29 April 2006

A Sunday in Rome

by Phil Johnson

Your weekly dose of Spurgeon

The PyroManiacs devote space at the beginning of each week to highlights from The Spurgeon Archive.

The following excerpt, from the January 1874 issue of The Sword and the Trowel, is Spurgeon's description of the second most famous stairway in Rome (after the Spanish Steps).

The lengthy quotation below is borrowed from a history of the Reformation that was popular in Spurgeon's time. Unfortunately, the author conflates two stories. Luther's discovery of justification by faith (which occurred when he pondered the meaning of "The just shall live by faith") actually occurred at Wartburg castle. Luther's own description of that experience (often called the "Tower experience") is quoted in part below, from Luther's Table Talk. The incident on the Scala Santa indeed occurred during Luther's famous visit to Rome, but Luther simply stood in disgust and walked away. The Tower Experience, marking Luther's actual evangelical awakening, came sometime later.

Nontheless, Spurgeon makes some poignant points, worth reading again:

Scala Santa

Perhaps Luther would never have become a Reformer had it not been for his visit to Rome and his ascent of these very stairs.

In the city where he expected to find the church of God in all its holiness, he found sin rampant beyond all precedent. "It is almost incredible," says he, "what infamous actions are committed at Rome; one would require to see it and hear it in order to believe it. It is an ordinary saying that if there is a hell, Rome is built upon it. It is an abyss from whence all sins proceed."

Nor did he speak as an exaggerating enthusiast, for Machiavelli's witness was that the nearer you came to the capital of Christendom the less you found of the Christian spirit. "We Italians," said the great historian, "are chiefly indebted to the church and the priests for our having become a set of profane scoundrels."

Undeceived as to the holiness of Popedom by his own actual observation in its chief city, Luther was in a fit state to be delivered from its thralldom, and the hand which set him free snapped his fetters for him upon the very stairs which we have described, and which [are depicted in the photo above].

[A] historian of the Reformation thus describes the sudden enlightenment of Luther's mind:—

"One day, among others, wishing to gain an indulgence which the Pope had promised to every one who should on his knees climb up what is called Pilate's Stair, the Saxon monk was humbly crawling up the steps, which he was told had been miraculously transported to Rome from Jerusalem.

But while he was engaged in this meritorious act, he thought he beard a voice of thunder which cried at the bottom of his heart, as at Wittenberg and Bologna, 'The just shall live by faith.' These words, which had already on two different occasions struck him like the voice of an angel of God, resounded loudly and incessantly within him. He rises up in amazement from the steps along which he was dragging his body. Horrified at himself, and ashamed to see how far superstition has abased him, he flies far from the scene of his folly.

"In regard to this mighty word there is something mysterious in the life of Luther. It proved a creating word both for the Reformer and for the Reformation. It was by it that God then said, 'Let light be, and light was.' It is often necessary that a truth, in order to produce its due effect on the mind, should be repeatedly presented to it.

Luther had carefully studied the Epistle to the Romans, and yet, though justification by faith is there taught, he had never seen it so clearly. Now he comprehended the righteousness which alone can stand in the presence of God; now he received from God himself, by the hand of Christ, that obedience which he freely imputes to the sinner as soon as he humbly turns his eye to the God-Man who was crucified. This is the decisive period in the internal life of Luther.

The faith which saved him from the terrors of death became the soul of his theology, his fortress in all dangers, the stamina of his discourse, the stimulant of his love, the foundation of his peace, the spur of his labors, his consolation in life and in death.

"But this great doctrine of a salvation which emanates from God and not from man, was not only the power of God to save the soul of Luther, it also became the power of God to reform the Church; a powerful weapon which the apostles wielded, a weapon too long neglected, but at length brought forth in its primitive luster from the arsenal of the mighty God.

At the moment when Luther stood up in Rome, all moved, and thrilling with the words which Paul had addressed fifteen centuries before to the inhabitants of this metropolis, truth, till then a fettered captive within the church, rose up also, never again to fall.

"Here we must let Luther speak for himself. 'Although I was a holy and irreproachable monk, my conscience was full of trouble and anguish. I could not bear the words, 'Justice of God.' I loved not the just and holy God who punishes sinners. I was filled with secret rage against him, and hated him, because, not satisfied with terrifying his miserable creatures, already lost by original sin, with his law and the miseries of life, he still further increased our torment by the gospel. . . . But when, by the Spirit of God, I comprehended these words; when I learned how the sinner's justification proceeds from the pure mercy of the Lord by means of faith, then I felt myself revived like a new man, and entered at open doors into the very paradise of God.

From that time, also, I beheld the precious sacred volume with new eyes. I went over all the Bible, and collected a great number of passages which taught me what the work of God was. And as I had previously, with all my heart, hated the words, 'Justice of God,' so from that time I began to esteem and love them, as words most sweet and most consoling. In truth, these words were to me the true gate of paradise.'"

As the Scala Santa thus became the place of salvation to the great reformer, so may our reference to them be made serviceable to those of our readers who have not yet found peace with God. The motive which leads men to crawl upon their knees up these famous stairs is the worldwide principle of self-salvation. Do is the popular gospel of unregenerate human nature: It is all done is the glad tidings of the grace of God.

You, dear reader, are perhaps trying to be better in act, better in feeling, better in resolution, and this with the view of commending yourself to the favor of God. What is this but your Pilate's Stairs? You will find that all your efforts are labor in vain, for by the works of the law no man will ever be justified before God. The gospel does not promise eternal life to good works, or prayers, or tears, or horrible feelings; its one great utterance is, "He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved." May the Holy Spirit with divine power force upon every self-righteous mind the conviction of its own ruin, and of the hopelessness of its own efforts, and so may the soul become willing to accept eternal life as the gift of God by Jesus Christ.

C. H. Spurgeon

I'm in Rome this weekend, preaching in one of the few thriving evangelical churches in this city.

Spurgeon once spent a Sunday here, too, and today things are not all that different from what he described on that occasion.

I don't have time for more than this brief update. See you later in the week.
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Special addendum by request:




27 April 2006

"...teach us to number our days..." (Psalm 90:12)

by Dan Phillips

David Kendrick, of NY, holds the patent for a life expectancy watch (h-t Boing Boing). The watch would estimate the time of the wearer's death, and count down to that date. Could be very... very perspectivalizing.

So if someone asked you what time it is, you could say, "I don't know... but I've only got ____ left!"

Then there's another cheery little site: The Death Clock, subtitled "The Internet's friendly reminder that life is slipping away...." You put in a bit of personal information, and it tells you when you'll die. I did it once awhile back, and it said July 5, 2027. (A friend speculated that I might fall victim to a Fourth of July firework mishap, linger a day, then expire.) Oddly, when I do it again now, rating myself as having a "normal" outlook, it comes out to July 1, 2027. I've lost a few days; not a good trend. Better be more careful.

Now, if I rate myself as having an "optimistic" outlook, I've got until August 4, 2042. Hm; maybe they figure "a joyful heart is good medicine" (Proverbs 17:22a). That would have me keeling over at eighty-six -- which was my father's age, when he passed away.

So how many seconds have I got as I type now, well before posting? In the former case, I've got 668, 654, 235 seconds, and counting down. In the latter, I've got 1,144,977, 479, and counting down. Very different numbers -- but alike in that the number's getting smaller and smaller.

Now those dates of course have no authority, and might be totally off. The only certainty is that my seconds left, before I go to the Lord or He comes for me, are getting fewer and fewer.

It certainly gives one perspective, or it should. We don't know the details of world prophecy as we might wish, but we do know one bit of eschatology for certain: the Eschaton is coming towards us, and we're heading towards it. For all, "it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment"(Hebrews 9:27). This should be an absolutely terrifying prospect for all who have not made peace with God on His terms, through Christ. As Christians, "we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil" (2 Corinthians 5:10).

This is our only chance, as far as we know -- our only arena of walking by faith, serving God unseen in a battlefield. We shall never again serve under fire. Faith will become sight one day, His enemies will be made a footstool under His feet, and we will reign with Him. How will this brief span look then?

Do we live with that in mind, that eternal perspective? Do you ever project ahead, and think of how you (let alone God) will view your stewardship of your marriage, your family, your ministry, your world?

Tick-tick-tick....

UPDATE: this article, and this story, very forcefully make the point that no one should count on any stretch of years, or any advance warning, as to when his time will come.

