly, they were not. The doctrine of the Trinity is a doctrinal development dedicated to saying something of who the God is who creates and redeems the world. In its turn and in its light, this enables an interpretation of the Bible’s teaching as a whole. Thus, when Psalm 33:6 says that ‘by the word of the Lord the heavens were made, and all their host by the breath of his mouth’, we may recognise the adumbration of a conception which is later filled out by an understanding of the personal presence of God made explicit by Jesus Christ and the Spirit. As we have seen, the heart of the matter is the concept of mediation which the Bible makes possible, generating as it does its unique doctrine of creation out of nothing.[1]

Does that make sense? Maybe a further illustration might help: Think of what the Evangelist in the Gospel of John did. He “re-interpreted,” or per Irenaeus’ style, he recapitulated the original creation account in Genesis 1.1 by linking his linguistic harmonizing in John 1.1 “In the Beginning God” with his introduction of the Logos or Word to the world. In other words, in light of Jesus Christ what is presented in the Old Testament is re-understood in light of its fulfillment and substantive res (reality) as that is actualized in the Son, Jesus Christ. This is something of a further illustration of what Gunton is after in his linking of biblical interpretation into the context of a doctrine of creation. I.e. without God in Christ there would be no creation, or indeed recreation, wherein all of reality could come to have a Christ conditioned Triune shape and meaning. In other words, particularly as Gunton leaves off with a reference to creatio ex nihilo, what Irenaeus was about, according to Gunton, is basing his interpretation of Holy Scripture within a grandeur context than simply reading off its purported ‘face’ and absolutizing biblical meaning and reality from there. No, what Irenaeus, according to Gunton was about was recognizing that Scripture has a depth dimensional context and reality, and that that only comes as its total canonical orientation is found in and from its ever afresh ever anew referencing beyond itself, beyond its paper and ink, to its flesh and bloodied reality in Jesus Christ and the Triune life co-inhering therein.

Let me try to bring this down a notch (never an easy thing to do): in Irenaeus’ frame, in particular, and in a theological exegetical frame in general, what theological interpretation of scripture entails as a method of biblical interpretation, is the full recognition that scripture itself only has meaning as it constantly is referring itself to its deep reality in Jesus Christ (cf. Jn 5.39). It recognizes that all of reality only has reality as a contingent reality as that is given forth by the Word of God in Jesus Christ. Gunton, through Irenaeus, is showing that at least for the theological interpretation of scripture mode, we must presume upon the reality of who God is as revealed in Jesus Christ in order to cognize any sort of biblical meaning; if in fact we can first recognize that the Bible only has meaning as an instrument mediating something greater than itself to us (something or someOne who has made clear that He alone upholds all things by the word of His power; even Scripture’s meaning as that is found in his Word).

Does John MacArthur fit into this sort of theological interpretation of scripture, or does he operate from somewhere else? The irony is, as we examine his antecedents, when it comes to his hermeneutical method and exegetical practice, is that he operates off of Enlightenment text critical premises that are actually in contest with the sort of Irenaean hermeneutic we have been touching upon in this post. If this is the case (and it is), then how can we accept that MacArthur is actually offering us the Gospel According to Jesus when he is working from hermeneutical premises that themselves are concocted from ideational commitments that are in fact antagonistic to the sort of rich and deep theological pedigree of interpretation that someone like Irenaeus operated from? MacArthur doesn’t self-critically even think from a doctrine of creation and recreation (resurrection) as the basis within which the Bible can find orientation and meaning. MacArthur naively presumes upon a certain method of biblical interpretation that starts with a sort of rationalist common sense notion of reality and language that sees words and meaning abstractly accessible by the powers of human wit and a pressing into linguistic and historical realities without recognizing how reality itself is contingent upon the Word of God. In other words, MacArthur doesn’t make an intentional (Dogmatic) connection between meaning generation and God’s Word as the predicator of all meaning; even Scriptural meaning. He doesn’t allow that primal reality to form his development of a biblical hermeneutic and exegetical practice. As such he falls short in untold manner of ways in his exposition and sermonic deliveries.

 

[1] Colin E. Gunton, The Triune Creator: A Historical And Systematic Study (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1998), Loc 924, 931, 937 kindle.

Interrogating the Metaphor ‘Woke’ and its Social Justice Context vis-à-vis God: Some Reference to Johnny Mac and Oliver O’Donovan

There has been lots of talk lately about being “woke”; mostly in a derisive sense. Johnny Mac&company have been going after the so called social justice warriors; particularly as that has penetrated the halls of places like The Gospel Coalition, and other evangelical hubs (at least according to the MacArthur gurus). Is there a reason to be suspicious about the impact that social justice thinking might be having on the evangelical psyche? Yes, I think so; particularly because of the social component that underwrites the social in the ‘justice.’ So in this sense I might actually have some sort of non-gleeful sentiment towards the Macite concern; but then things quickly slide away as far as critique. I mean being woke is actually a biblical metaphor, and it is important that Christians be awake in regard to the inroads that social constructs have into the shaping of how the Gospel is received and thus presented.

I am of the mind that the Gospel does indeed have capaciousness all its own; as such, I believe it needs to be shown the shrift that Christians ought to give it as their birthright into the Kingdom. In other words, the Gospel has depth, and it has depth, in particular, in the sense that it alone can penetrate the outer wall of stone around the human heart and bring life where there is only death. This is the sort of awakeness Christians should be emphasizing. The Kingdom has its own set of spectacles that open the eyes to an in-breaking reality of freshness and liveliness that the society has no means to construct. If the Gospel is sui generis, if the Gospel has no analogy grounded in the socio-cultural imagination, then we must rely upon the Gospel alone to awaken the Christian mind to the Christian res (reality) who is indeed God enfleshed in the humanity of Jesus Christ.

Oliver O’Dononvan offers some interesting thinking with reference to the metaphor of woke. Let’s read along with him, and then close with some further reflection and comment.

