Posts Tagged ‘D.A. Carson’

Will the Spirit reveal something beyond what is written in the Bible?

October 13, 2016


My friend Brandon tagged me in this post. Rev. Guyton is an author and fellow United Methodist pastor—and one who identifies himself as a progressive evangelical.

In response, I wrote the following:

So our Lord is telling us that he will reveal something in the distant future (for example, that the meaning of marriage is up for grabs) that will directly contradict what he would reveal to us through Paul and the other apostles in the near future? And contradict what he himself already taught in Matthew 19/Mark 10? Is that what Morgan thinks “progressive revelation” is?

As to what Jesus meant, did the Holy Spirit not inspire the apostles and evangelists as they eventually wrote down what became the New Testament? Didn’t this represent new and additional information? Doesn’t the Holy Spirit guide all of us as we read and apply his word?

In his Eerdmans commentary on John, D.A. Carson addresses the possibility of continuing, definitive revelation head-on, emphasizing both the finality of God’s revelation in the Son, and the intended audience of Jesus’ words in John 16:12-15. Jesus is directing these words, Carson says, to the apostles in their lifetimes, not to future disciples. Moreover, this further revelatory work of the Spirit, which the apostles couldn’t bear at this particular moment, would help them understand the full meaning and implications of the revelation of God in Christ—which was (or would be after Christ’s ascension) a finished work of God.

Why was the Spirit’s guiding role in the lives of the apostles so important? Because they were the ones who transmitted and interpreted the events of the life of Jesus—writing, shaping, and influencing the books and letters that became the New Testament.

We who are the spiritual descendants of these first disciples already have the New Testament. There’s nothing more that needs to be said. As I said above, while the Holy Spirit plays a role in helping us apply the revelation of Christ to our circumstances today, this is different from saying that there’s further revelation.

It is important to recognize that the disciples who will directly benefit from these ministrations of the Spirit are primarily the apostles. In two of the the other Paraclete passages, explicit reference is made to reminding the disciples of what Jesus said during the days of his flesh (14:26) or to the fact that they had been with Jesus from the beginning of his ministry (15:27). Both references rule out later disciples. Here, too, the primary focus of the Spirit’s ministry is doubtless on those who  could not, when Jesus spoke, bear more than he was giving them (v. 12), but who would need to be guided in all the truth of the revelation of God in Christ Jesus that they had been privileged to witness. At least part of the consequences of that unfolding is this Gospel of John.

Derivatively, we may speak of the Spirit’s continued work in the disciples of Jesus today. But that is not the primary emphasis of these verses; and in any case it is impossible to think of such continuing ministry of the Spirit leading men and women to stances outside the enriching and explanatory ministry he exercised amongst the first witnesses, which is crystallized in this book. That the emphasis is so transparently on the first witnesses, on how they came to what we would call a fully Christian understanding of all that Jesus is and did, drives our attention to Jesus himself, and away from subsidiary themes like discipleship, the continuing work of the Spirit and the like.[†]

I know from reading Guyton’s blog and other online interactions that Guyton’s testimony of faith includes a rejection of the Christian fundamentalism so pervasive in the American South. By putting so much weight on one particular proof-text, however, how is Guyton not being just like a fundamentalist, albeit from the other direction?

While I’m sure he would disagree with Dr. Carson, I hope he would appreciate that Carson is interpreting these verses in the context of the entire Gospel.

D.A. Carson, The Gospel according to John (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991), 541-2.

The “high Christology” of doubting Thomas

April 19, 2016

Carson_Gospel of JohnCritical Bible scholarship—the air that seminarians of mainline Protestantism breathe—is in love with “low Christology,” the idea that if the earthly Jesus was, in any sense, God, he was unaware of it—as were his apostles until a long time after Christ’s resurrection (however that event would be construed by these scholars).

Therefore, Thomas’s confession of Christ as God in John 20:28 (“My Lord and my God!”) couldn’t have been spoken by Thomas only a week after Easter. “John,” whoever he is, invented the story to reflect his community’s high Christology, which developed decades after Easter. After all, they say, there’s no hint of Jesus’ being God in Mark, the earliest gospel, written (so they say) around 70 A.D., because that belief hadn’t developed by then.

(I’m not agreeing with this assessment of Mark. I’m just saying that’s their position.)

Of course, since even critical scholars accept that Paul’s letters date from about A.D. 48 to A.D. 60, they have to explain away any high Christology found there. (Examples are plentiful, but I would start with the Christ hymn of Philippians 2:5-11.)

When I was in seminary, few of us knew that there was any serious alternative to critical scholars. (I certainly didn’t.) We knew nothing about evangelical scholars, even those who, like N.T. Wright, keep one foot in each realm. We never read them. Professors never mentioned them. Critical scholars that we studied never cited them.

So it’s been eye-opening for me, as I’ve worked through John’s gospel in my current sermon series, to read, for example, D.A. Carson’s The Gospel According to John, published by Eerdmans. Dr. Carson interacts with critical scholarship throughout his commentary—voicing both agreement and disagreement where necessary—from the classic skeptic Bultmann to one of my Candler professors, Gail O’Day, author of Abingdon’s New Interpreters commentary on John.

Carson tackles the alleged “plausibility problem” of Thomas’s confession on a number of fronts. For one thing, Thomas would have been familiar with Old Testament accounts of “believers who conversed with what appeared to be men, only to learn, with terror, that they were heavenly visitors, possibly Yahweh himself.”[1]

This is exactly right: I’m thinking of Abraham’s encounter with the three heavenly visitors in Genesis 18 (before they destroy Sodom and Gomorrah). One of those visitors, without explanation, is referred to as Yahweh beginning in v. 17. Abraham knows he’s talking directly to God.

Or what about the story of Jacob’s wrestling an angel in Genesis 32. Is he wrestling an angel, or is he wrestling God? The text is ambiguous: Jacob, at least, is convinced when it’s over that he’s wrestled God, and is relieved to have survived the encounter. In fact, the very name that he’s given during this encounter, Israel, means “strives with God.”

Carson’s point is that Thomas would have already had precedent within an orthodox Jewish framework to identify Jesus as literally God—just as Abraham and Jacob did in their encounters with the divine.

Critical scholars employ another tactic to explain Thomas’s confession away: they say that his wasn’t a confession at all; it was an exclamation, like OMG! As Carson writes:

Thomas’ utterance cannot possibly be taken as shocked profanity addressed to God (if to anyone), a kind of blasphemous version of a stunned ‘My word!’ Despite its popularity with some modern Arians, such profanity would not have been found in first-century Palestine on the lips of a devout Jew. In any case, Thomas’ confession is addressed to him, i.e. to Jesus; and Jesus immediately (if implicitly) praises him for his faith, even if it is not as notable as the faith of those who believe without demanding the kind of evidence accorded Thomas.[2]

“Modern Arians.” That’s harsh, but why not call a spade a spade?

1. D.A. Carson, The Gospel According to John (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991), 658.

2. Ibid.

What is going on with Jesus’ grave-clothes in John 20?

March 30, 2016
Here's an actual tomb with a rolling stone next to the entrance. I took this photo on the side of a highway in Galilee in 2012.

Here’s an actual tomb with a rolling stone next to the entrance. I took this photo on the side of a highway in Galilee in 2012.

As I said in my sermon on Sunday, John 20:1-18 sounds like authentic eyewitness testimony. (Keep in mind: critical scholars often speak as if the author of the Fourth Gospel, who isn’t John, they insist, has little interest in historical truth.) This scripture includes oddly specific details, like the footrace between John, the “beloved disciple,” and Peter, for instance, which serve no purpose other than to describe what happened as accurately as possible.

The details about the order in which the two disciples enter the tomb and see the grave-clothes strike me this way, too.

In fact, I read something last week about these grave-clothes that I had never considered before. Don Carson puts it like this in his commentary:

The cloth was folded up by itself, separate from the linen. Clearly, John perceives these details to be important, but their exact meaning is disputed. Some have thought that the burial cloth still retained the shape of Jesus’ head, and was separated from the strips of linen by a distance equivalent to the length of Jesus’ neck. Others have suggested that owing to the mix of spices separating the layers, even the strips of linen retained the shape they had when Jesus’ body filled them out. Both of these suggestions say more than the text requires. What seems clearest is the contrast with the resurrection of Lazarus (11:44). Lazarus came from the tomb wearing his grave-clothes, the additional burial cloth still wrapped around his head. Jesus’ resurrection body apparently passed through his grave-clothes, spices and all, in much the same way that he later appeared in a locked room (vv. 19, 26).[1]

Jesus passed through the grave-clothes! That makes perfect sense! John would have remembered Lazarus staggering out of the tomb, struggling to remove his linen cloths—and only able to with help. Jesus, by contrast, who has conquered death in a way that Lazarus didn’t (he lived only to die again some day), can miraculously leave them behind.

At least a few scholars I read last week, along with preacher John Piper, all endorse this idea.

As excited as I was to consider this, the study notes in the ESV Study Bible shot it down:

Though it is sometimes suggested otherwise, nothing in the text indicates that Jesus’ body passed through the cloths or that the cloths were lying in the shape of Jesus’ body. The NT elsewhere affirms the real physical materiality of Jesus’ resurrection body (see Matt. 28:9Luke 24:30, 39, 42John 20:17, 20, 27Acts 10:41). Most likely Jesus unwrapped these cloths from his body when he awakened from death and left them behind.

I disagree: First, Jesus’ “real physical materiality” isn’t in question here. Jesus is physical, but he’s more than physical as we understand it. That’s why, as Carson says, Jesus can seemingly walk through locked doors in John 20 and—I would add—vanish from sight, as in the Emmaus story in Luke 24.

Also, the idea that Jesus would miraculously pass through the cloths makes better sense of the fact that John comes to faith, not after seeing that the tomb was empty, but after seeing the grave-clothes inside the empty tomb. Something about what he saw inside was remarkable. If John had merely seen that Jesus had unwrapped the cloths, would it have had the same effect?

1. D.A. Carson, The Gospel According to John (Grand Rapids, MD: Eerdmans, 1991), 637.

Bad ideas we accept uncritically in mainline Protestant seminary

March 3, 2016

Carson_Gospel of JohnOr at least I did, until too recently… I’m referring today to the idea that when Jesus questions the Samaritan woman at the well about her husband in John 4—and exposes the fact that she’s been married five times and is currently living with a man outside of marriage—he isn’t speaking literally; and the woman herself understands this. Or if he is speaking literally at one level, he isn’t judging the woman for her sexual sin; rather, he’s using her sexual history to make a point about Samaritan idolatry: her five husbands represent the five deities worshiped by the nations that settled Samaria after the Assyrian conquest. Again, this very perceptive woman understands what Jesus is up to.

Of course, since “John” (whoever he is) often doesn’t bother to narrate historical events, the Samaritan woman is probably only a literary character anyway.

Sandra Schneiders teaches this in her commentary on John. Gail O’Day does the same in hers. My professor at the time made the same point.

In fact, these and other scholars say, the “Johannine Jesus” never cares about any sin other than failing to believe in him. This is why he doesn’t tell the woman to repent. Instead he commends her for her honest answer in v. 18. (It’s easy to see how comfortably this viewpoint fits in with today’s cultural preoccupations.)

I’m not making this up. Think for a moment about the doctrine of scripture implied by this understanding of John’s Gospel. Ugh! And you wonder why United Methodist preachers don’t preach the Bible anymore! We’re being brainwashed in seminary! Only Christians with more spiritual maturity than I possessed at the time can escape unharmed. (Abandon hope, all ye who enter here!)

Be that as it may, in his commentary on John, D.A. Carson attacks this allegorical reading head on:

The most common allegorical interpretation of John 4 holds that the five husbands represent five pagan deities introduced to the residents of Samaria by the settlers who were transported there (cf. notes on 4:4) from five cities in Mesopotamia and Syria (2 Ki. 17:24); the Samaritan woman represents the mixed and religiously tainted Samaritan race; and the sixth man, to whom the woman was not legally married, represents either another false god or, more commonly, the true God to whom the Samaritans are connected only by an illicit union. In fact, the details do not work out. The transported settlers originally worshipped seven pagan deities, not five… and these gods were all worshipped at the same time, not serially. Moreover, although it is true that John frequently uses institutions and details in symbolic ways…, his symbolism in such cases is not only commonly predicated upon larger typologies connecting Jesus with the Old Testament, but in any case the symbolic value is tied to broader and demonstrable themes in the Fourth Gospel. The proposed symbolism in this instance fails both tests.[1]

1. D.A. Carson, The Gospel According to John (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1991), 232-3.

When did Jesus cleanse the Temple?

January 27, 2016

Last Sunday’s scripture was John 2:13-22, Jesus’ cleansing of the Temple. Careful readers of the gospels may wonder why John puts this event near the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry, while the Synoptics (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) place it near the end, during his Passion Week.

In the world of critical scholarship in which I was immersed for several years, this wasn’t even a question: since John cares little for historical accuracy, he places the pericope here to serve his thematic purposes. Here’s a typical explanation, from Candler professor Gail O’Day’s commentary on John:

It is unlikely that Jesus performed this bold act twice, so the two traditions probably narrate the same event. The synoptic chronology is the more historically reliable, because it is difficult to see how the Jewish religious authorities would have tolerated such a confrontational act at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. John moves the temple scene to the beginning of his Gospel because it serves a symbolic function for him. The temple cleansing in John completes the inaugural event begun with the Cana miracle. John 2:1-11 reveals the grace and glory of Jesus and the abundant new life Jesus offers. John 2:13-22 highlights the challenge and threat that new life poses to the existing order (cf. John 5:1-18).[1]

Many evangelical scholars take this position, too.

N.T. Wright, that rare evangelical who gets published by mainline publishers—including Abingdon, which published his Romans commentary alongside Dr. O’Day’s John commentary above—disagrees. Like O’Day, he thinks that the event happened once, only not near the end of Jesus’ ministry, but at the beginning. Since the Synoptics, unlike John, compress Jesus’ public ministry into a one-year rather than three-year period, they narrate this event near the end, not because that’s when it took place, but because that’s when they have Jesus in Jerusalem.

Few would deny that the four Evangelists arrange pericopes to suit their thematic purposes. This is consistent with Article XIII of the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, which says (emphasis mine):

WE DENY  that it is proper to evaluate Scripture according to standards of truth and error that are alien to its usage or purpose. We further deny that inerrancy is negated by Biblical phenomena such as a lack of modern technical precision, irregularities of grammar or spelling, observational descriptions of nature, the reporting of falsehoods, the use of hyperbole and round numbers, the topical arrangement of material, variant selections of material in parallel accounts, or the use of free citations.

Wright, who neither confirms nor denies that he is an inerrantist, says:

In favour of putting the incident at the beginning, as John does, is the fact that Matthew, Mark and Luke don’t have Jesus in Jerusalem at all during his adult life, so the final journey is the only place where it can happen. John, however, has Jesus going to and fro to Jerusalem a good deal through his short career. And if he had done something like this at the beginning, it would explain certain things very well: why, for instance, people came from Jerusalem to Galilee to check him out (e.g. Mark 3.22; 7.1), and why, when the high priest finally decided it was time to act, they already felt they had a case against him (John 11.47-53).[2]

The final alternative—and the more conservative one—is that the event took place twice—once at the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry and again two or three years later, near the end.

In his commentary on John, D.A. Carson doesn’t take a firm stand, but he’s unimpressed with arguments against the event’s occurring twice. First, he notes that critical scholarship’s skepticism about events occurring in doubles is based on speculative “just so” theories. Second, he writes:

[I]t is often argued that if Jesus had cleansed the temple once, the authorities would never have let him get away with it again. This is ingenuous. If there were two cleansings, they were separated by two years, possibly three. During that interval Jesus visited Jerusalem several times for other appointed festivals, without attempting another temple-cleansing. The authorities could not possibly be expected to keep their guard up against him indefinitely. If he was not arrested the first time, it may well be because a certain amount of public feeling sided with Jesus: is not that suggested by 2:23?

In short, it is not possible to resolve with certainty whether only one cleansing of the temple took place, or two; but the arguments for one are weak and subjective, while the most natural reading of the texts favours two. Meanwhile it is important to note (1) that a detail in John’s account of the temple-cleansing does not issue immediately in a conspiracy by the authorities to have him arrested and killed, for Jesus has not yet established his reputation, whereas the later cleansing reported in the Synoptics is presented more or less as one of the last straws that call down the wrath of the religious establishment.[3]

One final note: As if to give the lie to the idea that John’s gospel is less historical than the other three, please note that it is only John, in v. 19 (“Jesus answered them, ‘Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.’”), who narrates the event that led to a spurious charge reported only in the Synoptics: “We heard him say, ‘I will destroy this temple that is made with hands, and in three days I will build another, not made with hands’” (Mark 14:58; Matthew 26:61). (Notice Jesus didn’t say, “I will destroy…” but that’s how rumors start.)

Did Mark and Matthew know where this rumor originated? We don’t know. But if they knew it was connected to the Temple-cleansing event that they report in their own gospels, why didn’t they say so when they reported it? This conspicuous omission lends credence to the idea that there was an earlier temple-cleansing.

1. Gail O’Day, “The Gospel of John” in The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. IX (Nashville: Abingdon, 1995), 543.

2. N.T. Wright, John for Everyone, Part One (Louisville: WJK, 2004), 25-6.

3. D.A. Carson, The Gospel According to John (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991), 178.

Carson: None of us has an “inside track” to Jesus

January 15, 2016


As I preach through John’s gospel this year, I can already tell that D.A. Carson’s Pillar New Testament Commentary on John will be a great resource. Regarding Jesus’ words to Mary in John 2:4, he writes:

We must not avoid the conclusion that Jesus by rebuking his mother, however courteously, declares, at the beginning of his ministry, his utter freedom from any kind of human advice, agenda or manipulation. He has embarked on his ministry, the purpose of his coming; his only lodestar is his heavenly Father’s will (5:30; 8:29) This must have been extremely difficult for Mary. She had borne him, nursed him, taught his baby fingers elementary skills, watched him fall over as he learned to walk; apparently she had also come to rely on him as the family provider. But now that he had entered into the purpose of his coming, everything, even family ties, had to be subordinated to his divine mission. She could no longer view him as other mothers viewed their sons; she must no loner be allowed the prerogatives of motherhood. It is a remarkable fact that everywhere Mary appears during the course of Jesus’ ministry, Jesus is at pains to establish distance between them (e.g. Mt. 12:46-50). This is not callousness on Jesus’ part: on the cross he makes provision of her future (19:25-27). But she, like every other person, must come to him as to the promised Messiah, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. Neither she nor anyone else dare presume to approach him on an ‘inside track’—a lesson even Peter had to learn (Mk. 8:31-33). For no-one could this lesson have been more difficult than for Jesus’ mother; perhaps that was part of the sword that would pierce her soul (Lk. 2:35). For this we should honour her the more.[1]

1. D.A. Carson, The Gospel According to John (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991), 171.

Who is Nathanael? And is John’s gospel historically reliable?

January 13, 2016

Early drafts of my sermons always include things that don’t make the final cut, not because I don’t find them interesting (I’m always immensely interested in what I write), but because I don’t have time to include them. Last Sunday’s sermon on John 1:35-51 was no exception.

I intended to include more information about the unnamed disciple in v. 40—whom I believe to be John himself, the author of the gospel—and Nathanael in vv. 45-51.

When I studied John’s gospel in seminary, at least one of my professors rejected the traditional understanding that Nathanael is the same person as Bartholomew (not mentioned in John) in the Synoptics (Matthew, Mark, and Luke). Why? Because, she believed, “John” (who in her mind wasn’t John the apostle) wasn’t interested in communicating history at all; John’s gospel was valuable as literature only, whose truth was communicated mostly through symbolism and myth. In which case, why bother reconciling or harmonizing John with the other three, more “historical” gospels? Nathanael is a symbol, alongside so many other characters in John.

Among many problems with this approach is that it assumes that those Christian thinkers who lived within one or two generations of John (Polycarp and Justin Martyr, for example), who believed that John, among its many other virtues, also told historical truth, weren’t nearly as smart as we are today. For some reason, these thinkers, who knew the language, the culture, and the Greco-Roman world better than any of us do, couldn’t figure out what the fourth Evangelist was up to when he wrote his “symbolic” and “spiritual” gospel.

It also ignores how easily discrepancies or omissions between John and the Synoptics can often be reconciled. The issue of Nathanael and Bartholomew is a case in point. As D.A. Carson points out in his commentary, the fact that Nathanael, as depicted by John, is a friend of Philip’s from the same hometown, Bethsaida, agrees with the what the Synoptics say about Bartholomew. Moreover, Bartholomew is a patronym only—a last name meaning “Son of Tholomaeus.” It stands to reason that the name he was given at birth was Nathanael. Moreover, Bartholomew is coupled with Philip in the Synoptics (Mt. 10:3; Mk 3:18; Lk. 6:14), just as Nathanael is here.

Of course, in defending John’s historicity, I’m completely ignoring our orthodox Christian belief that the Holy Spirit ultimately gives us the Bible that we have, and it is the Spirit who ensures its infallibility.

Regardless, here’s what I cut out of my sermon:

[Andrew and the unnamed disciple] were originally disciples of John the Baptist: Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, was one of them, and an unnamed disciple who is likely John himself, the author of this gospel, was the other. Why do I think the unnamed disciple was John? Because John is always the unnamed in the gospel of John. He’s referred to as the “beloved disciple,” the “disciple whom Jesus loved.” The fact that he isn’t named is a sign of his humility. Another sign that it’s the author of this gospel is that curious little detail in verse 39: “So they came and saw where he was staying, and they stayed with him that day, for it was about the tenth hour.” It was about the tenth hour. Ancient Jews counted the hour beginning at 6:00 a.m. So ten hours after that would make it four in the afternoon.

My point is, it’s an oddly specific time. It seems unlikely that if it didn’t happen to the author himself, he would have bothered to mention it. Whereas if this was the very moment at which the course of your life changed forever, well, it’s natural that you would remember it. All that to say, we’re not dealing with myths and legends here; we’re dealing with history passed on by eyewitnesses.

The third disciple, Philip, was a childhood friend of Peter and Andrew, and the fourth was Nathanael, who we know from other three gospels as Bartholomew. Why the different name? “Bartholomew” was a last name, meaning “son of Tholomaeus.” Nathanael would have been his first name.

And while I’m on the subject of “clearing up confusion,” if you’ve read Matthew, Mark, and Luke, you may wonder why the call of these four in John—especially Peter, Andrew, and John—seems different from the other three gospels. In the other three, Peter, Andrew, and John, along with John’s brother James, are in their boats fishing when Jesus walks by and says, “Follow me”—at which point they drop what they’re doing, leave behind their families and their fishing business, and follow Jesus. It seems like they follow Jesus without even knowing who he was. So John’s gospel actually makes sense of the other three by furnishing a key detail that’s missing there: they did already know Jesus before they they left their homes and families and livelihoods and decided to spend the next three years of their lives with him.