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25 April 2006

Long Distance



On yielding the asylum to the inmates
by Phil Johnson

Greetings from Sicily, where the volcano is currently topped by snow and belching smoke. The first day we arrived, there was an earthquake—one strong heavy jolt that left things shaking for a few seconds, but no damage. Earthquakes have become such standard fare when I travel that I almost have come to expect them. That's fine; I just hope Etna doesn't blow her stack.

I'm here teaching an intensive overview of systematic theology to a group of Italian pastors. We're covering bibliology and theology proper this week. Next year, we plan to spend a week on Christology, hamartiology, and soteriology. The following year, Lord willing, we'll cover pneumatology, ecclesiology, and eschatology. We're simultaneously working our way verse by verse through Galatians, spending one hour each morning on that. This year we're covering chapters 1-2; next year 3-4; and the final year 5-6.

It's grueling, teaching 8 hours per day. I can only imagine what it's like for the students. But they are eager and attentive, and it has been a nice break from routine for me.

The day before I left, Jeff Williams phoned me from the International Space Station. It's the longest long-distance phone call I have ever received. He sounds good; remember to pray for him.

Last night, a group of us watched him transverse the sky over Etna. It was just after dusk, so at the altitude of Jeff's orbit, the Space Station was still in the sunlight and brightly lit as it moved across the sky. It was a spectacular thing to watch, and especially amazing to think someone I know is literally traveling inside that wandering star. Jeff has already traveled faster, further, and higher than anyone else I know. I wish I had given him my cell phone number; it would be really cool to talk as he traveled overhead.

Anyway, I see Frank could hardly wait till I was out the door to turn the blog into a cheap comic-book contest. And it didn't occur to me that I would need to leave instructions to post a Spurgeon excerpt at the start of the week. James is still using all the graphics he can stuff into a post, and Dan "Booyah" Phillips is still milking NT Wright for comments.

I have occasional access to a dial-up account to check e-mail. It's well-nigh impossible to find time to write and post to the blog, much less read all the comments. So don't look for me to do it very often. But I wanted to check in and say that I've arrived safely, had the earthquake, and taught one-third of what I need to teach. At this rate, I'll be home in no time. See you then.

Phil's signature

Righting (and writing) Wright's wrongs: reflections as the dust settles

by Dan Phillips

Well, last week was exhilarating. About a 530-word post provoked upwards of 33,000 words of comments.

The essay on Dr. NT. "I Personally Believe In the Resurrection, But..." Wright and the whole ensuing discussion was, I hope, instructive. The interaction certainly was for me. Let me say up-front and very sincerely: one of the best things about this "gig" is, at the same time, the very factor that initially worried me about it -- the Comments section. I feared it; now I love it. We have the most amazing readership. It's a constant education and encouragement to me, and I thank God for you.

I'd like to attempt a summary of what I think are some of the more important "take-aways" from This Moment in Pyro history.

"Important" Points: Lighter side

  1. While there are a few favored souls who can wear the "I Made Rule 40!" T-shirt, as far as I know, I alone can now wear the T: "I Made Michael Spencer Break Rule 40!"
  2. The tireless and well-nigh ubiquitous Carla suggests I be renamed from "Dan 'don't call me Dave' Phillips" to Dan BOOYAH Phillips, and I... yes, I think I could live with that.
  3. There are almost endless title possibilities with a name like "Wright."
  4. More people calling me by my name -- even Adrian Warnock. That's a good thing! (No comment yet from Tim Challies.)
  5. It was kind of funny when critics seemed to imply the comment thread was too long -- thus swelling it by one more comment. But how long would it have been, if certain Wrightists had simply come in and said, "I really have gotten a lot out of Wright's books -- but good grief, what was he thinking?!"

Important Points: Weightier side

  1. On friendship. Many defenders made much of Wright's "friendship" with Borg. That's why Wright said that Borg -- who (he says himself) does not believe in the resurrection -- was surely a Christian who "loves Jesus" and "believes passionately." We were told it is because of his great and wonderful "Let's do Communion" friendship with Borg.

    Huh? This is Wright being a friend? If so, we're talking about the sort of friend who knows I have treatable cancer, but tells me that the chicken-bones the shaman is shaking at me should do the trick. A number of the commenters seem to define friendship, along with other things, in purely emotional and subjective terms. What is the Biblical view of friendship and love?

    • God tells us that we should prefer a friend's faithful wounds, to the disingenuous kisses of an enemy (Proverbs 27:6). A flattering kiss is no more the necessary mark of true friendship, than a faithful wound is of its absence.
    • The Lord Jesus, our most faithful friend, says, "Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline; be zealous therefore, and repent" (Revelation 3:19 NAS). Love and stern reproof are not contraries.
    • He who chooses fools as his companions will take on their characteristics (Proverbs 13:20).
    • There are "friends" who can ruin you (Proverbs 18:24).
    • God will judge the one who sees another staggering off to destruction, and does not do his best to rescure him (Proverbs 24:11-12).
    • We have a daily obligation to "take care...lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God," and to "exhort one another every day, as long as it is called 'today,' that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin" (Hebrews 3:12-13).
    • The closest friendship must never be allowed to compete with the purity of our devotion to the doctrinal truths of God (Deuteronomy 13:6-11; Luke 14:26).

    Let's be brutally specific. If Dr. Borg receives a sentence of condemnation from God, will he be forced to admit, "My friend Dr. Wright warned me earnestly of this"? Or will he have grounds to sputter, "But my friend and Your servant Bishop Wright assured me in front of the whole world that I was a Christian, who loved Jesus and fervently believed! How can You send a Jesus-loving, passionately-believing Christian to Hell?"

  2. Hero-worship. Some of the critics of Wright's critics don't see to "get" what it means not to be a Roman Catholic. Roman Catholics love to dredge up some goofy thing Luther said (and, Lord knows, he said more than a few), or something Calvin did -- as if we'll gasp in horror, throw down our Bibles, and flee to Rome. They just don't "get" what it is to be a free man in Christ (Galatians 5:1; Colossians 2:4, 8, 18), a member of the universal priesthood, a slave of God and not of any individual man or human tradition.

    This, by the way, is why I seldom call myself a "Calvinist" to folks I don't know something about. I don't believe anything that I believe simply because Calvin believed it. Insofar as I'm true to my convictions, my conscience is captive to the Word alone. The reason I like Calvin so much is because he has helped me understand what is in the Word! Yet if Calvin takes a turn I don't see called for in Scripture, I feel no obligation to follow him. I might be a Calvinist, but I'm not a Calvinolater.

    This sort of freedom of judgment simply stuns Roman Catholics -- and it rather seems to stun the always-Wright set, as well. They seem to see no grounds between almost worshipfully embracing every word that proceedeth from Wright's mouth -- or denouncing him as a Hell-bound heretic. Ergo, if we don't fall into Category A, we must be in Category B. If you don't adore him, you hate him. To criticize him is to anathematize him.

    (An aside: I anticipate some angry sputtering and denials on this point. My surrejoinder will be: then what were the objections, and why was the thread so long?)

    We were told that we shouldn't accuse Wright of denying the resurrection. We hadn't. We were admonished for judging him unsaved. We hadn't. The Wrightists wanted to talk about our feelings, their feelings, Wright's feelings... our feelings about their feelings about Wright's feelings. What was really important to them was not that this exalted scholar and religious leader had hey-presto! pronounced an unbeliever to be a for-sure, Jesus-loving fervent believer -- it was whether we were being mean, or whether we felt good (or bad enough) about it. Some good folk were "sick" that we had this discussion -- not that Wright had said "Peace, peace," where there was no peace. We weren't so much given a better model, as having been tsk-tsked for not doing Wright right... or doing it right with a bad attitude... or something. There were repeated attempts to launch out in this and that direction.

    Yet dogged commenter after dogged commenter -- bless you! -- kept noting, "Hey -- Dan is saying it's alarming that Wright says that someone who denies the foundation of Christian truth is surely a Christian who loves Jesus and passionately believes. Well... isn't it?"

  3. Do scholars have a "Get Out of Accountability Free" card? My previously-voiced concerns were borne out in this business. What did I try to argue in my little Christian academics: not an oxymoron? I expressed alarm that, in the eyes of some, "academics get a 'pass' from being Christians 24/7." And so we heard again and again, "But this is such a great book! And that's such a great book! He's such a great writer, and made such a great defense of the Resurrection!"