Theology has a further task over and above that of conceptual ordering, which takes it beyond the scope of philosophy. A theological justification for the metaphor of waking will show how it leads moral experience back to its source in God’s purposes. It will account for experience in the light of what is told us of its causes and ends; it will situate it in the narrative of a God who, having made us agents, now redeems and perfects us. Theology has a special interest in the renewing of human agency. It has to tell of conversion, and of how our occasional moments of moral wakefulness may lead into and awakening that will be complete and final; “Awake, sleeper, arise from the dead, and Christ shall shine upon you!” (Eph. 5:14). [1]

And further as O’Donovan gets into the eschatological character of what being ‘awake’ looks like for the Revelator:

These synoptic uses lie behind two calls to wakefulness in the Apocalypse (Rev. 3:2-3; 16:15), both on the lips of the risen Jesus and both referring directly to the parables from the synoptic apocalypse. Here the two parables have been conflated: the thief who will come in the night and the Lord who will return in the night are now one and the same, and are, in fact, Jesus himself, who says, “I will come as a thief!” Also from the synoptic context are the words about not knowing the time. The blending of these synoptic elements gives new force to the metaphor. Ignorance of the moment and thief-like suddenness of the Lord’s return are, for John, not merely the universal conditions within which faithfulness must be exercised; they are God’s judgment on unfaithfulness. It is the unwakeful servant who will encounter the Lord as a thief and who will not know the moment of his coming. A new illustrative feature develops this thought: one who stays awake will have clean clothes ready to meet his master (3:4) and will not be caught in an indecent state (16:15).

And so the command to wake is addressed in the New Testament chiefly to the church, which ought to be able to count, if any agent could, on being awake already. It sets the church in a moment of crisis, put on the spot, by relating the achieved past to the future of Christ’s coming and to the immediate future of attention and action. Wakefulness is anything but a settled state, something we may presume on, as we can usually presume we are awake as we go about our business. It brings us sharply back to the task in hand, the deed to be performed, the life to be lived. Waking is thrust on us. We do not consider it, attempt it and then perhaps achieve it; we are claimed for it, seized by it. That is why it is not just one metaphor among many for moral experience, but stands guard over the birth of renewed moral responsibility.[2]

Being awake is being made alive by the in-breaking reality of the Gospel. As O’Donovan emphasizes, being awake is an eschatological reality calling us back and forward to the reality of God. In this reality we are undone over and again by our own brokenness and then revived again by our new found awakeness in the Gospel. Of all people Christians are not only awake to the reality of God, but ought to thus live as those awoken in Christ over and again; afresh and anew.

The Macites are reacting to the whence of being ‘woke’ as it is a social construct non-derived from the contextual reality of God’s Holy Triune life. In that sense I think Mac and the Macites are onto something. But it is just at their observation that things start to come undone; they have a faulty understanding of God in important ways (we will have to get into those at another time). But insofar as woke is being appealed to by the mainstream of evangelical Christians this needs to be critiqued. Unless a robust account and development of what it means to be woke is appealed to in these circles what will be left is an empty hull of starting premises that received their genesis from anyone else but Theology Proper. In other words, as O’Donovan has alerted us to, to be woke, for the Christian, is indeed a Christian reality. Non-Christians cannot be awake by definition; thus they have nothing to offer a broken defunct world-situation. Non-Christians and the premises of their lives therein, are indeed what has brought about the social maladies wokeness is intended to bring remedy to. If the Gospel is sui generis then outwith the Spirit inhabiting someone’s mind and heart how can anyone claim to be ‘awake?’

What counts as being woke in the profane social constructs cannot actually be woke to anything except the incurved self; the self-possessed self. This is why the Gospel is so important; it is the only reality that can actually wake anyone up, and provide the sort of power and reality that people need to counter the forces of darkness that have plunged the world into the mess it is in. Being awake for the world, for the ‘society’ is something they have no resource to provide; just as the universe itself does not have the self-resource to explain its own origination, likewise, the profane ununited person to Christ has no resource to awaken itself to what is genuinely holy and straight (rather than crooked). The power of God is not a social construct; the power of God is the Gospel. The Gospel has the power to penetrate fallen hearts (Christian or non-Christian — one of O’Donovan’s points), and to bring to rights the wrongs of the world; even as the eschaton continuously breaks in upon the world in the face of Christ (the glory of God) by the Holy Spirit’s paracletic work.

[1] Oliver O’Donovan, Self, World, and Time: Ethics as Theology Volume 1 (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2013), 7.

[2] Ibid., 9.

An Ontology of Scripture and How that Ought to Calm MacArthurite Waters, But it Wont!

In light of some recent run-ins, provoked by my posts on John MacArthur, I’ve unfortunately had to ban two different guys from my blog. The issue underneath the whole loggerheads has to do with Biblical exegesis, and more to the point theological-exegesis (which neither of my interlocutors were keen on admitting is even a reality). As a result of those unfortunate exchanges, I thought I would share a post I posted quite awhile ago at another blog of mine. It gets into dealing with what Scripture actually is to begin with—within God’s economy—and then how once that issue is dealt with what it will ostensibly do towards how we approach Scripture as exegetes and disciples of Jesus Christ.

Something that would go a long way in allowing Christians to dialogue with each other instead of at each other is to come to terms on what Scripture actually is. As an Evangelical Christian (maybe you can relate), I have far too often been party to moments wherein a particular doctrinal topic is under consideration. Both sides, as Evangelical Christians, believe they have Scripture on their side; and thus each side appeals disparately to Scripture as their silver bullet (to win the argument, and substantiate their point). And yet, there is obviously a problem here; since both can provide apparent cogent and coherent intepretations of the same text which apparently favor their doctrinal point—then the question is: how do we adjudicate who is right and who is wrong? But, really, the question needs to step back further; we need to get to the first order issue prior to the second (which is where the debates and arguments and back-and-forths take place). The first order issue is to come to terms with what indeed Scripture is, and where it has its place relative to God and his communication to us through his Son by the Holy Spirit. While discerning this, at the same moment, we should realize that even articulating ‘what’ Scripture is and ‘where’ it is placed relative to God; won’t end all debate (we’ll just end up debating about Scripture’s place). Nevertheless, this will help us to deal with deeper issues instead of secondary issues that at the end of the day have more to do with philosophy of history and literature rather than Jesus Christ. I understand that I am being rather oblique in this post (or vague), but I would like to continue to build on the trajectory that this post sets in the days and months to come. I was prompted to write this post because of John Webster; here’s what I read, and here’s what he wrote in this regard:

With respect to Scripture, for example, lack of clarity about the tasks of biblical interpretation (in which the tug-of-war between “historical” and “theological” interpretation is but one episode) is symptomatic of the absence of shared conceptions of the nature of Scripture and of the tasks which it undertakes in the divine economy. The absence of bibliology, and the widespread assumption that a doctrine of Scripture is exegetically and hermeneutically otiose, cannot be compensated for by further refinement of strategies of interpretation. We need to figure out what the text is in order to figure out what to do with it; and we determine what Scripture is by understanding its role in God’s self-communication to creatures.[1]

The short answer is that Scripture is about Jesus; it is from Jesus, given by Jesus, and takes us beyond itself to its reality in Jesus. This will reframe multiple things, like; 1) Ontology of Scripture, 2) Hermeneutics 3) Biblical Theological Grammar, 4) Usage of Scripture, 5) Christian Spirituality/Doxology, etc.

Without careful attention to an ontology of Scripture (it’s place in the economy of God, and within a theological taxis or ‘order’ of things), all we are left with, particularly as Protestant exegetes is in impassible ditch of pervasive interpreting pluralists when it comes to our exegetical conclusions and our ability to engage in collegial dialogical discourse among ourselves.

[1] John Webster, ATR/90:4, 734-35.

 

“Another Ecumenical Love-Crazed-God Evangelical”: Responding to My Critic Who is in Love with John MacArthur, but Not Me

Critiquing someone, another Christian, particularly someone who has a personality cult behind them never produces the kind of light one would hope for; not usually anyway. My last two posts, obviously, have offered up lineaments towards a critique of John MacArthur. They do not represent full court critiques, or fully developed critiques; instead they presuppose, for one thing, that my readers have been reading me for a long time. If you haven’t been reading me for a long time then you’d be unaware of my history with the Pyromaniacs, and critique of the MacArthurite donkeywork“theology” that they put forward (they are mostly retired now as bloggers). The newer reader would also be unaware of the countless hours I have spent offering critique, particularly historical theological and constructive theological critique of the theology and metaphysics that funds John MacArthur’s style of 5 Point Calvinist soteriology and his exegetical conclusions.

Like I just noted, offering critique of someone like John MacArthur really never produces any type of good fruit. What posting like this typically does is attract folks who are die-hard defenders say of someone like John MacArthur, and in their responses they will typically attempt to besmirch anything you have written that is contrary to how they think of someone like John MacArthur. Just as I could have predicted I’ve had one such type of respondent. He didn’t use his real name (which I really don’t like), but went by the handle Edingess (maybe his name is Ed Ingess). He charged me as a slanderer of John MacArthur&co., unscholarly, disingenuous, and a host of other things. He wants me to write him an essay critique of John MacArthur and to critically prove all of my claims directed toward MacArthur et al. (as if I haven’t already done all that work over the years here at the blog and my other blogs over the years — since 2005). I ended up banning Edingess from my blog, because his comments were of a badgering nature, and did not represent the kind of responses I deem acceptable here at my blog. Here’s one of his last comments to me; this comment is responding to some prior exchange we were already having:

I never asked you to write an exegetical paper of Gal. 1:6-8. I assumed you had done so. You are just as sectarian as MacArthur unless you are a complete syncretist which is logically impossible because even syncretism excludes those who are opposed to it. If your definition of sectarianism is to exclude false teachers from the church and false churches from the Church, then you will have to show why you have found a better way. You strike me as just another ecumenical love-crazed-God evangelical at this point. What I wanted to see was a post you had done on Gal. 1:6-8 so that I could evaluate your methodology. I am not sure if your typical reader knows much about exegesis and I know an awful lot of bloggers tossing that term around a lot these days but rarely do I ever see it practiced with skill. And the comments you are making are certainly leading me to question whether or not you are as skilled as your credentials would imply. That is why I am looking for a sample. I have heard Phil Johnson on Gal. 1:6-8 and many other topics as well. I am well-trained in biblical exegesis. I can say there is NOTHING wrong with how Phil or John handle that text. If you disagree, you need to show your readers why and provide a clear demonstration. My guess is there will be a lot more personal philosophy mixed in with your exegesis but I am willing to give you the benefit of the doubt. Prove me wrong. What I am accusing you of is slander and being unfair and unkind and unloving in your criticism of these men, not to mention, unscholarly.

Let me respond point by point to Edingess’s claims, and charges.

His charge of syncretism is very unusual. My primary critique of MacArthur et al. in both of my posts is that he and they do not make a critical distinction between the prefabricated theology they bring to the Text, and the exegetical conclusions they come to as a result of that. In other words, the issue isn’t “syncretism,” the issue is a kind of sleight-of-hand by MacArthur et al. in regard to not informing their people that they are using an interpretive tradition (i.e. classical Calvinism) to come to their exegetical conclusions (this is not just a problem that MacArthur et al. has, it is quite pervasive, particularly among evangelical and some Reformed scholarship wherein informing theological conclusions are simply read into the text as if those conclusions represent the true and orthodox faith without question). The consequence of not doing this, is that when someone like me comes along, people like Edingess become perturbed because they seem to think that MacArthur et al. are just engaging in sound exegetical practice. But that’s petitio principii, or question begging. Edingess actually illustrates the problem by his emotional attachment to MacArthur and the belief that MacArthur is just teaching the plain and simple Gospel truth.

My definition of sectarianism is simply that when one tradition, or another, adopts the attitude that their ecclesial location and interpretations are at a level of orthodoxy over against every other tradition or denomination in the church catholic, which then leads them to ostracize every other tradition or denomination. In other words, sectarianism is when a denomination, tradition, or even an individual comes to believe that they alone have the corner on orthodox Christian Gospel reality, and nobody else does.

Edingess wants me to show how I have found a better way. Edingess, you have a couple options: 1) You can spend the time necessary perusing my blog in order to familiarize yourself with how I think I have found a better ‘way’, or you can read our Evangelical Calvinism: Essays Resourcing the Continuing Reformation of the Church and then our forthcoming Vol.2 Evangelical Calvinism: Dogmatics&Devotion. I have put in the time and work necessary to express how I think I have found a more viable way in regard to approaching the Gospel revealed in God in Jesus Christ; I am not going to do extra work for someone just because they are Johnny-Come-Lately.

Edingess wrote: “You strike me as just another ecumenical love-crazed-God evangelical at this point.” I will take most of that as a compliment; but since I know Edingess used that in a pejorative sense, let me respond. Yes, I actually do believe in a love-God (call me crazy!), and happen to be quite ‘ecumenical’ in the best sense of that word; let me explain. I am “ecumenical” in the sense that the creeds (i.e. Niceno-Constantinopolitano) are ecumenical in regard to their catholic and orthodox reach. I am also “ecumenical” because the implications of the Incarnation itself require that. Jesus Christ assumed humanity, all of it, in himself; as such, there is an inclusivity in the asumptio carnis, precisely because of its particularity, which for my money, requires a view not only towards the church, but towards all of humanity, that sees all of humanity as dearly beloved by God in Jesus Christ. So yes, I am “ecumenical.”

My credentials? I have two earned degrees in Biblical Studies and Theology, one at the graduate level. I have written and defended an exegetically based Master’s thesis on I Corinthians 1, and have published two academic theological books on the issues pertaining to the very issue under consideration: i.e. Calvinism. I have spent the last fifteen years, in particular, focused on historical theology, constructive theology, with a particular intensity orbiting around the issues of Reformed theology in its development in the history of ideas and intellectual heritage of the church. If I must speak like a fool, then so be it.

You are well trained in biblical exegesis? Well why didn’t you say so, Edingless? I suppose you want me to take your magisterial endorsement of MacArthur just as you want me take you as an authority on what constitutes sound biblical exegesis or not. Petitio principii.

I have shown my readers why I disagree, and have done so by engaging with the most up to date research on the development of Reformed theology and soteriology. Just because you haven’t read what I have written on the topic doesn’t mean I haven’t demonstrated it; it just means you haven’t exposed yourself to it yet. What are you waiting for?!

Your accusations are baseless and presumptuous. Like I noted, I have already spent years and years providing the demonstration you assert I need to provide. And you say I am slandering these guys in unfounded ways. It’s not slander when the critique is not at the man, but instead at the ideas that the man is putting forward. It is time for you to put in the donkey work, put your money where your mouth is, and get busy reading how I have made the demonstrations you say I still need to make.

John MacArthur’s and The Shepherd’s Conference’s Ironic De-elevation of the Bible: When the Bible Becomes Bigger than God

biblebiggerthangod

Credit, David Hayward

Since the Shepherd’s Conference Summit 2017 at John MacArthur’s church just ended I thought I would continue to take this opportunity to highlight something about the type of biblicism that characterizes what we find present there. It is ironic, really, because the staff pastors at Grace Community Church I have had interaction with (some very recently) would make you think that anything but a simple and pure approach to the Bible is nothing else but idolatry. Yet if you listen to many of the speakers they have at their conference it quickly becomes evident that they are not being consistent in their stated or presumed approach. I think the real issue is that they have so uncritically received a particularly styled form of Reformed theology, in highly baptistic and rationalistic form, that they can make no distinction between that and what the Bible may or may not be saying.

In light of this continued inability to make a critical distinction between their interpretive tradition and what the Bible might or might not say itself, I thought I would commend to them the way John Calvin approached this issue. Here Angus Paddison explicates for us how Calvin approached the relationship of the Bible with interpretive tradition:

Calvin himself, to alight upon a theologian firmly associated with a sola Scripturaapproach, was keenly aware that theology always needed to deploy extra-canonical words and resources. That we use words and concepts not found in Scripture itself – in a bid to help us understand this same text – is not a sign that we have departed from the fabric of Scripture. Writing against his opponents Calvin writes if

they call a foreign word one that cannot be shown to stand written syllable by syllable in Scripture, they are indeed imposing upon us an unjust law which condemns all interpretation not patched together out of the fabric of Scripture … [i]f anyone, then, finds fault with the novelty of words [Calvin is talking of such words as ‘Trinity’ and ‘Persons’] does he not deserve to be judged as bearing the light of truth unworthily, since he is finding fault with what renders the truth plain and clear.

When Calvin’s counsel is not heeded, sola Scriptura often mutates into biblical scholarship alone. Understanding the Bible in this way of thinking is wholly defined by reference to its (often putative) context of production. It is as if we are reading a text that has had no impact, a text without any subsequent readers. Writing more than 50 years ago G.E. Wright’s diagnosis (not espousal) of this mindset common among ‘biblical Christians’ drawn to biblical scholarship is still remarkably apposite:

When one has the Bible, what need is there for subtleties and sophistries of theology? In evangelical Christianity, the Bible is typically read with scant regard for the ling and intricate dialogue with the Bible that is the history of Christian theology. Many (most?) Protestant Biblical scholars are attracted to the field in the first place by an evangelical piety of this kind, and – whatever else is abandoned under the notoriously destructive impact of the so-called “historical critical method” – the abstraction of the biblical texts from their theological Wirkungsgeschichte is tenaciously maintained.

Such endeavors help identify historical-criticism, the engine of much biblical scholarship, as the modern attempt to “start over” in a manner that left behind the gifts of the past’. Accordingly, historical criticism is notoriously restricted in what history is interested in. Fundamentalism and historical criticism both presume that the church and the church’s teaching is an obstacle, not an aid, to reading Scripture well.[1]

It is very unfortunate that John MacArthur et al. continue to forge forward with this idea that they alone have somehow cornered what the Bible is actually saying versus the rest of the Christian world, so to speak. They ought to follow the advice of John Calvin, and at least admit with more humility that they like every other Christian ought to approach the Word of God with trembling. That’s the irony of this, MacArthur et al. in their singular pursuit of elevating Holy Scripture have really only marginalized it by their belief that they alone have conquered it through methodological exegesis and exposition; as if the language and words themselves are ends in themselves, they are not.

 

[1] Angus Paddison, Scripture a very Theological Proposal (London/New York: T&T Clark International, 2009).

The Gospel According to John MacArthur at The Shepherd’s Conference Summit 2017

When I first started blogging in 2005 one of the first blogs I ran across was, at that point, Phil Johnson’s blog: Pyromaniac. Later, in 2006, Phil Johnson expanded his efforts and turned his blog into a team blog, renamed: Pyromaniacs. This new and improved team blog was staffed by, of course, Phil, but also with his primary compadres: Frank Turk and Dan Phillips. They doubled down on their efforts and produced a blog tour-de-force. If you don’t know, Phil is Executive Director of Grace To You Ministries, and primary editor of all of John MacArthur’s books and publications; johnny-mache is also a staff pastor at MacArthur’s church Grace Community Church in Sun Valley, CA (Los Angeles County).

I was a recent graduate of Seminary, and Bible College not too long before that. My background is North American evangelical on the “conservative” side of that spectrum; and my formal training and education was steeped in that tradition. But the thing is, for me, I was never a 5 point Calvinist, and in fact I was quite antagonistic towards 5 point Calvinism; particularly of the MacArthurite kind. You see, I also grew up in Southern California (Long Beach, CA), and while MacArthur’s reach is international, the intensity of his reach in Southern California is very deep. I knew people who sat under MacArthur (at his church), or I knew of churches that were impacted by MacArthur’s teaching in heavy ways. More close to home, our home church, for awhile, was split (in 2004) by a Master’s Seminary graduate who we think intentionally came to split our Conservative Baptist church with the “truth” he had recently received from sitting under MacArthur’s teaching and his proxy professors at his seminary. Like I said, I was a recent graduate of seminary, and I found the theoblogosphere. My training, particularly in seminary, had me steeped in historical theology (and NT studies), and so I understood the history of ideas and the church history that funded the theology that MacArthur was pushing; even if he was pushing it in a watered down way.[1]

All of this made me rife for an encounter with these guys, and it ended up happening over and over again; they didn’t like me. I challenged them, primarily on their inability to admit that they read the Bible through interpretive tradition; like we all do! I informed them of what that tradition was, and where many of its themes came from, from within the development of Post Reformed Orthodox theology. They didn’t like that, and would never admit to any of that; that’s because they believe that they approach Scripture on Scripture’s terms alone; that they simply follow what the Bible teaches at the most basest of levels. This type of encounter went on with them for years and years; if you don’t believe me go peruse their comment metas from years past on various posts and you’ll see our exchanges and how they went down.

I supply all of this background information simply to note something that has not changed, not at all. If you’re unaware, MacArthur’s church puts on what they call The Shepherd’s Conference Summit annually; this year’s just kicked off today. It is a conference for pastors of churches from all around the country intended to provide a type of retreat and edification for these pastors; and I would say more negatively, intended to keep many of these pastors indoctrinated with the mood and teaching of John MacArthur. The conference is made up of plenary sessions, break-out sessions, so on and so forth.

Today, guess who?, but Phil Johnson spoke at one of the plenary sessions, he was assigned Galatians 1:6–7, titled No Other Gospel: The True Gospel of Christ. This is right in the wheelhouse of Johnson; he loves this type of passage.[2] I actually listened to his whole talk (in front of 4,500 pastors/men), but I didn’t really have to. You see, Johnson, on his blog, and his cohorts, on their team blog, bandied this passage about as if it was their life proof-text.[3] Basically, the way Johnson&co. use passages like this, particularly Galatians, is justification for being sectarian and calling everyone else out for not actually teaching The Gospel According to Jesus. Remember earlier I noted that they believe they have a singular and simple hold on the genuine teaching of Holy Scripture; that they have the genuine approach and mood that should be associated with presenting the Gospel? Well, to no surprise of mine, Phil stuck to the usual marching orders and called out everyone under the sun—i.e. if they don’t follow the Gospel according to MacArthur&co.—for not necessarily teaching and proclaiming the genuine Gospel of Jesus Christ. He called out the hipsters, the academics, the progressives, corporate styled evangelicalism, etc., and asserted, essentially, no one but he and his styled cohorts actually teach the Gospel; in fact he said anyone who does not teach the Gospel the way he does, and MacArthur&co. does, be damned! In other words, he took the mantle of the Apostle Paul in Galatians 1 and anathematized every other Christian in the church catholic who does not comport and conform to the 5-point Calvinist Gospel (in idiosyncratic MacArthurite drag) as proclaimed and articulated by the magisterium in Sun Valley, CA. Phil and his cohorts have used passages like we find in Galatians as justification for being sectarian bullies in attitude and act towards fellow believers world-wide for a very long time.

I wanted to note this, not because I haven’t over and over before, but because I haven’t for a long time. You would hope that after some time there might be some sort of enlightenment for folks like MacArthur and Johnson et al., but the reality is there hasn’t been (and me saying this would prove to them that I ought to be damned). They are slavishly and egotistically committed to their idiosyncratic form of Christianity, and they will go down swinging and bludgeoning as many people as possible as they live their ecclesial lives at Grace Community Church. They are intent on indoctrinating as many pastors as they can to ensure this process and self-styled Christianity continues on long after MacArthur moves on; that’s what the Shepherd’s Conference represents to me.

With all of the above said, am I saying that we should not be critical theological thinkers? No, just the opposite! We need to admit that we are all theological, that we all approach Scripture through interpretive tradition, and constantly be willing to test and re-test our exegesis and theological conclusions as we encounter the reality of Scripture, the living Word of God in Christ. This is precisely what you will NOT find in the mood and attitude at any and all of MacArthur’s venues of influence; and unfortunately this Gospel of Sectarianism is being spread far and wide through MacArthur’s reach and exposure. I realize some think it’s minimal, but it really isn’t. The fact that MacArthur has 4,500 pastors at a conference, from all over the country and world should demonstrate otherwise; that’s not to mention the viewing audience online. His impact is actually quite ubiquitous.

Since I believe what MacArthur et al. is communicating is ultimately damaging, I will continue to stand against it, as I can. Not in the ways I used to, but here and there I will post blog posts like this one, just to remind people of who MacArthur&co. are, and to challenge their theological foundations at the core.

 

[1] In other words, MacArthur pushes his “Lordship Salvation,” which is really nothing other than a baptistic styled 5-point Calvinism. His approach, really, is rather idiosyncratic, since he is also a hardcore classical pre-trib dispensationalist. So his approach isn’t even really rooted in the historic confessional Baptist tradition. Nonetheless, he pushes 5-point Calvinism and classical Reformed theology-lite towards his parishioners. Culturally, MacArthur is just a step above, maybe, Independent Baptists; in other words, the culture he has created through his church, seminary, college, and teachings is legalistic and a performance focused Christianity, with a commitment to a nuda Scriptura or solo Scriptura focus on Scripture; versus actual and historical sola Scriptura.

[2] His pastor after all did write a book entitled The Gospel According to Jesus.

[3] Which makes me wonder if Phil was really “assigned” this passage, as he made it sound (like it was random).

The Gospel According to a Works-Righteousness Jesus: A Common Thread Between Puritan Precisianism and Lordship Salvation

Here is a post I probably wrote around ten years ago, way before I was ever the evangelical Calvinist, or had read Barth or Torrance et al. These were the types of posts that represented my way into blogging, and what I was attempting to address, theologically, for the church online. I used to joust all the time with the Pyromaniacs, a team blog started by executive manager of Grace To You, and editor for all of John MacArthur’s books and writings, Phil Johnson. Needless to say they didn’t really like me that much, and a post like what I am going to share here is why. Just yesterday I came into contact with one of their tribe, someone I knew from years ago, someone who had gone through The Master’s Seminary system, and then went on to get his PhD from Dallas johnny-macTheological Seminary. He reminded me that they are the same people, and their theology is just as legalistic and ruinous as ever! Indeed, this interlocutor of mine, now a missionary in the Czech Republic just a few days ago actually had Paul Washer out to teach his people at a Bible conference they held; this should tell you something about what we are dealing with. Anyway because of that I am reposting this now ten year old post just to once again highlight how dangerous their theology actually is.

One other aspect that makes it all so dangerous is that they are literally unable to critically come to the text of Scripture and make a distinction between the theology they are bringing to the text and the text itself. The result is that if you disagree with them you aren’t disagreeing, in a critical way, with their theology, but instead with the pure unadulterated Bible teaching and Gospel itself. This is why the last words (before he blocked me on FaceBook) my interlocutor said to me were: “Bobby … I only hope your infatuation with the academy will one day be replaced by a love and devotion to God’s Word.” He presumes that because I want to think critically theologically, and Christian Dogmatically, that this means I am in love with the academy and despise the reality of the Word of God. This is the type of rubbish conclusion the MacArthur and that way in general leads to. Anyway, here is that post (I might, every now and then try to write more posts about the historical background that lays behind the legalism that you will find in the theologies of folks like MacArthur, Washer, et al. in our current day).

Below I am going to provide two quotes, the first will be from Theodore Dwight Bozeman discussing the emergence and factors that shaped the thinking of the yet to come English Puritans; and the second will be from John MacArthur, and his discussion on the role that changed behavior and moral values have in a genuinely “saved life.” What I am highlighting, and want you all to see, is the striking correlation of thought and practice that both camps share, relative to emphasizing the importance of outward moral behavior in the “elects” life. Here is Theodore Bozeman discussing the early factors that led to English Puritanism:

English penitential teaching expressly echoed and bolstered moral priorities. In contrast, again, to Luther, whose penitential teaching stressed the rueful sinner’s attainment of peace through acknowledgment of fault and trust in unconditional pardon, several of the English included a moment of moral renewal. In harmony with Reformed tendencies on the Continent and in unmistakable continuity with historic Catholic doctrine that tied “contrition, by definition, to the intention to amend,” they required an actual change in penitent. For them, a renewal of moral resolve was integral to the penitential experience, and a few included the manifest alteration of behavior. They agreed that moral will or effort cannot merit forgiveness, yet rang variations on the theme that repentance is “an inward . . . sorrow . . . whereunto is also added a . . . desire . . . to frame our life in all points according to the holy will of God expressed in the divine scriptures.” However qualified by reference to the divine initiative and by denial of efficacy to human works, such teaching underscored moral responsibility; it also adumbrated Puritan penitential and preparationist teaching of later decades.[1]

It is important to keep in mind that Bozeman is not even discussing actual English Puritanism yet, rather he is highlighting the streams and emphases, present within England just prior to the full-fledged emergence of Puritanism, that actually brought shape and form to the disciplinary “religion” known as Puritanism. Notice the correlation he makes between this kind of Protestantism with Roman Catholic spirituality.

Conversely, John MacArthur sounds very much like this incipient Puritanism described above by Bozeman. You will notice this similarity as MacArthur, like these early penitentialists, emphasizes the function and necessity of moral reformation in the life of the “truly saved” individual; notice:

. . . They’ve been told [Christians in the typical evangelical church in the West] that the only criterion for salvation is knowing and believing some basic facts about Christ. They hear from the beginning that obedience is optional. It follows logically, then, that a person’s one-time profession of faith is more valid than the ongoing testimony of his life-style in determining whether to embrace him as a true-believer. The character of the visible church reveals the detestable consequence of this theology. As a pastor I have rebaptized countless people who once “made a decision,” were baptized, yet experienced no change. They came later to true conversion and sought baptism again as an expression of genuine salvation.[2]

Striking is it not? Both English Penitentialism (early and full blossomed English Puritanism), and MacArthur’s approach are intended to curb moral laxity, by emphasizing the moral conduct and “performance” of the truly “saved.” As MacArthur underscores, as a good follower of the “English Puritan” (and for that matter Roman Catholic) ethic and spirituality, genuine salvation is only noticeable and discernible via an “. . . an ongoing testimony of his life-style.” Bozeman speaking of the moral laxity within England (in the 16th century and onward) notes how this affected the “Reforming spirit” of that locale, he says: “. . . There the Reformation emerged in a period of deeply felt concern about social order. . . . (Bozeman, 13) This motivation similarly, and unabashedly, motivates MacArthur’s emphasis on performance, duty, and obedience, as he states: “. . . Why should we assume that people who live in an unbroken pattern of adultery, fornication, homosexuality, deceit, and every conceivable kind of flagrant excess are truly born again? . . .” (MacArthur, 16-17) In other words, the remedy for both camps (i.e. between the 16th and 17th cent. and 20th and 21st cent.) is to hang people over hell in order to foster an supposed environment of holiness and moral uprightness, this is by way of EMPHASIS. Both of these camps spoke and speak of solifidian (faith alone), but this is not enough, external moral transformation needs to accompany “faith alone,” otherwise there was never any faith to begin with (i.e. later on we will discuss how this thought came to be tied to concepts like “preparationism” and “temporary faith”).

 

[1] [italics mine] Theodore Dwight Bozeman, The Precisianist Strain,  20-21.

[2] [brackets mine] John MacArthur, The Gospel According to Jesus,  17.

 

A Response to John MacArthur’s and Mike Riccardi’s Outlandish Misreading of Karl Barth’s Theology

Ultimately what John MacArthur thinks about Karl Barth is of no consequence, relative to reality. The problem though is that MacArthur, et al. in the evangelical and Reformed world has a huge impact as he speaks into the lives of his barthmacarthurparishioners and all those who hear him on radio and on the web. Just in the last couple of days I had a scrum (a brief one) with one of John MacArthur’s protégées, Mike Riccardi.Riccardi is a young guy who has a couple of degrees from The Master’s Seminary, and is on pastoral staff at Grace Community Church. I’ve known Riccardi through blogging for years, and was also “friends” with him on Facebook. The scrum he and I had got me interested in seeing if I could find out if MacArthur had ever said anything about Barth from the pulpit; and he has. I found a Q&A he did on April 18th, 2010 at his church. During that Q&A someone asked him about Karl Barth. His response was of course in line with the gist of what Ricarrdi shared on his wall at Facebook, and gets reflected in all those who sit under the teaching of MacArthur, Riccardi, et al; this was made clear in the comment thread under Ricarrdi’s post. Here is how MacArthur responded to the question about Barth:

Now the view of Karl Barth, and Karl Barth is a German and they keep resurrecting Him. If he would just stay dead, we wouldn’t have to deal with this stuff. But liberal theologians love to raise these dead Germans and make them issues. Karl Barth basically denied Scripture truth. He denied the historicity of Scripture, not just Genesis 1 to 11 but the whole thing. He said, “Redemptive history happened but it didn’t happen in history…the German…it happened in Heiliachikdalickta [sic], it happened in elevated super-duper history. He had a kind of category, a mystical category in which redemptive history occurred. So if you say to Karl, “Do you believe in Genesis?” Yes. “Did it happen in history?” No. “Do you believe in the resurrection?” Yes. “Did it happen in history?” No. “Do you believe in the miracles of Jesus? Did they happen in history?” Well they happened in holy history. And it’s a…it’s a…it’s a split world in which he lives. But he…he did the same thing to Genesis that he does with everything. And this is…it has a name, it’s called neo-orthodoxy. And the reason they called Karl Barth a neo-orthodox was the whole world of German theology was liberal. They were all liberal, back in the nineteenth century, they were all liberal and Karl Barth said, “This is not good, you’ve thrown all the miracles out, you’ve thrown everything supernatural out of the Bible. You’ve emptied the Bible of all of this. That’s not good, we’ve got to put it back. Well let’s put it all back.”

Only he couldn’t get it all the way in to history, he just put it back in holy history. So he was called a neo-orthodox cause it was a new kind of orthodoxy that allowed for all of this but not in history, but in the Heiokiachikdalickta, whatever that is…holy history.

So, Karl Barth’s approach to Genesis was the same as his approach to the resurrection. It’s always the same with him. It is not orthodoxy. It is not orthodoxy. It is called neo-orthodoxy, it is liberalism in another dress. And, of course, he would…he would call Genesis 1 to 11 nothing more than sort of spiritual saga, spiritual narrative, spiritual poetry.[1]

Response

Was Karl Barth a German? Come on MacArthur, he was Swiss. Right from the get go we can see that MacArthur’s knowledge of who Barth actually was is suspect. This inaccuracy about Barth’s nationality carries through into MacArthur’s response relative to the entailments of Barth’s theology.

I wrote a post[2] not too long ago that addresses directly MacArthur’s misconstrual of Barth’s approach to history, and in particular how Barth related historical (“calendar” or linear) history to God’s providential inbreaking into that in the events of salvation history (i.e. those recorded in the biblical text). Here’s what I wrote; it silences MacArthur’s critique to the point that MacArthur ought to repent of what he wrongly said of Barth:

I just finished an essay (chapter) by George Hunsinger on Karl Barth’s kind of ‘post-critical’ approach to biblical interpretation. The essay itself is awesome, if in fact you are interested in Barth’s approach to such things. In one of the footnotes Hunsinger describes Barth’s usage of what Barth called Saga as a designation that Barth used in his second naïveté approach to biblical criticism/interpretation (we will have to get into what that means later i.e. second naïveté). What is interesting about Barth is that he did not shy away from the findings of the higher critics of Scripture of his day, but he instead said to them (in my paraphrase): “okay, so now what?” Barth was of the belief that Revelation, attested to in the witness of Holy Scripture, was not something that historical reconstruction or critics ultimately had access to; in other words the critics could only go so far, they could only go so far when attempting to capture revelational phenomenon through naturalistic critera/categories. It is within this reality that Barth used his genre of saga to engage with the theological/revelational reality attested to all throughout the pages of Holy Scripture. Here is what Hunsinger writes:

“Saga” or legend was a term Barth used over against “myth” and “history.” “Myths” were stories that embodied timeless truths, while “history” in the historicist sense excluded God on principle from its accounts. “Sagas” or legends, by contrast, were stories about actual, unrepeatable events in which God could depicted (whether directly or indirectly) as the central acting subject. On the human side, sagas involved elements of theologically informed intuitions (Vorstellungen) as well as imaginative or poetic depictions (Darstellungen) of events that were in some sense beyond ordinary depiction. Although grounded in actual occurrences, sagas were not primarily reports, but witnesses to divine revelation. Barth used the term “saga,” for lack of a better term, in order to bring out the special literary genre of biblical stories about the world’s creation, the Virgin Birth, Christ’s resurrection, and other such ineffable occurrences. It represented a kind of critical realism that was unacceptable to historicists for its audacity and to literalists for its reticence.[3]

Access to the revelation (events) in biblical history, for Barth then, would be grounded in faith (analogia fidei); not because these events are not real or actual but because they are acts that supranaturally go beyond what counts as natural in and through our perceived and observable experiences, in other words, they are acts of God. These acts of God or ‘miracles’ also have a key function in Barth’s theology of revelation. As we just left off with (in the Hunsinger quote), Barth placed ‘miracles’, i.e. the ‘world’s creation,’ the ‘Virgin Birth,’ ‘Christ’s resurrection,’ etc., into his genre of saga. Barth’s understanding of miracles is this,

the special new direct act of God in time and in history. In the form in which it acquires temporal historical actuality, biblically attested revelation is always a miracle, and therefore the witness to it, whether direct or indirect in its course, is a narrative of miracles that happened. Miracle is thus an attribute of revelation.[4]

We can see how saga and miracle functioned within Barth’s conception of revelation. Saga was the genre of revelation (in the Bible’s narrative unfolding), and miracle was a predicate of the revelation itself attested to by the witness deposited within Holy Scripture.

What we have in Karl Barth is an evangelical (in the German sense of that word) who worked through the findings of Modern biblical criticism. He found a constructive way to acknowledge it (criticism), and then in his next step, in stride to move beyond it in such a way that Gerhard von Rad could say of Barth on the occasion of his death (Barth’s) in 1968: “What a miracle that one should appear among us who did nothing else than to take God at his Word.”[5]

I can only aspire to be an evangelical like Barth. Unlike the evangelicalism that I have grown up in in North America, Barth was able to approach the text fully acknowledging the value of higher criticism, while at the same time moving beyond it to the theological reality of the text through his second naïveté (approach); i.e. basically what we were engaging within our discussion of ‘saga’ and ‘miracle.’ North American evangelical biblical scholarship, again unlike Barth, instead of being able to move beyond higher criticism has become mired down, ironically in the weeds of higher criticism in their apologetic mode of attempting to thwart higher criticism through their attempt to out ‘critic’ the higher critics on the higher critic’s terms. In the process, evangelicals never really have the capacity (within the discipline of biblical studies) to engage with the text theologically and thus on its own terms. So I would rather be like Barth, in principle, as I approach the Bible.

MacArthur completely misrepresents Barth’s understanding of history, and he does so as a parrot of Cornelius Van Til; i.e. the critique that MacArthur makes of Barth’s doctrine of Scripture, theory of Revelation, and theory of History (Historie/Geschichte) is a bad rendition of Van Til’s misreading of Barth.

For further treatment of this issue, and misreading of Barth see Darren Sumner’s article Revelation and History: Cornelius Van Til’s Critique of Karl Barth where he dismantles Van Til’s reading of Barth (on this particular issue[s]), and thus undercuts MacArthur’s caricature of Barth.

Conclusion

John MacArthur and Mike Ricarrdi have demonstrated that they aren’t competent to comment on Barth; so they shouldn’t! If they want to then they need to put in the time to do that in a Christian and honorable manner. Even if they disagree with him they need to do their best to accurately represent his theology, especially to the people they have sway with in their church and beyond.

 

[1] John MacArthur, Transcript (April 18th, 2010). YouTube video where he offers this response (start at 58 minutes).

[2] Original Post

[3] George Hunsinger, Evangelical Catholic And Reformed: Doctrinal Essays on Barth and Related Themes (Grand Rapids, Michigan/Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2015), 125 fn. 27 kindle.

[4] Karl Barth, CD I/2, 63-4 cited by George Hunsinger in, Evangelical Catholic And Reformed, 125 fn. 16 kindle.

[5] Gerhard von Rad quoted by Smend in, Karl Barth als Ausleger, 216 cited by George Hunsinger, Evangelical Catholic And Reformed, 125 fn. 20 kindle.

Thoughts on ‘Strange Fire’: The God of Law & Grinch

I was just thinking, is all the hoopla surrounding John MacArthur’s Strange Fire conference much to do grinchabout the formal, material, or both? I think it is probably both, since MacArthur & co. have engaged what can really only be noted as a sweeping generalization in regard to the charismatic movement; indeed also engaging in what can only be labeled as the argument of the beard, failing to make distinctions upon a continuum of belief—the continuum known as charismatic. They have made some legitimate critiques of what is called Word of Faith theology, but then unfortunately  have sloppily conflated WoF with the broader movement known as charismatic. But beyond some of these more material shortcomings—and to be clear, I would not be considered a charismatic Christian by most, and I am not really a continuationist either, but I am not cessationist; so you can try to figure me out on this at a later date—I would like to focus on what I see more of a formal problem which, indeed, implicates some of MacArthur’s & co.’s material conclusions. So to this we turn.

As I just mentioned above, I think that the theology, and more pointedly, the prolegomena or theological methodology that underwrites MacArthur’s & co.’s hermeneutic and subsequent exegetical conclusions springs from a view of God that allows him, indeed, requires him to bash other Christians over the head in general. My concern with MacArthur, over the years, has been more to do with issues surrounding who he thinks God is, and thus, subsequently, what he thinks salvation is (i.e. his book The Gospel According To Jesus). The problem with providing a critique of John MacArthur is actually pretty parallel with trying to provide critique of Calvary Chapel theology (which I attend a Calvary Chapel—and not all Calvary Chapel’s are equal, but in general, Calvary Chapel’s eschew anything to do with formal theological thinking and categories, which leads to and from an uncritical engagement with formal theological categories unbeknownst to most of its leadership—I digress, in good bloggy style!); John MacArthur and buddies represent, in fact, not in principle, an extreme form of what has been called solo scriptura (scripture all by itself, in contrast to the more common Protestant sola scriptura). Which means, that trying to get behind the Bible, and trying to access what is informing MacArthur’s hermeneutic and theological commitments becomes a very tenuous, indeed, “anathemaous” endeavor. But being someone who rarely shies away from being considered anathema by the Fundamentalist Evangelicals (MacArthur & co.), I will try to make a couple inferences about MacArthur’s & co.’s informing theology by reflecting upon the fruit (MacArthur is big on fruit inspecting, just check his The Gospel According To Jesus); and so I will employ MacArthur’s own mode back at him and his kind of pathos (not really his exegetical conclusions).

1.) MacArthur & co. claim that all they were really doing with the Strange Fire conference was applying some ‘tough love’ on wayward brethren (and non-brethren); and so to speak the truth, is synonymous with speaking love for them.

a. If they were really interested in speaking the truth in love and as love, they would not have constructed a conference based upon non-starting premises as I have noted previously. They would have thought up a conference that would have engaged in collegial dialogue; they would have had invited the best and the brightest that charismatic scholarship and pastorship has to offer to a collegial and open forum discussion; and they would have, before even taking this step, been attempting, in good faith, to have ongoing dialogue with these same kinds of charismatic behind closed doors.

b. If they were really interested in administering tough Christian love, they would presume that the people they were exhorting were Christians; but they, by and large, did not do this. MacArthur & co. presumed that charismatic theology, of necessity, produces unbelievers. But if MacArthur & co. believe this, then why would they exhort non-Christians to act Christianly? This makes no sense.

Conclusion: The conference itself was ill-conceived, because it was based on ill-faith and fallacious premises; and it sought to address who they, by and large, labeled as non-Christians to begin with. If they were really interested in being loving they would have simply proclaimed the gospel to charismatics, and called them into a saving relationship with Jesus Christ. And further, they would not have conflated Word of Faith theology, in particular, with Charismatic theology in general; this is just sloppy and thus not to be taken seriously.

2.) The more important inference that I have drawn, is that MacArthur’s and co.’s view of God is not that God is someone who loves everyone, but that he only loves people, in a special saving way, who agree with MacArthur’s & co.’s interpretation of the God disclosed in Scripture. And for MacArthur & co. the God that he and they claim to find in scripture relates to people in rather cold, harsh, ungracious, and law-like fashion; the God, that MacArthur & co. think from is not a God for us, but MacArthur’s God is against us until his God gets appeased through properly dotting all of our iotas and crossing our taus.  And so grace cannot be shown to those who are non-elect, and we know the charismatics, by and large, are non-elect because they bark like dogs and meow like cats.

General Conclusion: MacArthur’s & co.’s God is not Love & Grace; MacArthur’s & co.’s God is Law & Grinch. And if we are created in the image of God—as MacArthur & co. would affirm—then it is only natural to take an Law & Grinch approach towards those we consider infidel.

So the moral of the story is: Whichever view of God you take (whether that be the Love & Grace one, or the Law & Grinch one) will end up getting reflected in your spirituality and daily practice; and in the way you treat others within the body of Christ.

caveat: Yes, I can agree that Word of Faith theology is outside the bounds of historic orthodox Christian teaching; but it is wrong to sloppily conflate this with charismatic theology in general. And Strange Fire did just that; they conflated, equivocated, and thus non-started themselves before they ever got started. And in the end, they felt justified in taking the tact they did because their view of God allows them to be this sloppy toward the non-elect world out there (including the charismatics).