“X Views on Y” Books (Carson)

Many of us have heard about or even read the various books that have titles something like this: “Three Views on the Church.” On the one hand, these books might be somewhat helpful. On the other hand, we might want to think twice before saying they are helpful without offering any critique or caveat. Speaking of, I just ran across D. A. Carson’s editorial called “Subtle Ways to Abandon the Authority of Scripture in Our Lives.” The whole essay is worth reading, but point number three caught my eye this morning: “Publishing Ventures that Legitimate What God Condemns.” Here’s the first part of it:

Recently Zondervan published Two Views on Homosexuality, the Bible, and the Church; this book bills these two views as “affirming” and “non-affirming,” and two authors support each side. Both sides, we are told, argue “from Scripture.” If the “affirming” side was once viewed as a stance that could not be held by confessional evangelicals, this book declares that not only the non-affirming stance but the affirming stance are represented within the evangelical camp, so the effect of this book is to present alternative evangelical positions, one that thinks the Bible prohibits homosexual marriage, and the other that embraces it.

All who read these lines will of course be aware of the many books that proffer three views or four views (or two, or five) on this or that subject: the millennium, election, hell, baptism, and many more. Surely this new book on homosexuality is no different. To this a couple of things must be said.

(a) The format of such volumes, “x views on y,” is intrinsically slippery. It can be very helpful to students to read, in one volume, diverse stances on complex subjects, yet the format is in danger of suggesting that each option is equally “biblical” because it is argued “from Scripture.” Of course, Jehovah’s Witnesses argue “from Scripture,” but most of us would hasten to add that their exegesis, nominally “from Scripture,” is woefully lacking. The “x views on y” format tilts evaluation away from such considerations, baptizing each option with at least theoretical equivalent legitimacy. In short, the “x views on y” format, as useful as it is for some purposes, is somewhat manipulative. As I have argued elsewhere, not all disputed things are properly disputable.

(b) Otherwise put, it is generally the case that books of the “x views on y” format operate within some implicit confessional framework or other. That’s why no book of this sort has (yet!) been published with a title such as “Three Views on Whether Jesus is God.” We might bring together a liberal committed to philosophical naturalism, a Jehovah’s Witness, and a confessional Christian. But it’s hard to imagine a book like that getting published—or, more precisely, a book like that would be tagged as a volume on comparative religion, not a volume offering options for Christians. Most books of the “x views on y” sort restrict the subject, the y-component, to topics that are currently allowed as evangelical options. To broaden this list to include an option that no evangelical would have allowed ten years ago—say, the denial of the deity of Jesus, or the legitimacy of homosexual practice—is designed simultaneously to assert that Scripture is less clear on the said topic than was once thought, and to re-define, once again, the borders of evangelicalism. On both counts, the voice of Scripture as the norma normans (“the rule that rules”), though theoretically still intact, has in fact been subtly reduced.

 D. A. Carson, “Editorial: Subtle Ways to Abandon the Authority of Scripture in Our Lives,” Themelios 42, no. 1 (2017): 2–3.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI, 54015

The “Historical Nonsense” of Early Pluralistic Christianities (Carson)

The Intolerance of Tolerance This is very much worth reading:

…During the last decade and a half a number of writers with media savvy have unleashed books and articles to support the view that originally Christianity was pluralistic in content and largely tolerant (in the new sense!) in attitude. There was no agreed orthodoxy, but highly diverse theological syntheses. We catch glimpses of the complexities, it is argued, when we peruse the many apocryphal gospels and other writings that never made it into the New Testament canon—books with titles such as Gospel of Thomas, Gospel of Peter, and so forth. Unfortunately, we are told, what became “orthodoxy” won out and opposed every view other than that of orthodoxy. Our New Testament canon is such a late development, it is argued; in the first couple of centuries there was much more diversity. If the fourth- and fifth-century church councils formulated creeds still recited today, they did so at the expense of shutting down everyone else. So Elaine Pagels promotes The Gnostic Gospels, which, she claims, advocated tolerance and promoted egalitarianism, while Bart Ehrman bemoans Lost Christianities.

