John Webster on divine revelation

Revelation is the overthrow of the blindness, silence, and deafness in which we refuse to be addressed and disturbed by God.

Revelation is fellowship freely established by God. This fellowship is the fellowship of the divine covenant: the fellowship, that is, of creator and creature, of Lord and subject, of judge and sinner, of savior and saved. It is not the mutual agreement of two equal parties but a determination made by one of the parties which unconditionally and unreservedly defines the other. . . . Nor is it a fellowship in which the response of the subordinate party is either self-generated or self-referring. To respond to the gratuity with which God in revelation makes himself accessible to us is to confess, to acknowledge, to repent, to praise–all modes of the ecstasy of faith. And revelation, therefore, comes to do battle with us: to overcome our refusal to confess the sheer overwhelming goodness, beauty, and truth of God. Revelation is the overthrow of the blindness, silence, and deafness in which we refuse to be addressed and disturbed by God. That revelation does indeed overthrow us is not the least sign of that fact that it is the mercy of God.

-John Webster, The Culture of Theology (Baker: 2019), 123

How shall we hear Jesus Calling?

Two recent articles from two radically different publications—Christianity Today and The New York Times—have revisited the phenomena & controversy that is Jesus Calling. Several months back I presented a review of the book to our church after I began to see an increasing number of copies in the hands of church members. At the time I knew nothing about the book. In fact, I assigned myself the review so that I could gain a better sense of what our people were reading and thinking. Since I didn’t want to be affected by other prominent reviews (see here and here) I resisted the temptation to read what others thought of the book.

By now the chief objections are well-known: writing as Jesus (in the first person) creates the impression of authoritative revelation, the paradoxical assertion that the words are from Jesus but that they shouldn’t be considered inerrant, the implication that Christians need something more than Scripture, etc. These objections have been clearly and, I think, convincingly articulated so there’s no need to rehash the arguments here. But at the risk of appearing to pile on I’ll add a few issues I haven’t seen discussed elsewhere.

1) The formative influence of God Calling for Sarah Young’s Jesus Calling. Young recounts that her reading of the devotional book God Calling “dovetailed remarkably well with my longing to live in Jesus’ Presence” and that, as a result, she “began to wonder if I, too, could receive messages during my times of communing with God.”  Learning of the significant influence that God Calling had on her, we should note that not only has Young imitated the method of the anonymous “listeners” (i.e. the co-authors) but she appears to have imbibed of the same spirit. Consider the following excerpt from God Calling in the chapter entitled “The Voice Divine”:

We felt all unworthy and overwhelmed by the wonder of it, and could hardly realize that we were being taught, trained and encouraged day by day by Him personally, when millions of souls, far worthier, had to be content with guidance from the Bible, sermons, their churches, books and other sources. [emphasis mine]

Perhaps Young doesn’t pity those of us who must “settle” for guidance from the Bible but there can be little doubt that she shares something of the sentiment. By her own admission she desires “something more” than God’s communication to her through the Bible. Admittedly, all Christians will know something of this discontent with mediated revelation (see #2) but we must still caution (and encourage) those who would diminish the inestimable value of Christ’s word in pursuit of Christ’s person. The written word of God provokes spiritual hunger but it is also the means by which God graciously offers satisfaction and delight in Christ and his finished work (see Psa 19:7ff; 119; John 5:39-40; 14:21, 23; 2Cor 3:18; 4:6; 2Pet 1:2-4).

2) We should desire more. Young is right to affirm the inerrancy of Scripture but her testimony fails to affirm Scripture’s sufficiency. This strikes me as an intractable problem in light of Scripture’s inerrant claims to sufficiency but since this matter has been addressed in other places I’ll pass over that here. What I haven’t seen, however, is the acknowledgment that Young’s dissatisfaction is reasonable and, in a certain sense, even right. By this I mean that the all-sufficient, inerrant word speaks to the unfulfilled desire of abiding in the presence of Christ. The psalmists sang of future pleasure & satisfaction (Psa 16:11; 17:15), the apostles spoke of our hope (Rom 8:23-25; Titus 2:13; Heb 10:23; 1Pet 1:13), and Jesus himself expresses his desire for his disciples to be with him where he is (Jn 17:24). More could be said about the nature of this “inconsolable longing” but our point is that a biblical balance must be struck between affirming our hunger for something more and acquiring comfort and satisfaction while we wait. Young doesn’t achieve this balance in her testimony or writings.

3) The diminution of the Holy Spirit. We have a penchant for confessing the Trinity even as we practically deny the doctrine in our life & witness. The myopic clamoring for Jesus’ presence is often symptomatic of a deeper problem–dissatisfaction with the presence of the Holy Spirit. How quickly we forget that the Jesus we seek is the same one who claimed that it was to our advantage for him to go away so that the Holy Spirit could take his place (Jn 16:7). Had anyone else made such a claim we would consider it near blasphemy. We must go back to the inerrant word. It can’t be coincidence that John’s account of Jesus’ farewell address to his disciples contains more about the Holy Spirit (and the Trinity) than any other passage of Scripture (Jn 14-16). Surely the comfort that Jesus offers through the presence of the Holy Spirit must be accounted for when we engage the devotional aspirations recorded by Young. Otherwise we have the unenviable task of exalting Christ even as we ignore his Gift.

It’s easy to see why Jesus Calling has resonated with so many Christians but I think the book will prove to be an unhelpful diversion in the long run.

Not to beat a dead horse…

I was done with the kerfuffle over Andy Stanley’s handling of Scripture with the skeptic. Honest I was. But then I saw that Denny Burk, who offered a critique of Stanley’s comments here, had penned a follow-up post due, in part, to comments Stanley contributed to the original post.

I was pleasantly surprised to hear that Stanley offered further comments so I thought to add them here. Have we achieved clarity yet?

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Some notes I’m likely to revisit soon

A mother of an adult son asked if I could offer some insight on the debate over whether or not Christianity is compatible with a homosexual lifestyle. Apparently her son found himself discussing this matter with a friend which led him to query his mom which, in turn, led her (a church member) to me. The following response, by no means exhaustive or polished(!), is what I gave her to deliver to her son:

Statements that would seek to make Christianity compatible with a homosexual lifestyle are in bold. Following the bold text is a brief response that endeavors to faithfully represent God’s word on the matter as revealed in Scripture. This interaction assumes that parties on both sides of the discussion believe—at a minimum— the Bible is the only authoritative rule for faith & conduct. 

1) God made me this way/I was born this way. The foundation of this argument is the belief that homosexuality is justified by the mere existence of same-sex attraction (SSA) and/or a genetic predisposition to homosexuality. But experiences, desires, and/or pre-dispositions aren’t self-justifying. The mere fact that a desire exists says nothing about whether that desire is good or bad. We need a standard by which to determine which desires are right & wrong, healthy & unhealthy, etc.

Christianity has historically taught that the only authoritative standard we have for such matters is the word of God contained in the Scriptures. On this objective standard we make two observations: (a) Scripture says that due to Adam’s sin humanity has been corrupted in every part of our being—body, mind, emotion—and  and that even our own hearts deceive us (see Psa 51:5; Rom 3:9-12; Eph 2:3; Jer 17:9). (b) Scripture categorically asserts that homosexual conduct is sinful (Rom 1:26-32; 1Cor 6:9-11; 1Tim 1:8-11). Therefore, the question is not “are these feelings/desires real?” but “are these feelings/desires right?”.

2) The Bible doesn’t condemn loving/committed homosexual relationships but promiscuous homosexuality. This argument assumes that because God is love He would never condemn a loving relationship. Scripture speaks to this in two ways: (a) not all love is good love (1Jn 2:15-16) (b) God clearly does prohibit certain unions—even certain heterosexual unions (Lev 18:6ff; 2Cor 6:14-15). Scripture categorically condemns homosexuality regardless of personal motivation, fidelity, or relational context.

3) The Bible’s prohibition is relative to the cultural context and/or concerns abusive homosexual behavior (particularly in regard to pederasty). Closely related to #2 in that the attempt is to establish two classes of homosexuality—healthy/sanctioned & unhealthy/forbidden. Again, Scripture makes no distinction between types of homosexual conduct or unions. Voluntary homosexual unions were not unheard of in the historical & cultural context in which the Bible was written. Even so, the human authors of Scripture (under the guidance of the Holy Spirit) offered no exception clauses in their prohibitions against homosexuality. To suggest otherwise is to attempt to rationalize a way around the clear message contained in Scripture.

4) Jesus never spoke against homosexuality. This is an argument from silence but an argument with a reasonable explanation. First, Jesus fully endorsed the moral/ethical standards established by the OT law (Mat 5:17-19) which contained explicit prohibitions against homosexuality (Lev 18:22). By affirming the righteousness of the Law Jesus affirmed the “rightness” of forbidding homosexuality. Second, the Jewish culture of Jesus’ day shared the OT view concerning homosexuality. As such, Jesus would have had no occasion to address a non-existent problem or debate.

5) All Christians sin. Even if homosexuality is a sin, why should it be singled out as a “disqualifying” sin? Scripture doesn’t deny that Christians will sin. However, the good news of salvation includes a call to repent of & forsake sin (Mat 4:17; Luk 24:46-47; Acts 26:19-20; 2Tim 2:24-26). Consequently, Scripture denies that a true child of God will knowingly embrace sin (1Jn 3:5-10). As other passages of Scripture make clear, all sin—including homosexuality—is renounced by those who have experienced a new birth in Christ (Rom 6:22; 1Cor 6:9-11; Gal 5:19-24; Heb 12:14). We readily acknowledge that a Christian who repents of his sin will still battle against the very sin he has abandoned, but for those battles God promises His strength, support, and ultimate victory (Gal 5:16; 1Thess 5:23-24; Heb 4:14-16).

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