    Perhaps so -- but at Easter time, Wright just told the world you can love Jesus and believe passionately without believing in the resurrection. You don't find that disturbing?

    But Wright himself does the same thing. Note what he says about Borg: "The philosophical and cultural world he has lived in has made it very, very difficult for him to believe in the bodily resurrection." And so...? So what? Should God feel bad about requiring such a tough thing of Dr. Borg, given his philosophical and cultural world? Well, then, look: I daresay the philosophical and moral world of the drunkard, the self-righteous prig, the prostitute, the thief, the homosexual, the moralist, equally makes it "very, very difficult" for them to believe in the whole of the Gospel. I suppose that they'd actually have to change worlds, in order to believe. I suppose Dr. Borg would, too. They might actually have to -- what was the word? Ah, yes: "Repent," mentanoeo, have a revolutionary change of mind. Yes, he and they and we have to repent to believe the Gospel. Could be "very, very difficult" -- maybe like a camel going through a needle's eye. Impossible, really, for fallen humans. And so?

    It seems as if Wright is making special allowance for cultured despisers, swayed by the testimony of men to disbelieve God. But the apostolic witness is,

    If we receive the testimony of men, the testimony of God is greater, for this is the testimony of God that he has borne concerning his Son. Whoever believes in the Son of God has the testimony in himself. Whoever does not believe God has made him a liar, because he has not believed in the testimony that God has borne concerning his Son (1 John 5:9-10)
    Wright himself says, in effect, that Borg disbelieves God. That means Borg has called God a liar. But Dr. Wright assured us he is a Jesus-loving, believing Christian. That's what the discussion was about.

    Wright's defenders excuse his inexcusable waffling on the same pretense: intellectual atmosphere, or even ecclesiastical atmosphere (as if serving an apostate church earns one a "pass," rather than reproof).

    It really does appear to be accepted, then, that scholars get a special "pass" from the first and second commandments. Not dimwit drunkards and liars, evidently. No, they still have to repent, believe, and walk in love for God. They're not special cases, like academics are.

    Indeed, I get the distinct feeling among some that Wright is doing us a great favor by lending his scholarly credibility to some of our tenets. We should demand less of him, because of his wonderful scholarship and writing.

    But surely this is the reverse of the Scriptural stance. God's perspective is that more -- not less! -- is required of him to whom more is given (Luke 12:48). Teachers are judged more harshly, not less (James 3:1ff.). Greater privilege brings greater responsibility, not diminished responsibility (Amos 3:2).

    All this makes me wonder yet again: do we really believe the Bible, or don't we? If we do, no one does us a favor by admitting what everybody should already acknowledge, anyway -- such as that Jesus bodily rose from the dead. He's honor-bound to do that. What's remarkable is not one man's admission of the truth; it's the others' denials and evasions.

    There must be some place between shrugging off terrific academic accomplishments, and feeling that a good book or two (or ten) earns one the right to say harmful, damaging nonsense without a ripple of contrary comment. It's being brandished by some like military service has been in the political world, as if it earns a lifetime of freedom from reproach. Both are laudable, assuredly, and both merit appreciation; but neither exempts one from the critical arena.

  4. Admiring the flawed for their flaws. We tend too much to see the one who doubts, challenges, even rejects fundamental truths as being a deep, wonderful, fascinating individual. Many swoon over such an one, treating him like a China egg, admiring, and perhaps wishing to be more like him. Surely this deep doubter towers over those who, perhaps by contrast, just cloddishly and oafishly take God at His Word. If spotlights and recognition and craving for "respectablity" and career-advancement lure him to abandon his former (Biblical) beliefs, many will ooh and ahh at how he has "grown," and use him to bludgeon those stubborn knuckle-draggers who refuse to "grow" similarly.

    From God's perspective, the disbeliever -- to say nothing of the false teacher -- is no such stellar creature. Unbelief is a sin, it is immoral, it is wrong, and it's nothing new. It is the mother of all sin, and thus of all ruin and abomination. The first sin was an act of unbelief, and so was your last sin, and so was mine. It isn't as if there is more or less "reason" for disbelieving God today than there was in the Garden. In fact, the one who falls for Satan's lie today is even dimmer and more culpable than our great-great grandma was.

    In recent years, I've come to see that God doesn't regard unbelief as we do. He doesn't find it understandable and noble. He finds it inexcusable, and He can be pretty harsh about it. Did Jesus say to the Emmaus strollers, "Well, boys, believe Me when I say I know it's been a hard couple of days! You're tired, your world's upside-down; and besides, the philosophical and cultural world you have lived in has made it very, very difficult for you to believe!"?

    Our Lord said nothing of the sort. "O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken!" (Luke 24:25). Quite the slap in the face. I'm sure it woke them up, got their attention. Then He laid out the truth of Scripture for them -- not as an option to be considered, but as the truth with demands belief (v. 26). Such verses could be multiplied.

    I don't at all deny that there are places when it is fitting to encourage someone, gently, to reconsider. But I affirm, with the Bible, that it is always fitting to call unbelievers, and false teachers, to repent.

  5. How should we regard a doubting brother? This could be the subject of many full posts, but here's my short answer for now: We should regard him as we do any tempted believer.

    Say a brother admits to you that he's absolutely plagued by lustful thoughts, covetous thoughts, cowardly fears, like so many clouds of bloodthirsty and tireless mosquitoes. How do you respond? Do you bellow fiery judgments and threats at him? I doubt it. I hope not! But on the other hand, do you say, "That's really okay. Given your intellectual and cultural environment, I think it's pretty much unavoidable. But all's well with your soul, go in peace"?

    Not quite.

    Can we say this? "Oh, mercy -- I understand too well. Been there, felt that, still go there far too often. Let's look to the Lord and His Word together, and see how we can overcome this. I'll stick with you, and do what I can to help you overcome it." I would hope so.

  6. And one last time: as far as I've noticed, no Wright-defender answered my question. The question was posed as the past sentence in the essay. Some found it convenient to quote part of it, the part that they imagined to be easiest to target and misrepresent. "Dr. Thomas" said he answered it, but I did not note an answer.

    Here's the question, because this really is the larger point: "One must seriously ask the question: if Wright has a view of Christianity that pencils in the bodily resurrection of Jesus as an optional add-on, and embraces Marcus Borg as a 'passionate' lover of Jesus... can there possibly be any doctrine that isn't optional?"

    Note: I said "answered," not "retorted" or "replied." There were many who sputtered over the protasis, "if Wright has a view of Christianity that pencils in the bodily resurrection of Jesus as an optional add-on." This caused many palpitations among Wright devotees. After answering several of them point-blank, I finally asked, "Is there some immensely-popular yet undocumented definition of 'optional' that means something other than 'possible but not necessary; left to personal choice'?" Because that is what Wright did to the bodily resurrection of Jesus: he made it optional to genuine, Jesus-loving, passionately-believing Christianity. Is that belief true, to Wright? Yes. Important to soundness and health? Certainly. Absolutely indispensable to being a Jesus-loving, passionately-believing genuine Christian? Not if we're to take Wright at his word.

  7. And so I simply asked: if belief in the bodily resurrection of our Lord is optional, can there possibly be any doctrine that isn't optional?

Well? Can there? And if not... then what is the Christian faith, anyway? And why bother to preach, defend, live for it -- and, if need be, die for it?

Dan Phillips's signature


20 April 2006

Note to Phil Johnson:

by Frank Turk

Consider this a reminder, and get back to work.

But for the fans of this blog:

Free teamPyro t-shirt to the first reader who can identify what comic book this is from, and I'll throw in a mug if you can tell me what issue.

YOUR ONLY HINT: this image has not been altered in any way EXCEPT that the word "PYROMANIACS" was BLACK in the original image.

Oh yeah -- almost forgot: offer expires Friday at NOON CENTRAL TIME. Tomorrow at NOON.




19 April 2006

The Wright Stuff



A parting gift
from Phil Johnson

Here's a letter I wrote to the iMonk a year ago this very week, before I ever even considered entering the blogosphere. (As a matter of fact, the episode that precipitated the following letter, closely followed by a campaign of terror at the Boar's Head Tavern, is the biggest factor that finally provoked me to start blogging. I made that decision last year, a couple of weeks after this letter was written.)

Some background: Last March, the iMonk stumbled across a critical review of an NT Wright book from a lecture I gave in London more than a year before that. (I also gave a completely different review of the same book last year at the Shepherds' Conference, a couple of weeks before Michael Spencer's diatribe. The two reviews were for completely different audiences. They complement, but don't contradict one another, and—just to be clear—it was the earlier one that was the object of so much derision from Michael Spencer last April.)

It's putting it mildly to say that the iMonk hated my critique. He dashed off an angry post about it at the Boar's Head Tavern Blog. He didn't bother interacting with the substance of what I actually said, but he took quite a bit of liberty misrepresenting what I said. For example, here's how he paraphrased the thrust of my message: "Just keep reading those Macarthur commentaries, and all will be well. Consider us warned."

Of course, I hadn't mentioned MacArthur or anyone's commentaries anywhere in my critique. I had described Wright's book and disagreed with four points, all related to his view of justification.

Anyway, the following letter was my response to Michael's suggestion that Wright should be off limits to lesser beings like me:

13 April 2005

Dear Michael,

Readers of your blog have informed me that there is some controversy there concerning how much of N.T. Wright I may or may not have actually read. Someone sent me a collection of remarks you have posted about me ["he hasn't read the people he's citing. . . . He's only read WSPRS {What St. Paul Really Said} and he's only going to critique WSPRS. Tell-tale sign of what you are getting. . . . If I'm wrong about this, I will publically apologize"]—and strongly suggested that in the interests of self-preservation I need to write and give you an accounting.

At the moment, I'm supposed to be editing a book that's due to the publisher at the end of the month, so I don't have time to peruse many blogs or even keep my own website up to date. I apologize for missing the brawl over at The Boar's Head Tavern. But you have my permission to post this e-mail in full as my one and only contribution to the brouhaha. I wish I could come and join the fray personally, but my schedule seriously doesn't permit me to do so at the moment.

Anyway, to the business at hand:

I am by no means any kind of expert on Wright's written corpus (nor did I ever claim to be). On the other hand, I've read a little more Wright than you originally guessed.

Of Wright's large works, I have read only The Resurrection of the Son of God and a generous helping (but not much more than half) of Jesus and the Victory of God. Of his smaller works, I have read The Challenge of Jesus, Who Was Jesus? and What Saint Paul Really Said. I actually had to read WSPRS multiple times, because after my first reading, I participated in two semester-long discussion groups with a dozen or so seminary students who were particularly keen to study that book. Then I was asked to review it twice in separate conferences.

Also, when N. T. Wright was canon theologian of Westminster Abbey, the gift shop there used to carry his books. (They quit doing that when he became Bishop of Durham. So much for brand loyalty.) I once stopped in there and bought a bagful of his little commentaries in the "For Everyone" series. I've used them frequently (the "Galatians" volume is particularly dog-eared); I have listened to several lecture series by Wright; and I have read virtually all the short pieces by him posted at http://www.ntwrightpage.com/.

WSPRS is the only Wright book I have ever formally reviewed. For the most part, I thought The Resurrection of the Son of God was superb. I do greatly appreciate Wright's unrelenting defense of the historicity of Jesus and the resurrection. I've seen him a couple of times on the BBC, dismantling the latest skepticism, and I appreciate how he handles that kind of nonsense. As I have said often and publicly, we owe him a great debt for the clarity and force with which he has answered the left wing of contemporary "Jesus scholarship."

But I don't think it necessarily follows that it's impossible or unreasonable for anyone who truly appreciates those contributions to conclude that Wright's view on justification by faith poses certain serious dangers.

And to suggest that all my concerns about Wright boil down to "four paragraphs in a small book" is the very kind of ham-handed hyperbole I think you rightly deplore. (Likewise for your comment that I am "freaked out" and "panicked" about Wright's "attack on transactionalism.") Wright has written a considerable amount to try to clarify his position on sola fide. I have read as much of it as I have been able to obtain. I still have grave concerns. Sorry, but I do.

The earliest thing I read from Wright on justification was a chapter titled "Justification: The Biblical Basis and its Relevance for Contemporary Evangelicalism," which he originally wrote in 1980. I first saw a reference to it in the late '90s in Philip Eveson's book on Justification. (Eveson's published criticism of Wright actually preceded WSPRS.) So I acquired a copy and read it. That chapter contained the seeds of almost everything that troubles me about Wright's view of justification and the atonement. It was written 20 years before WSPRS, so to suggest that Wright only recently got himself in trouble with Reformed critics because of "four paragraphs" in one of his less technical books doesn't really do justice to the larger argument.

The folks at http://www.ntwrightpage.com/ have kindly posted that chapter from 1980, as well as several other articles by Wright in which the Bishop attempts to defend his views on justification. I've read all of those, and obviously, I remain deeply troubled about Wright's position.

However, let me address the larger issue of "the Grand Canyon of scholarly gravitas that exists between Phil Johnson and N.T. Wright," and the corresponding question of whether a "hack" like me has any right to subject a scholar like Bishop Wright to the kind of scrutiny the Bereans employed when they analyzed the teaching of the apostle Paul:

  1. I admit freely and without reservation that there is a vast, almost unbridgeable chasm—nay, virtually a bottomless pit—of "scholarly gravitas" between Wright and Johnson. No argument there.
  2. And insomuch as my first review of WSPRS (especially the printed editions of my transcripts) may have failed to pay due respect to the Bishop's scholarly credentials, I do humbly acknowledge and bewail my manifold sins and wickedness, which I, from time to time, most grievously have committed, by thought, word and deed. And I promise to try to do better in the future.
  3. On the other hand, I wasn't actually critical of Wright's scholarship so much as his theological opinions. Oh, sure—I noted at one point that there are still some fairly competent New Testament scholars who would strongly disagree with Wright's characterizations of Second Temple Judaism. But I didn't pretend to be one of them. If that wasn't completely clear, I herewith apologize for that, too, and I repent in dust and ashes.
  4. Still, hopefully even you would agree that the world's most decorated canon theologian's academic status doesn't ipso facto translate into sound doctrine. Nor should scholarly credentials be used as a shield to guarantee immunity from criticism. Else you and I both might be forced to put our hands over our mouths whenever John Dominic Crossan speaks.
  5. I'm not the least bit offended by those who notice my lack of scholarly credentials. I'm not even offended by legitimate questions about whether I have done my homework. From time to time I have had to be put right on theological issues by people who know better than me. No one needs to apologize for challenging me. I herewith formally absolve you from any guilt on that score.
  6. However, I don't think the dispute between NPPers and critics like me hinges on the issue of anyone's academic credentials. It's a fundamental difference of enormous magnitude, encompassing basic theological, hermeneutical, and world-view issues.

Which is to say that I don't think the debate over the New Perspective on Paul is going to be won by Wright's devotees if their only answer to every argument is, "You just haven't read enough Wright." I know only one guy who really has read all of Wright. (Who can keep up with the Bishop's pen? Does the man never SLEEP?)

But the argument is little more than a convenient dodge. Every time I hear it, I am tempted to ask why Wright never seems to explain his controversial statements in the context where he MAKES them. After all, why do I have to read all 741 pages of Jesus and the Victory of God plus 300+ pages of The Climax of the Covenant to understand Wright's attack on the concept of imputation in WSPRS? Or is your real point that no one can possibly understand Wright without agreeing with him?

Some Wright enthusiasts have flatly denied sola fide. Others (usually his more Reformed devotees) insist that his views pose no threat whatsoever to the formal principle of the Reformation. Wright himself rather weakly and obliquely seems to make that same claim in WSPRS (p. 113), but he's not explicit enough to know for sure what he means. Do we really have to wait for his next volume before we're allowed to complain about this rather glaring ambiguity?

In short, how much of Wright should I expect to have to read before I am entitled to criticize what he has written specifically about the doctrine of justification?

(By the way, the apostle Paul himself really isn't that hard to make sense of.)

Meanwhile, Wright is aiming books like WSPRS and his small commentaries at lay people, some of whom are under my pastoral care. He has also given a glowing, unqualified recommendation to Steve Chalke's blundering attempt to blend post-modernism and Socinianism and sell it to grass-roots churchgoers as a "lost" form of Christianity. I'm not going to stifle my criticism of stuff like that just because someone tries to intimidate me with insults about what a hopeless Luddite I am intellectually, academically, or theologically. I'll accept those criticisms, but they don't really speak to the doctrinal and biblical issues I have raised, do they?

Phil Johnson
The Spurgeon Archive
http://www.spurgeon.org

P.S. BTW, if you really think about it, John MacArthur or Michael Horton aren't really germane to the differences between us, either. I'm a little mystified about why their names keep getting thrown in and kicked around in this particular discussion. After all, trashing MacArthur doesn't really answer what I have written. And as far as the New Perspective is concerned, Horton has raised concerns that are strikingly similar to mine. So he isn't really going to help you much here, either.


I am surprised to see how well the letter works a year later. I am even trying to finish another major editing project. (I wish this stuff would come up in August, when my schedule isn't so hectic.)

Anyway, what made me think of this letter was a comment by "Dr Thomas" (an imaginary character with an imaginary degree) in the mega-thread of comments under Dan's post. Several of us had taken pains to explain why we think nothing—no academic credentials, and no philosophical sophistry—could possibly justify Wright's endorsement of Marcus Borg's "passionate" love for "Jesus." (Especially given the fact that Borg's actual idea of Jesus is that He was a mere human who is now dead.)

Then "Dr. Thomas" wanted to know if I was familiar with Wright's epistemological framework as explained in Wright's 550-page tome, The New Testament and the People of God. I gotta admit: That's one of Wright's books I haven't read yet. (Though I did finally finish with Jesus and the Victory of God.)

But I still think what Wright said about Borg is unjustifiable, no matter how much "academic respectability"-capital it may have earned for Wright.

Phil's signature

Ciao

Taking a break from the blogosphere
by Phil Johnson

Mt. EtnaThat's what Mt. Etna looks like during an eruption.

Next week I'm teaching an intensive, week-long course in systematic theology to a group of Protestant pastors in Sicily, in a training center located at the foot of Mt. Etna. This will be the first of a three-part series that will take me to Sicily for a week during each of the next three years.

So anyway, I have a lot to do to pack and get ready, and when I get back, I still have a book manuscript to deliver to the publisher. So I am liable to be totally absent from the blogosphere for the next month to six weeks.

The other Pyros will have to keep the blog alive. I'll read, and maybe comment, as time permits. But I don't expect to post very regularly again until June 1.

Enjoy the "Together for the Gospel" conference. I wish I could be there. I'll keep up with things by reading Challies, though. I'll see you in a few weeks.

By the way, today is a good day for me to retire. Dan Phillips's last post not only became the first PyroManiacs post to go into triple digits on the comment-count; it also broke the record from my previous blog, held, I believe, by the first post I ever made there, almost a year ago.

We'll see if I can stir that kind of reader feedback again in a few weeks. See you then. Behave yourselves. Pyrodudes: keep the place tidy.

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17 April 2006

Resurrection not essential? (More of Those Wacky Academics!)

by Dan Phillips

Remember the lively discussion we had about whether being able to wave around a doctoral sheepskin entitles one to a "pass" from the First and Second great commandments? (I argued for the "No" position.)

Today, I'm really wondering how those leaning in the opposite direction will, mm, "explain" the latest emulation from everyone's favorite oil-and-water man, the Bishop of Durham, the Right Hon. Rev. Dr. Nicholas T. Wright.

Offered yet another opportunity to sound the trumpet with a clear and hard-hitting witness to the waiting world, here's what Wright told The Australian (h-t James White), emphases and bracketed comments added:
"I have friends who I am quite sure are Christians who do not believe in the bodily resurrection," he says carefully, citing another eminent scholar, American theologian Marcus Borg, co-author with Wright of The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions.

"But the view I take of them - and they know this - is that they are very, very muddled. They would probably return the compliment.

"Marcus Borg really does not believe Jesus Christ was bodily raised from the dead. But I know Marcus well: he loves Jesus and believes in him passionately. [My advice: don't even try to make sense of those two statements. That way lies madness.] The philosophical and cultural world he has lived in has made it very, very difficult for him to believe in the bodily resurrection. [In other words, Jesus and Paul were both wrong: some folks really do have a legitimate pretext for unbelief (John 9:41; 15:22-24; Romans 1:20; 3:19).]

"I actually think that's a major problem and it affects most of whatever else he does, and I think that it means he has all sorts of flaws as a teacher, but I don't want to say he isn't a Christian. [Well, I guess if you don't want to say something, and you're an academic, you don't have to... is that it?]

"I do think, however, that churches that lose their grip on the bodily resurrection are in deep trouble and that for healthy Christian life individually and corporately, belief in the bodily resurrection is foundational." [But they can still love Jesus and believe passionately in Him... while calling Him a liar about arguably the central vindicating event of His earthly ministry.]
With our other recent discussion of Dynamic Equivalent versions fresh in my mind, I guess I have to allow that perhaps the good Bishop is reading out of a DE version of 1 Corinthians 15:14 that reads, "And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is not as helpful as it might be, but still healthy and foundational; and your faith is in deep trouble, though you can still love Jesus and believe in Him passionately." Perhaps it also re-envisions verse 17 as really meaning, "And if Christ has not been raised, your faith may still be passionate, and you can stop worrying about your sins."

One must seriously ask the question: if Wright has a view of Christianity that pencils in the bodily resurrection of Jesus as an optional add-on, and embraces Marcus Borg as a "passionate" and believing lover of Jesus... can there possibly be any doctrine that isn't optional? What would merit the apostolically-mandated "sharp rebuke" (Tit. 1:10)?

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15 April 2006

Reductionism? Hardly.

Posted by Phil Johnson

Another item in the atonement debate, plus...
Your weekly dose of Spurgeon

The PyroManiacs devote space at the beginning of each week to highlights from The Spurgeon Archive.

The following excerpt is from "The True Tabernacle, and Its Glory of Grace and Peace," a sermon delivered on Sunday morning, September 27th, 1885.

Notice that Spurgeon emphatically affirms several aspects of the believer's relationship with Christ. He stresses that Christ is both our substitute and our representative—and also that we are spiritually in union with Christ. Several dimensions of all those truths are expressly affirmed and celebrated.

Spurgeon thereby illustrates why (contrary to some ideas that are popular today) there is no need to think in terms of "stress[ing] union with Christ rather than" substitution, representation, imputation, or any of the other aspects of what it means to have Christ as our Savior. Spurgeon accentuates them all and makes it clear that they complement each other perfectly.

Substitution, Representation, Union
How we benefit from Christ's death and Resurrection

When it came to His death, which was the pouring out of His soul, then His fullness of grace was seen. He was full of grace indeed, forasmuch as He emptied Himself to save men. He was Himself not only man's Saviour, but his salvation. He gave Himself for us (Titus 2:14; Galatians 1:4; 2:20).

He was indeed full of grace when He bore our sins in His own body on the tree. His was love at its height, since He died on the cross, "the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God" (1 Peter 3:18).

Pronounce the word substitution, and you cannot help feeling that the Substitute for guilty man was full of grace; or use that other word, representative, and remember that whatever Jesus did, He did as the covenant Head of His people. If He died, they died in Him; if He rose again, they rose in Him; if He ascended up on high, they ascended in Him; and if He sits at the right hand of God, they also sit in the heavenly places in Him. When He shall come a second time it shall be to claim the kingdom for His chosen as well as for Himself; and all the glory of the future ages is for them, and not for Himself alone.

He saith, "Because I live, ye shall live also." Oh, the richness of the grace and truth that dwell in our Lord as the representative of His people! He will enjoy nothing unless His people enjoy it with Him. "Where I am, there also shall my servant be." "To him that overcometh will I grant to sit with me in Thy throne, even as I also overcame, and am set down with my Father in his throne."

There is yet another word higher than substitution, higher than representation, and that is union.

We are one with Christ, joined to Him by a union that never can be broken. Not only does He do what He does representing us, but we are joined unto Him in one spirit, members of His body, and partakers of His glory. Is it not a miracle of love that worms of earth should ever be one with incarnate Deity, and so one that they never can be separated throughout the ages?
C. H. Spurgeon


What does this have to do with the atonement debate?

A similar principle holds true with regard to all the various truths that are germane to the atonement. We affirm the truth of Christus victor (Christ's triumph over the forces of hell); we recognize that a ransom was paid; we acknowledge that there is a moral example to be followed in Christ's death; we agree that Christ's death satisfied public justice and the moral government of God; we say amen to the truth that the cross was a satisfaction of God's offended honor and glory.

There are important elements of truth in all those "theories" of the atonement.

But we also insist that Christ "was wounded for our transgressions"; that "it pleased the LORD to bruise Him; He has put Him to grief"; that His death represented the suffering of "the just for the unjust"; that He was made "sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him"—and at least a dozen or more other biblical statements that expressly declare that His dying was punishment for our sins in our place: penal substitution.

All those pieces (and undoubtedly more) are necessary to give us a full picture of what Christ's atonement accomplished.

But the penal and substitutionary aspects of what happened at the cross are so essential to the message of Christ that if you deny this aspect of the atonement, you have gutted the gospel. You remove so many pieces that the picture will be practically unrecognizable.

Once more: that's not a denial that there are other legitimate (and vitally important) aspects of the atonement that may be unrelated to the idea of penal substitution. It may well be that some of them are even essential. (For example, if someone denied that the cross represents Christ's victory over all the powers of evil, depending on why and what that person meant, such a denial might very well constitute a de facto denial Christianity itself.)

The thing is, no one is aggressively denying the other aspects of the atonement while demanding recognition as an evangelical. On the contrary, it seems that just about everyone who wants to tamper with the historic Protestant understanding of the cross is making penal substitution the target.

Those who defend that doctrine are not "reductionists." Such a label actually fits better on critics who suggest that the cross would be more appealing if we could only eliminate the unpleasantries of punishment, justice, and divine wrath.

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14 April 2006

What's more worth fighting for on Good Friday?

by Phil Johnson

A hunk a hunk o burnin' blogHere's a bit of hypocrisy that is stunning indeed: Scot McKnight publicly scolds Mark Dever for getting polemical about the atonement "during this Holy Week."

Let me get this straight: The occasion is too "holy" for any arguments about the actual meaning of the atonement?

But it's not too holy for Scot McKnight to pick an argument with Dever regarding the timing and the propriety of Dever's article in Christianity Today?

Yet McKnight's own post and the long comment-thread that ensues turn out, after all, to be little more than McKnight's latest salvo in what he calls the "atonement wars."

Several things really irritate me about this: One is the insinuation in McKnight's statement "I beg to differ, not because I think penal substitution needs to be denied, but because the atonement is too important during this Holy Week to turn into the 'atonement wars.'"

Wow.

How does the atonement's importance become an argument against defending it from those who are trying to dismantle it? How can a truth be "too important" to contend for? It seems to me that the truth embodied in a proper understanding of the atonement is something every Christian should be willing to fight for.

And the fight may be most appropriate today—of all days.

The atonement is certainly more worthy of an argument than incessant criticisms about someone else's "tone"; or useless strife about words to no profit (2 Timothy 2:14); or any of the other typical stuff people these days love to spend endless hours bickering about. As a matter of fact, the one and only thing Christians are commissioned and commanded to fight for is vital truth (Jude 3; 2 Corinthians 10:5). And what could possibly be more vital than the meaning of the cross?

The implication that it's uncouth or lowbrow to argue about the centrality and the true meaning of the atonement during "Holy Week" is probably the most disturbing thing about McKnight's morning meditation.

The fact that he himself goes ahead and makes a long post giving his side of the argument is almost as amusing as it is disturbing.

And then McKnight proceeds to milk the controversy even further in several comments following the original post. Obviously, the propriety of arguing about the atonement on Good Friday wasn't really the issue after all.

But his style of pretending to be an umpire rather than a participant in the "atonement wars" is what sticks in my craw the most. He claims he doesn't think penal substitution "needs to be denied"—but he always seems to stop just short of really affirming it. And when someone else defends the doctrine, you can count on McKnight to express his "disappointment" at those of us who find the truth glorious. So he doesn't think the doctrine of penal substitution needs to be denied; he just doesn't want to miss any opportunity to downplay its importance or post pedantic criticisms of those who defend it.

That, in my view, is a far more egregious molestation of the spirit of "Holy Week" than Mark Dever's clear and candid defense of the truth of Isaiah 53:4-10.

PS: Here's something you won't hear me say very often: kudos to Christianity Today for publishing Dever's article.

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13 April 2006

Heads up

by Phil Johnson

At the moment, John MacArthur is scheduled to be part of a panel on "Larry King Live" tonight, discussing the issues of celibacy and marriage.

As I understand it, the topic is prompted by one of those ubiquitous and misnamed "Reality" shows slated to premier on some network or another. In the coming semi-documentary series, titled "God or the Girl," I'm told, four candidates for the Catholic priesthood are faced with various enticements to see if they will choose marriage or the obligatory vow of celibacy.

Larry King wants to talk about the issue, and he'll be asking John MacArthur and other panelists for their thoughts on celibacy, the priesthood, reality TV, and whatever.

King's "religion panels" are always an adventure in Kafkaesque absurdity. He likes to plant MacArthur between Deepak Chopra and Father Michael Manning. Despite Manning's smarmy, grinning, "I'm OK/you're OK" approach to every difficult issue, and Deepak's professed desire to be harmonious with everything in the imaginary pantheist universe he inhabits, both of them regularly find it impossible to stifle their visible and audible outpourings of contempt for MacArthur.

I don't actually know who's actually going to be on the panel tonight, but if I were a betting man...

Well, anyway—meanwhile, Bob Schieffer is doing something about the Emerging Church on the CBS evening news. Good thing I've got Tivo.

Incidentally, King's "scheduled" topics are always subject to change or cancellation at the last minute. If that happens, this post will automatically self-destruct and the secretary will disavow any knowledge of its existence.

Phil's signature

Bible translations, "dynamic" and otherwise: the heart of the matter

by Dan Phillips
Yes, that's right: I'm going to explain it all to you, right here and now.

Okay, seriously, not doable. But Tim Challies—who may or may not still think of me as James, if at all—just wrote on Eugene Peterson's personal issues with literal translations, and his rationale for providing a turbo-charged, super-duper dynamic version. That in turn provoked me to impart what I hope are some clarifying points about translations. To wit:
  1. All translations unavoidably paraphrase to some extent. To re-phrase one of Steve Martin's old schticks, "It's like the Greeks (and the Hebrews) have a different word for everything!" Not only do they have a different word, but they have a different word-order, and a different dynamic for how the sentences are structured ("syntax"—it's not just about whiskey).
  2. For this reason, if you don't know Greek or Hebrew, woodenly literal translations such as Young's, or interlinear versions, do not really get you any closer to understanding the original text. They may leave you further away, in fact. "Translation" and "wooden equivalence" are not synonyms.
  3. No translation can ever communicate everything that is in the original text. They certainly can convey it accurately enough, and truly enough; they're just not substitutes, if your life-calling is to teach that God-breathed text. Does a good black and white TV faithfully present a color movie? Absolutely. Same-as? No.
  4. There is a place for paraphrases, if they are clearly understood and marketed as paraphrases, and not held to substitute for the real deal. Think of a paraphrase as a very short running commentary. F. F. Bruce, I think, had the right idea in his commentary on Romans in the TNTC series. He had his more detailed commentary, but he also included a free paraphrase of Romans, which presented what he thought to be the flow of Paul's thought. Pastors regularly do this, and that can be immensely helpful. But they don't then write down all their paraphrases, bind it in leather, gold-edge the pages, and call it a "Bible."
  5. Here is the real problem with all paraphrases, and all "dynamic equivalent" (DE) "translations": they all remove the work of interpretation out of the hands of the readers, often without notice.


That last point is my main point, so that's where we'll spread our tent.

As Reformed Baptestants, or whatever we call ourselves, we don't believe in a magisterium. We believe that God spoke His word to His people (i.e. Romans 1:7; 1 Corinthians 1:2, Hebrews 1:1-2, etc.). We do not believe that He then immediately yanked it out of our hands and entrusted it to some caste, some sacred special class, given decoder rings direct from Heaven, and authorized to tell the unwashed ignoranti what the text Really Means. We affirm the perspicuity of Scripture, and the truth that God's Word was composed, sent, and intended for His people—all of them.

But what DE necessarily does, to some degree, is to take that key out of people's hands, and keep it, too often without notice. To some degree, dynamic equivalence necessarily says in effect, "Okay, the text says A, but what it really means is B"—and B is all that the unwashed masses get. Sometimes they get a footnote. Often, they don't even know that there was an "A." The decision to replace it was made for them.

To the degree that a DE moves into the arena of paraphrase, while calling itself a "translation," the translators set themselves up as a de facto magisterium.

For instance, take my favorite DE "translation" to bash: the New International Version (NIV). I adduce two examples.

The first example is the NIV's rendering of sarx, commonly translated in more literal versions as "flesh." The NIV itself sometimes translates it that way (e.g. 1 Corinthians 6:16). But in certain Pauline uses, it renders sarx as "sinful nature" (i.e. Romans 7:5, 18, 25; 8:3ff, Gal. 5:13, 16f, 19, 24; etc.)

Now, maybe Paul means "sinful nature" when he says "flesh." Of course, had he meant that, he could have said so in so many words (phusis hamartias, for instance, or psuche hamartias, or some such). But Paul didn't say that, he said sarx. Is Paul actually saying that the Christian has two natures, like Christ? Christ had divine and human natures; does the Christian have a sinful nature and a new nature—two full-blown, active, complete natures, existing side-by-side?

Some Christians think so. But some Christians don't. Some think the Christian has one nature (a new nature), but is still constantly plagued by "the remnants of sin"—sarx, the flesh.

The English-only reader of the NIV does not know that there are those two options, unless he checks the footnotes. The "translators" made the decision for him. He doesn't have the burden of interpretation—nor even the option of interpretation. The ambiguity has been moved to a footnote.

Not that this is all the NIV does with sarx. In Galatians 3:3 it is "human effort" ; and in 4:23 and 29 kata sarka ("according to the flesh") is "in the ordinary way." None of these paraphrases is admitted in a footnote.

Or take a subtler example: Matthew 17:1. The NIV has, "After six days Jesus took with him Peter, James and John the brother of James, and led them up a high mountain by themselves." Certainly seems straightforward enough; no heavily-doctrinally-controversial words there. Where's the beef?

The trouble is not what's there. It's what isn't there. When Matthew wrote this, he wrote "And [Greek kai] after six days." That little conjunction, "and," is dropped without note in the NIV.

How can that possibly matter? It is true that both Hebrew and Greek were a lot more profligate than we in using little conjunctions which we translate "and" or "but" or "now." It is also true that literally translating every one of them (particularly with the waw in the Old Testament) can make for pretty awkward English.

But here, it serves a purpose. It reminds the reader that Matthew did not create the chapter divisions, and that chapter 17 is part of a continuing narrative—not "next week on 'The Gospel of Matthew.'" It alerts the reader to the fact that Matthew 17 immediately follows the preceding events—and, I think, gives us a key to interpreting the very difficult promise in Matthew 16:27-28, which immediately precedes. But the English-only reader of the NIV lacks that clue.

Don't focus on those two instances. If commenters start arguing over my interpretations, they'll only prove my point. I offer them as illustrations. Focus on this: to one degree or another, the dynamic-equivalence "translator" takes the key of interpretation out of the hand of the reader, and keeps it for himself, without notice. In relatively "tighter" DE versions, such as the NIV, the wrong done (in my view) is usually limited. When we get into abominable PC-fad-driven versions such as the TNIV, the wrong is more egregious, as the reader is led to believe singular passages (such as Psalm 1) are really plurals. And in wildly "free" versions that are passed off as translations, the gulf is great indeed.

If you've read this far, and have any notion that I'm saying, "It's so simple! Just translate literally!", then I've failed to communicate very well, in my own language! It's far from simple. My point is that the "solution" of the DE school of thought is far riskier, far less obviously necessary, and potentially a bit more threatening to the priesthood of all believers, than they tend to admit.

(In case anyone cares to read further, I make some more remarks about translations in this essay.)

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10 April 2006

Search ended, quotation found (-- pastors and "The Languages")

by Dan Phillips

Both at my blog and here, I'd sent out a call for anyone to help me find a quotation. I've looked for this for years and years, fruitlessly. Folks tried, but nobody knew. Not until Jacob Hantla, over in the Comments section of my previous post, nailed it for me.

I thought it was Machen, but Hantla recalled that "Bill Barrick used it at the beginning of his Shepherds Conference '05 Message, 'Exegetical Preparation'. He attributed it to HH Raley (sp?)."

I don't know Barrick, wasn't at the conference, but did know of H. H. Rowley. So I hit Google, and found it pretty much right away. I had probably gotten it as it is quoted on p. 3 of Nigel Turner's Grammatical Insights into the New Testament (T&T Clark: 1965). Here it is, and I offer it for your reflection:

One who made it his life's work to interpret French literature, but who could only read it in an English translation, would not be taken seriously; yet it is remarkable how many ministers of religion week by week expound a literature that they are unable to read save in translation! [H. H. Rowley, Expository Times, LXXIV, 12, September, 1963, p. 383]
Thanks, Jacob! One long quotation-search done. Now, if only I could find out where 2 Thessalonians 3:10b was rendered "No loaves for loafers," or an early historical source for the Athanasius contra mundum story....

Dan Phillips's signature

09 April 2006

Not just mostly dead

posted by Phil Johnson

Your weekly dose of Spurgeon

The PyroManiacs devote space at the beginning of each week to highlights from The Spurgeon Archive.

The following excerpt is from an Easter sermon Spurgeon preached in his third year as a pastor in London. His congregation by then had already outgrown the famous New Park Street Chapel but were still several years away from relocating to the famous Metropolitan Tabernacle. To accommodate the massive Sunday crowds that overwhelmed their chapel, they held Sunday services regularly at the Music Hall, Royal Surrey Gardens.

This particular Resurrection Sunday, Spurgeon spoke on the principle of resurrection from Ephesians 2:1. I love the breathtakingly vivid imagery he employs. The graphic word-picture he paints would have been even more shocking to Victorian audiences than it sounds to us. He paints the picture of death with disturbing clarity and then points out that this is the spiritual state of every unbeliever:

About to become a carnival for worms

What a solemn sight is presented to us by a dead body! When last evening trying to realize the thought, it utterly overcame me.

The thought is overwhelming, that soon this body of mine must be a carnival for worms; that in and out of these places, where my eyes are glistening, foul things, the offspring of loathsomeness, shall crawl; that this body must be stretched in still, cold, abject, passive, death, must then become a noxious, nauseous thing, cast out even by those that loved me, who will say, "Bury my dead out of my sight."

Perhaps you can scarcely, in the moment I can afford you, appropriate the idea to yourselves. Does it not seem a strange thing, that you, who have walked to this place this morning, shall be carried to your graves; that the eyes with which you now behold me shall soon be glazed in everlasting darkness; that the tongues, which just now moved in song, shall soon be silent lumps of clay; and that your strong and stalwart frame, now standing to this place, will be unable to move a muscle, and become a loathsome thing, the brother of the worm and the sister of corruption?

You can scarcely get hold of the idea; death doth such awful work with us, it is such a Vandal with this mortal fabric, it so rendeth to pieces this fair thing that God hath builded up, that we can scarcely bear to contemplate his works of ruin.

Now, endeavour, as well as you can, to get the idea of a dead corpse, and when you have so done, please to understand, that that is the metaphor employed in my text, to set forth the condition of your soul by nature: "And you . . . were dead in trespasses and sins" (Ephesians 2:1).

Just as the body is dead, incapable, unable, unfeeling, and soon about to become corrupt and putrid, so are we if we be unquickened by divine grace; dead in trespasses and sins, having within us death, which is capable of developing itself in worse and worse stages of sin and wickedness, until all of us here, left by God's grace, should become loathsome beings; loathsome through sin and wickedness, even as the corpse through natural decay.

Understand, that the doctrine of the Holy Scripture is, that man by nature, since the fall, is dead; he is a corrupt and ruined thing; in a spiritual sense, utterly and entirely dead. And if any of us shall come to spiritual life, it must be by the quickening of God's Spirit, vouchsafed to us sovereignly through the good will of God the Father, not for any merits of our own, but entirely of his own abounding and infinite grace.

By the way, the description of a corpse as "a carnival for worms" was a particular favorite of Spurgeon's. It was the kind of expression his critics often complained made his preaching sound lowbrow and unpolished. Spurgeon was rightly more concerned about clarity than he was about any culturally-driven standard of propriety. It's one of the main reasons his sermons still have a profound impact even today.

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07 April 2006

Just curious ...

by Frank Turk

I've been having a little knock-down drag-out at my blog over Limited Atonement, and I have been thinking about it intently. Now I have a question, which I would like to pose to the readers of TeamPyro:

Does any person who ought to be condemned to hell escape because God is somehow not concerned or involved enough about sending them to hell that they escape his wrath? For example, is it possible that, in the final account, Judas will be judged by God worthy of hell but will escape God's wrath and spend eternity in heaven with the saints?

Talk amongst yourselves.

05 April 2006

Delight and de danger of de metaphor

by Dan Phillips

Thank God that the Bible as a whole doesn't read like a legal document or — worse — anything written by any department of any branch of any government. Whereas legaloids, bureaucrats and eggheads tend to generate documents addressed mostly to themselves and the rarefied atmosphere of their peers, the Bible is addressed to craftsmen, tradesmen, farmers, parents, kids. Folks like us.

For that reason the Bible bristles with vibrantly colorful ways of communication, including stories, riddles, poems, aphorisms, personal letters, alliterations, similes and metaphors. We pretty instinctively know what a metaphor does: it illustrates something about something. It doesn't illustrate everything about anything. We shouldn't go nuts with it.

So when we read that Yahweh is our Shepherd (Psalm 23:1), we're usually smart enough to let the psalm itself bring out the implications of that word picture. We don't go nuts, and depict God as wandering around in the desert, carrying a literal stick, picking grit out of His stew and being bitten by bugs. That's leagues beyond, and beside, the point of the metaphor.

On the other hand, of course we don't sniff, "Well, of course, He isn't literally a shepherd," and then simply ignore the point of the psalm. The metaphor is used for a purpose, and we're both fools and the poorer for it if we evade that purpose.

We should similarly avoid going to either extreme when it comes to Biblical metaphors applied to believers. There are many of them.

Take the one I think is most misunderstood: disciple. What does that word itself mean? Ask any church gathering and, assuming that you know the answer, you'll be a bit disheartened. "Follower?" the first brave soul will venture. "Apostle?" "Believer?" "Disciplined, uh, person?"

They'll all mean well, and they'll all probably be wrong, because disciple has just become one of those words we use without definition. In Greek, it's quite unambigous. Mathetes is related to the verb manthano, which means "I learn," and it simply means "a learner," "a pupil," "a student." (See how much better sense that understanding makes of Matthew 28:18-20, and John 8:31-32.)

It's a neglected and much-needed metaphor, in my view. How many professed Christians come to church, Sunday after Sunday, mentally and physically prepared to do everything but learn? No pen, no pencil; no laptop, parchment, crayon, stub of coal. More often than I can bear to think, no Bible. They simply come to watch, to observe, perhaps to sing, hopefully to be entertained to some degree -- but not to participate, not to catch what they hear, tie it up, make it their own, and do something with it. They feel that their mere bodily presence fulfills all requirements.

Pastor, next Sunday, surprise your congregation with a pop-quiz on last Sunday's sermon. (No; on second thought, better not.)

So we'd move on a good bit towards the reality of Hebrews 5:11-14 if we stressed that image, that picture, that metaphor, more insistently. But it is not the only metaphor! Is the only goal of a church's function to fill up notebooks, or load heads with facts? Is a pastor doing his job if he develops a vocabulary that only his special students can understand, and develops the atmosphere of a college classroom?

Not at all. The Bible also pictures the church under the metaphors of a body (1 Corinthians 12:12), a spiritual house (1 Peter 2:5), a temple (Ephesians 2:2), a new man (Ephesians 2:15), a priesthood (1 Peter 2:5), and a family (Galatians 6:10) -- among others.

But no one of these metaphors captures the whole. I knew a pastor who "camped out" on the family metaphor, almost exclusively. Church was at 10:00am, but folks always straggled in later and later. Rather than trying to address the lack of respect or discipline, he just said, "It's a family," and moved the service to 10:30. What happened? You guessed it. They adjusted their straggle-in time to 10:45, 10:50. and the service started at 11:00. Babies were allowed to wander all over the floor, right up to the pulpit. Kids ran around. Few brought Bibles; but the ladies did bring knitting.

Maybe it resembled some families... but it didn't do much for the other Biblical metaphors.

In sum: the Bible is a big book, on purpose. In crafting our view of anything, we should take in the whole range of revelation, and not just isolate the bit that strikes us at the moment.

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03 April 2006

Miscellaneous Monday trivia

by Phil Johnson


  • On Wednesday, at two minutes and three seconds after 1:00 in the morning, the time and date will be 01:02:03 04/05/06. That has never happened in your lifetime and won't happen again until after you're dead. HT: Al Sanders.
  • I get a lot of messages from spaced-out people, but I got my first-ever genuine e-mail from outer space this afternoon. Jeff Williams sent me a message from the International Space Station. He's fine; thanks us for praying for him. Tonight he'll be sleeping in an air-lock with the pressure lowered; part of an experiment to lower the nitrogen level of his blood—a test to see if NASA can speed up the preparation time required for spacewalks from the ISS.
  • Which reminds me: I began this morning very early, teaching for a pastors' conference in India via live video hookup. It occurred to me that during the 90 minutes I was speaking and answering questions, Jeff Williams flew over me and my audience on the other side of the earth. It's a small world after all.
  • I'm in the middle of an editing project, trying to finish editing John MacArthur's next major book before the publisher urges him to fire me for taking so long. For the next three weeks at least, I'll be almost incommunicado. Don't look for me to post much. The other pyros need to pick up the slack.
  • After that, I'll be in Sicily for a couple of weeks, teaching a concentrated course in systematic theology for a group of Italian pastors. I'm hoping to post something from there. However, in about ten previous trips to Italy I don't think I have ever been able to get an Internet connection, except for one ten-minute stint in an airport. So that may extend the length of my hiatus.
  • "Finally, brethren, pray for us, that the word of the Lord may have free course, and be glorified" (2 Thessalonians 3:1).

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01 April 2006

Our sentiments exactly

posted by Phil Johnson

Your weekly dose of Spurgeon

The PyroManiacs devote Monday space to highlights from The Spurgeon Archive. Once again this week, we bring you Spurgeon early, so you can savor his wisdom over the weekend. (And don't forget to change your clocks tonight, if you're in one of those flexible time zones.)

Here a beleaguered Spurgeon replies to critics who dismissed him with mockery and wrote off his prophetic words of caution in the "Downgrade" controversy as the befuddled ravings of a bitter old man. This comment was the leading entry in the "Notes" section of the February 1890 issue of The Sword and the Trowel:

"Words of Love and Soberness"

A CERTAIN newspaper paragraph very kindly attempts to comfort "Mr. Spurgeon at his worst stage of depression concerning the doubts of the day," by the assurance that religion can never pass away.

We can assure our friend that we never thought it could. No fear as to the ultimate victory of the truth of God ever disturbs our mind. We are sure that the doctrines of the gospel will outlive all the dotings of "modern thought."

The trouble is that, for the moment, error is having its own way in certain parts of the visible church, where better things once ruled; and, worse still, that good men will not see the evil, or, seeing it, wink at it, and imagine that it will do no very great deal of harm. It is ours to give warning of a danger which to us is manifest and alarming; and if the warning makes us the butt of ridicule, we must bear it.

Our protest is, no doubt, regarded by some as a piece of bigotry, and by others, as the dream of a nervous mind. Neither conjecture is correct; but we speak the words of love and soberness.

An American, who enquired of certain leaders in the "Down-Grade" what they thought of Spurgeon's conduct, was informed that sickness and age had weakened his intellect. This has been their contemptuous method all along; but facts are not to be set aside by such remarks.

Be the protester what he may, he declares his protest to be solemnly needful, and he begs for attention to it. It may be the old truth is in the minority, and that those who uphold it are thought to be troublers in Israel, and causers of false alarm: but we are none the less confident that, when good men return to their better selves, they will see differently. Bitterly will some regret that they allowed matters to drift, and drift, till they had wrought incalculable mischief.

We have spoken in saddest earnest. It is no pleasure to us to stand apart, and refuse complicity with what we judge to be a great crime. Our witness is on high. The Lord will judge between us and the enemies of the faith in his own good time!

C. H. Spurgeon


Time has certainly vindicated Spurgeon. Everything he warned about in the Downgrade episode ultimately did come to pass. The mainstream of the evangelical movement in this postmodern generation is now following the very same disastrous path taken by the modernists of Spurgeon's generation. We have again a multitude of careless souls whose only response to warnings about the drift is scorn, abuse, and dismissal. The blogosphere abounds with examples of this.

But history is a harsh teacher. She always severely punishes those who refuse to learn her lessons.

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