The subtext of these and similar books is that originally Christianity was diverse and tolerant. Sadly, relatively late orthodoxy made it narrow, bigoted, hate-filled, and intolerant. So don’t trust people who talk about orthodoxy. Surely we are in a much better situation today, Ehrman argues, when Western culture is much more akin to the “famous tolerance” of Roman paganism. Of course, the Romans were not very tolerant of the proto-orthodox, sometimes going on persecution sprees and killing quite a lot of them. But it was the Christians’ own fault for being intolerant.

As popular as this view has become, it is historical nonsense. Even a casual reading of the New Testament discloses how many of its writers were concerned to maintain the truth of the gospel (e.g., Galatians 1:8–9; 2 Corinthians 10–13; Jude). Daniel L. Hoffman has painstakingly refuted the central theses of Elaine Pagels. Simon Gathercole’s learned study demonstrates that, far from a narrow orthodox unity being extracted from a rich diversity, the flow went the other way: first to develop was the strong confessionalism; and then, as the passage of time and the pressures from the surrounding cultures spawned more and more aberrant theologies, Christians were forced to devote more thought to formulations that excluded these new aberrations precisely because they had never been part of the Christian heritage. A recent book by Charles Hill demonstrates that the fourfold Gospel structure that we know in the New Testament was not invented in the fourth century but was already well known in the second, by thinkers as diverse as Hippolytus, Tertullian, Origen, Dionysius, Cyprian, Victorinus, Marinus, Euplus, and, of course, Irenaeus. It does not seem unreasonable to infer that the devotion to diversity that marks so much of contemporary culture lies behind not a little of the revisionist historiography.

 D. A. Carson, The Intolerance of Tolerance (Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge, UK: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2012), 115–116.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI, 54002

More than Conquerors? (Carson)

D.A. Carson “Love of God” Collection (3 vols.)What does it mean in Romans 8:37 when Paul says that followers of Christ are “more than conquerors” (ESV) or “have complete victory” (NET)?  D. A. Carson gives some good answers to this question based on the context of Romans 8:

First, the “us” to whom the apostle refers includes all Christians. All Christians are the ones whom God has foreknown, “predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son,” called, justified, glorified (8:29–30). The people referred to are not the elite of the elect; they are ordinary Christians, all genuine Christians.

Second, the actual evidence that they are “more than conquerors” is that they persevere regardless of all opposition. That opposition may take the form of horrible persecution, of the kind that Scripture describes (8:35–38). It may be some other hardship, all the way to famine. The glories of life will not finally seduce them; the terrors of death will not finally sway them; neither the pressures of the present nor the frustrations of the future will destroy them (8:38). Neither human powers nor anything else in all creation, not even all the powers of hell unleashed, can “separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (8:39).

Third, as the last sentence already makes clear, that from which Christians cannot be finally separated is the “love of Christ” (8:35) or the love of God in Christ (8:39). At one level, of course, that is simply saying that no power can stop Christians from being Christians. That is why we are “more than conquerors.” But that point could have been made a lot of different ways. To make it this way, with an emphasis on the love of Christ as that from which we cannot be separated, reminds us of the sheer glory and pleasure that is ours, both now and in eternity, to be in such a relationship. We are not simply acquitted; we are loved. We are loved not simply by a peer, but by God himself. Nor is this a reference to the general love that God has for his entire creation. What is at stake here is that special love that attaches to “all who have been called according to his purpose” (8:28).

Fourth, the guarantee that we shall prevail and persevere, and prove to be “more than conquerors” in this sense, is nothing other than the sovereign purposes of God (8:29–30), manifest in the death of his Son on our behalf (8:31–35). “If God is for us, who can be against us?” (8:32). No greater security is imaginable.

 D. A. Carson, For the Love of God: A Daily Companion for Discovering the Riches of God’s Word., vol. 1 (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1998).

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI

Daily Devotionals: Recommendations

(This is a repost from May, 2012)

I’ve been asked by quite a few different people if I had any suggestions for a day-by-day devotional book.  Those little white pocket-size devotional booklets are often fluffy, moralistic, cheesy, or theologically weak – I can see why people are looking for something better.  To make a longer blog post short, here are a few I recommend:

 Holiness Day by Day by Jerry Bridges.  In this book, each day’s devotional starts with a verse from Scripture then consists of a one page reading from various books Bridges wrote.  This is a good one for most Christians – it is understandable, theologically sound, and gospel centered.  There is no fluff here!

Another one page daily devotional I recommend is J. M Boice’s Come to the Waters.  This daily reading starts with a verse from Scripture and then has a one page portion of Boice’s writing.  This book is also solid and understandable, though each devotional isn’t necessarily an explanation of the gospel. Come to The Waters is also readable for most Christians.

The J. I. Packer Classic Collection: Daily Readings for Your Spiritual Journey Here’s a day-by-day reading written by J. I. Packer: Daily Readings for Your Spiritual Journey.  This day-by-day devotional book is just like the first two I noted.  There is a verse and then a short section of Packer’s writing. This too is solid and understandable – it also covers a broad range of doctrines and application.

Comforts from the Cross: Celebrating the Gospel One Day at a Time (Revised Edition) Another one I’ve purchased and given out is Comforts from the Cross by E. Fitzpatrick.  This devotional is a little different from the above only because it is a little longer and specifically focuses on the cross.  Each daily reading is around two pages – and each day there is a verse and a closing prayer.  Also worth noting here is that this devotional is for one month, while the others listed here would take longer to complete.

Finally, I certainly should mention D. A. Carson’s two volumes called For the Love of God.  This daily, one page devotional is structured after M’Cheyne’s one year Bible reading plan.  Each day consists of a meditation on the day’s Scripture reading.  This one, like the others, is solid, biblical, and covers a variety of Biblical doctrines and application.

What we’ve done (here at church) is purchased several of these and handed them out to those in the congregation who were interested in a daily Christian reading.  I think this is a good idea.  Get rid of those little fluffy devotional booklets and replace them with some (or all!) of these books I’ve listed above.  And, as always, if you have other good suggestions, list them in the comments.

Shane Lems

Love or Truth? Love and Truth? (Carson)

The Intolerance of Tolerance The main point of D. A. Carson’s 2012 book, The Intolerance of Tolerance, is a good one: “[The] new, contemporary tolerance is intrinsically intolerant” (p. 2).  Carson unpacks that statement pretty well throughout the book.  One thing I want to point out in light of this statement is how Carson discusses the Christian teachings of truth and love later on in chapter five:

“It is not uncommon for the new tolerance to pit truth against love in a zero-sum game: one or the other will be diminished.  If your church has a statement of faith, you may be trying to uphold biblical truth, but love for outsiders will be diminished.  If you think of the Christian faith as articulating, proclaiming, and defending the truth, you will diminish in love, for truth draws borders and establishes that those who disagree with you are ‘other,’ and the inevitable result is lovelessness and intolerance.  You cannot truly love and be passionate for the truth [they say].”

“Biblically speaking, this is a strange position, however popular it is today.  For instance, in his first letter the apostle John establishes three tests of genuine Christian profession: ‘a truth test’ (believers must believe certain things to be true), a love test (believers must genuinely love one another), and an obedience test (believers must do what Jesus says).  Transparently, all of us fail these tests, more or less frequently – and then the only comfort John provides (and it is entirely sufficient) is that the blood of Jesus, God’s Son, cleanses us from all sin.”

“The point to observe is that these three tests must be applied together: it is not best two out of three, nor is there an option to excel in one and flunk the other two.  In particular, John senses no discomfort in pushing both truth and love.  One must conclude, therefore, that if we are tempted to pit one against the other, then clearly there is something fundamentally amiss in our conception of truth, of love, or of both” (p. 121).

D. A. Carson, The Intolerance of Tolerance (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012).

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI