Review: The Personal Heresy

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the personal heresy

The Personal HeresyC. S. Lewis, E. M. W. Tillyard. New York: Harper One, 2017 (originally published 1939).

Summary: A discussion of whether the personality of the author should enter into the criticism of a work of poetry.

In 1934 C. S. Lewis published an article in Essays and Studies to defend this assertion:

In this paper I shall maintain that when we read poetry as poetry should be read, we have before us no representation which claims to be the poet, and frequently no representation of a man, character, or a personality at all.

The article was written for anyone to take up. E. M. W. Tillyard published a response in the following year that led to two more rounds of responses between Lewis and Tillyard, resulting in this book in its present form.

In a nutshell, the controversy between the two men concerned whether, in poetry…

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Book Write-Up: High King of Heaven

John MacArthur, ed.  High King of Heaven: Theological and Practical Perspectives on the Person and Work of Jesus.  Moody, Master’s Seminary Press, 2018.  See here to purchase the book.

John MacArthur is the pastor of Grace Community Church.  As the title indicates, this book reflects on Jesus Christ.  Its contributors include pastors and academics.  A number of them are affiliated with MacArthur’s Master’s Seminary, but not all of them are.

In this review, I will comment on each essay.  Some of the essays I will cluster together.  My comments will not be comprehensive, but hopefully they will provide you with a taste of what the book is like.

“Preface,” “Do You Love Me?: The Essential Response to the King of Heaven, John 21,” by John MacArthur

These were MacArthur’s own contributions to the book.  They offered a compelling picture of knowing and delighting in Christ, discussing how that has proved to be significant in MacArthur’s own Christian walk.  MacArthur talks about how he has grown in this area, moving past presuppositions of his earlier religious background.  In the second essay, MacArthur interacts with John 21.  MacArthur notes that Peter has gone back to fishing, even after knowing that Christ rose from the dead, and he speculates that this is because Peter feels like a spiritual failure.  Jesus asks Peter if Peter loves Jesus more than “these,” and scholars have debated about whether the “these” refers to the other disciples or Peter’s fish.  MacArthur defends the idea that the “these” refers to Peter’s fishing vocation.  While more than one Greek scholar has argued that the Greek words for love, phileo and agape, are synonymous and interchangeable, MacArthur assumes that the former describes affection, whereas the latter is self-giving.  He thoughtfully integrates this into his discussion of Jesus’ interaction with Peter over whether Peter loves him.  This is an insightful contribution, but it is also sympathetic to people in their weaknesses, more so than I would ordinarily expect from MacArthur.

“The Eternal Word: God the Son in Eternity Past, John 1:1-3,” by Michael Reeves

One argument that Reeves makes is that God the Father’s eternal generation of the Son is significant, for that establishes God the Father as an eternally loving Father.  Salvation, according to Reeves, is not simply about us failing to meet God’s holy demands, but it entails being adopted into God’s family by grace.  As Reeves says, “you simply cannot earn your way into a family.”  Reeves contends that Arianism, which holds that God created the Word who became Jesus Christ, undermines God’s grace and love: it depicts Jesus, not as God’s beloved Son, but as God’s workman, who earns God’s favor through performance.

“Son of God and Son of Man, Matthew 26:63-64,” by Paul Twiss

Twiss does not focus on Jesus’ Sonship within the Trinity, but rather states that Jesus was Son of God in the same way that Adam, Israel, and the Davidic king were sons of God: they mediate God to creation.  Twiss offers an intriguing reading of Daniel 7 in light of Genesis 3: in Genesis 3, a beast (the serpent) usurps human authority, but the beasts in Daniel 7 lose before the Son of Man.  Twiss struggles over why the Son of Man is not mentioned in the part of Daniel 7 that explains the vision, and he does not mention the scholarly view that the Most High’s saints are the ones whom the Son of Man symbolizes.  Still, he does offer a reasonable explanation.

“The Son’s Relationship with the Father, Isaiah 50,” by Mark Jones

This essay beautifully highlighted aspects of Jesus, as it drew primarily from Isaiah 50 while also looking at the Gospels.  One can read this essay and feel Jesus’ sensitivity towards people’s rejection of him, while admiring and desiring to emulate Jesus’ hunger and thirst for God’s instruction.

“The Virgin Birth, Matthew 1:18-25; Luke 1:26-38,” by Keith Essex

Like other essays in this book, Essex criticizes what he considers to be disturbing trends within evangelicalism.  More than one essay in this book laments that hip evangelicals are complaining about the doctrine of penal substitution, the idea that Christ paid the penalty for people’s sins on their behalf.  Essex mentions Andy Stanley’s statement that belief in the virgin birth is non-essential for salvation, and Tim Keller’s response that disbelief in the virgin birth places one outside of the Christian faith.  Essex does not seem to go so far as to suggest that disbelief in the virgin birth means a person is unsaved, but he does believe that Jesus was born of a virgin for a reason, and that those reasons are important.  He goes beyond the usual mantra that the virgin birth was necessary because otherwise Jesus would be born with original sin.  There was not much in this essay that particularly inspired me, and perhaps it would have been better had Essex engaged more the critiques of the virgin birth.  Still, Essex did a decent job in presenting the virgin birth as a reasonable course for God to pursue, in light of God’s goals.

“The Bread of Life, John 6,” by Ligon Duncan

Duncan offers a couple of edifying insights and observations.  First of all, he notes that Jesus claims to be bread and water that provide satisfaction to those who partake.  He contrasts this with the sinful human tendency to seek satisfaction outside of God, which the serpent in Genesis 3 encouraged when he tempted Adam and Eve.  Second, Duncan observes that the Psalmist in Psalm 119 expresses his love for God’s Torah, but also his spiritual wandering, vulnerability, and need for God to seek him.

“The Good Shepherd, John 10,” by Steven J. Lawson

This essay is Calvinistic, like a number of other essays in this book.  Lawson relays an interesting defense that the Puritan John Owen made for limited atonement, the idea that Christ died only for the elect whom God had chosen, not for everyone.  Owen argued that unlimited atonement placed the members of the Trinity on different pages: the Father wants to save the sheep (the elect), while the Son is trying to save everyone.  Limited atonement places the members of the Trinity on the same page: the Father chooses the elect, the Son atones for the elect’s sins, and the Holy Spirit regenerates the elect.

“The Way, the Truth, and the Life, John 14:6” by Miguel Nunez

What stood out to me in this essay was a story about two climbers, who were 8,000 meters high and were too exhausted to help two other climbers who were injured and endangered.  The climbers had enough provisions to share but did not do so.  Nunez attributes this to the climbers not knowing Christ and thus not recognizing the image of God in the injured climbers.  This story raises a lot of questions.  Would I be willing to help in that situation?  Is it fair or accurate to say that all Christians would help, whereas all non-Christians would not?

“The Head of the Church, Colossians 1:18,” by Mark Dever

A story that stood out to me in this essay concerned a picture of church interns whom Dever knows.  Almost all of them went on to do great things for God, except one, who does not believe in God anymore.  Dever used that as an opportunity to exhort Christians to be rooted in Christ.  I think, though, that Christians should reflect more on why people leave the faith, especially when those people seemed to have believed as earnestly and been as zealous as those who stayed.  Unfortunately, I question whether Christians have the resources within their faith to enable them to empathize with those who leave: they can chalk the apostasy up to rebellion against God or a desire to sin.

“He Emptied Himself: The Kenosis, Philippians 2:5-11,” by Mike Riccardi

Riccardi offered an intriguing explanation for why Jesus refused to turn stones into bread at his temptation (see Matthew 4:1-11).  Jesus used his divine powers to serve others, not to lessen his own experience of the human condition (in this case, hunger).

“In Our Place: The Atonement, 2 Corinthians 5:21,” by Matthew Barrett; “Up From the Grave: The Resurrection, 1 Corinthians 15:1-20,” by Tom Pennington

I am clustering these essays together.  Both authors believe in penal substitution.  Pennington seems to believe that it is explicit in the Scriptures, however, whereas Barrett appears to maintain that it is more implicit, coincides with other crucial doctrines, and is more reasonable than other atonement models.  Barrett also has a thoughtful discussion about the atonement and divine simplicity, as he decries those who assert that the atonement places God’s wrath in opposition to God’s mercy, or the Son in opposition to the Father.  Moreover, in a footnote, Barrett refers negatively to two Catholic thinkers who attempt to rethink original sin in light of evolution.  Sounds interesting!

“High Above the Heavens: The Ascension, Ephesians 1:15-23,” by H.B. Charles, Jr.; “The Return of the King: The Second Coming, 2 Thessalonians 1:5-10,” by Michael Vlach

I do not have much to say about these essays.  They were edifying, but there was not much in them that was new to me.  Vlach makes an interesting point about glorified Christians not resting on the “heavenly sofa” but being involved in activity (Luke 19:11-27; Revelation 20:4; 22:5).  What will that activity be?

“No Other Gospel: The True Gospel of Christ, Galatians 1:6-7,” by Phil Johnson; “Salt and Light: The Believer’s Witness to Christ in an Ungodly Society, Matthew 5:14-16,” by Albert Mohler; “Counted Worthy: Suffering for Christ in a World That Hates Him, Acts 5:41,” by Paul Washer

These were “tell it like it is” essays: stand firm with the Word, even when it is unpopular, and it will be!  Still, God will bless your faithfulness.  I enjoyed reading the Johnson and Washer essays.  Johnson talked about the Galatians and how the Judaizers actually overlapped with Paul on key doctrines, such as Christ dying for people’s sins; still, they were importing an innovation, which asserted that people could take some credit for their salvation, and Paul deemed that to be intolerable.  Johnson also critiqued churches that seek truth from movies, as well as past Christian trends (Jabez, Passion, etc.).  I disagree with Johnson on the movies part, but his critique was still enjoyable to read.  “Oh yeah,” I thought, “I remember Jabez!”  The Washer essay could be blunt and obnoxious.  Still, it made some interesting points.  For instance, pastors are encouraged to say “we” sin rather than “you” sin in sermons, but Washer defends the latter, pointing to examples in Scripture of the latter.  He believes the latter is more convicting.  I still see value in the former: it highlights that we are all flawed, none is better than the other, we are on this journey together, and we all need a Savior.

“Christ and the Completion of the Canon, John 14-16,” by Brad Klassen

Klassen argues that Jesus anticipated the New Testament and the books of the New Testament canon. This essay does address a significant question.  I agree with Klassen that the apostles in the New Testament believe that they are custodians of the Word of God.  Whether that means that Jesus or Paul anticipated or explicitly predicted the New Testament canon, I do not know.  Maybe that goes too far.

“Seeing Christ in the Old Testament, Luke 24:25-27,” by Abner Chou; “Christ, the Culmination of the Old Testament, Luke 24:27, 44,” by Michael Grisanti; “Beginning with Moses: The OT Witness to the Suffering Messiah,” by Iosif J. Zhakevich

Chou and Grisanti both speak against a Christian approach to the Old Testament that sees virtually every line and story as a type or allegory about Christ.  They still believe that Christ is predicted in the Old Testament, though.  Chou situates themes and books within the Old Testament within a larger Christian context: Proverbs, for example, “explains royal court wisdom that the Messiah will fulfill as the ultimate king.”  Maybe not originally, but perhaps it can, within a larger canonical context.  Something that I appreciated about Grisanti’s essay was that Grisanti interpreted Micah 5:2, not in reference to Christ’s eternity, but rather in reference to God’s restoration of the ancient Davidic kingdom; Grisanti cites Amos 9:11 as a parallel.  Zhakevich thinks that David in II Samuel 7 anticipates the Messiah, even though the chapter mentions a Davidic son who will need to be chastened for sin, whereas Jesus was sinless.  Zhakevich also assumes that Isaiah 53 is Messianic, without engagement of other interpretations.  Still, Zhakevich’s citation of Psalm 22 can get one at least to contemplate the possibility that Psalm 22 is about something large and grand in scale: it predicts that all families will worship God, and Christianity has come close to bringing that about.

“Jesus Is Better: The Final Word, Hebrews 1:1-3,” by Austin Duncan

Duncan takes Hebrews 1:1-3 in a cessationist direction: Jesus is God’s ultimate word, so we do not need any new words from God.  Is that necessarily the case?  Cannot God guide Christians within the context of a relationship, in light of Jesus’ revelation?  Duncan made some compelling points, though.  He referred to Christians in Hebrews losing their property (10:34), and allowed that to illuminate Hebrews’ statement about Jesus being the owner of all things.  Duncan also painted a vivid picture of how the Old Testament system continually sacrificed animals, and how that contrasted with Jesus’ single sacrifice taking away sin.

“Around the Throne: The Heavenly Witness of the Redeemed to the Work of the Lamb, Revelation 4-5,” by Conrad Mbewe

What was most interesting in this essay was how Mbewe appealed to his African culture to illuminate biblical themes, such as the majesty of God.  Approaching a chief in Africa is not done lightly.

This book is a fairly deep read.  Some things in it were not new, but even those parts were edifying.  The book also offered interpretations that were fresh and insightful.

I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher.  My review is honest.



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Looking for a Low Christology in the Gospel of John: A Review Article — Bowman on Target: Rob Bowman’s Blog

Reblogging for future reference:

Kim, Yung Suk. Truth, Testimony, and Transformation: A New Reading of the “I Am” Sayings of Jesus in the Fourth Gospel. Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2014. Yung Suk Kim is Associate Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at Samuel DeWitt Proctor School of Theology, Virginia Union University. He describes himself as a “humanist […]

via Looking for a Low Christology in the Gospel of John: A Review Article — Bowman on Target: Rob Bowman’s Blog

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Henze-demons: from Noah to Jesus


One thing about the gospels that is embarrassing to modernity is the prominence of demon possession. In just Mark’s gospel there are four detailed stories of Jesus performing exorcisms.  It is popular today to give psychological, medical, or even political explanations for demon possession.

Not only is this offensive to modern sensibilities, but it is mystifying if you are trying to interpret the gospels from just the Old Testament. The Old Testament occasionally uses the phrase “evil spirit”, but means something different. For instance, God sent an evil spirit to torment Saul (I Samuel 16:14-16). But his people did not call for an exorcist. They called for a harpist.

Also the Old Testament spoke of pagan gods as demons (Deuteronomy 32:17). But other words for pagan gods were more usual and the gods, although they contribute to false prophecy, do not possess people the way the demons in the gospels…

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Apologist Demeanors: Are You a Patton or a Bradley?



Have you ever seen the movie Patton? Actor George C. Scott won an Academy Award for Best Actor for his amazing portrayal of the bold, opinionated, and flamboyant General George Patton. General Patton was not only a great battlefield tank commander for the US Army during World War II, but he was also arguably one of the most politically incorrect persons of the twentieth century. Patton wasn’t afraid to speak his mind on virtually any issue, regardless of the consequences. (We’ll make an apologetics connection about this personality trait shortly.) However, just how realistic Scott’s movie portrayal was has been a topic of historical debate.

A powerful contrast to Patton’s dominant personality is shown in the demeanor of General Omar Bradley, played in the film by Karl Malden. Bradley is highly competent but quiet and modest, and he readily deflects compliments by attributing praise to the US combat soldiers who fight…

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New Studies in Biblical Theology

Bob on Books


Yesterday, I reviewed W. Ross Blackburn’s The God Who Makes Himself Known. This is one of forty-four volumes currently in the New Studies in Biblical Theology series (with more forthcoming) jointly published by the Apollos imprint of InterVarsity Press in the United Kingdom and InterVarsity Press in the United States. The series strives for readability, avoiding specialist jargon or untransliterated terms in the biblical languages. D. A. Carson is the series editor and has articulated the goals as follows:

New Studies in Biblical Theology volumes focus on three areas:

  • the nature and status of biblical theology, including its relationship to other disciplines
  • the articulation and exposition of the structure of thought from a particular biblical writer or text
  • the delineation of a biblical theme across the biblical corpus

I try to pick up new volumes as they are released because I have found them of high quality, combining scholarship and…

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Church Write-Up: Reanimating the Demoralized, Forgiveness in II Corinthians 1-7, Zacchaeus the Son of Abraham, Joshuas

Here are some items from the church services and activities that I attended last Sunday.

A.  Last Sunday was Pentecost Sunday.  The pastor at the Missouri Synod Lutheran church was preaching about Ezekiel 37, which is about the valley of the dry bones.  The pastor painted a compelling picture of the exiled Israelites’ situation.  They were exiled and demoralized, feeling dead.  They had lost to the Babylonians.  They were like dry bones on a battlefield.  But God animated them through Ezekiel’s word and God’s Spirit.  Similarly, we may be feeling demoralized or like losers, but God wants to give us abundant life, zoe, which goes beyond mere survival (bios).

The pastor also opened his sermon with a personal anecdote about when one of his daughter’s was born.  He and his wife could actually see her in the womb through technology, and they saw her face.  He could tell by her nose that she was theirs!  But they felt even more joyful when she actually was born.  I do not entirely recall how this fit into the message of the sermon.  I was expecting him to say that we may intellectually know about God, but there is a difference between that and having an experience of God through God’s Spirit.  That may have been his implication.

B.  As is often the case, the Missouri Synod church’s Sunday school class got into a lot of issues.  This particular class is about the topic of forgiveness, and it focuses on II Corinthians 1-7.  Some points that were made:

—-A lady pointed out II Corinthians 1:22, in which Paul affirms that God put God’s seal on the Corinthian Christians and gave them the Spirit in their hearts as a first installment of the redemption that is to come.  Why did Paul mention this?  The teacher speculated that Paul was saying this so that the Corinthians could feel truly forgiven.  Both Paul and the Corinthians hurt one another deeply.  The Corinthians may have wondered if they truly were forgiven, like Joseph’s brothers in Genesis 50 wondered if Joseph truly had forgiven them after the PTSD that they had put them through.  Paul reassured the Corinthian Christians that they were indeed forgiven, sealed by God.

—-Paul in II Corinthians 1:8 refers to affliction that he and his co-workers experienced in Asia.  The teacher said that this may refer to the riot in Ephesus in Acts 19, but he thinks it may also refer to Paul’s eagerness to hear from Titus, who was his go-between with the Corinthian church.  Paul wanted to know that his relationship with the Corinthian Christians had improved: that they knew he was sorry, and that he had forgiven them.  II Corinthians 2:12 and chapter 7 presents these feelings.

—-Paul in II Corinthians 1:12-13 talks about Paul and Corinthians boasting in their forgiveness of each other on the day of Christ Jesus.  In those days, the teacher said, boasting was a good thing: people would show their resumes so that others would know where to place them in society.  Paul said that his resume before God would be, not his preaching or his travels or his miracles, but the mutual forgiveness between him and the Corinthian church.

—-Paul talks in II Corinthians 1 about his sufferings.  The teacher seemed to be suggesting that Paul’s sufferings helped him to forgive, perhaps because they humbled him.  The teacher speculated that at least part of Paul’s sufferings was his feelings of guilt over his persecution of the church.  When Paul in Romans 12:14 exhorts the Roman Christians to bless those who persecute them, he may have had in mind that he had been such a persecutor.  Paul also could reach out to Sosthenes, who had been one of his accusers, because Paul, like Sosthenes, had been a persecutor of Christians (cp. Acts 18:17; I Corinthians 1:1).  The teacher also referred to I Timothy 1:15, in which Paul (or, for liberal scholars, “Paul”) calls himself the chief of sinners.  In our own little universe, we are the chief of sinners.  We only know some of another person’s sins, the teacher said.  But we know all of our own.

—-In II Corinthians 2:5-11, Paul presents forgiveness as somewhat of a communal exercise.  The teacher said that, when the pastor pronounces forgiveness on us in the services, the pastor is speaking for the community.  Our sins can impact the body, sowing offense and division (as Satan desires).  We need healing and forgiveness as and from the Christian community.  The teacher said that this also occurs when the pastor visits a shut-in and pronounces forgiveness: it may occur one-on-one, but it is still public.

—-The teacher reiterated his point from last week that forgiving an embezzler does not mean making him church treasurer.  But it can entail kneeling with him at the communion altar, greeting him after church, and loving him.

—-The teacher referred to the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant in Matthew 18.  The teacher said that the servant was trying to shake down the person who owed him money because the servant wanted the money in order to help pay off the debt that he had owed to the king, the debt that the king had just cancelled.  He was unwilling to accept the king’s forgiveness.  The king’s response was (in the teacher’s telling), “So be it according to your attitude: if you think that you still owe the debt, then I will treat you as if you still owe the debt.”

C.  At the “Word of Faith” church, the pastor preached about the story of Zacchaeus in Luke 19.  Zacchaeus was a hated tax-collector.  He shook people down for their money and kept some of it for himself.  He had a non-Jewish name, indicating, according to the pastor, that he was considered to be outside of the community of Israel; that, according to the pastor, is why Jesus would later call him a son of Abraham.  Zacchaeus climbed up to the tree to see Jesus because we was not interested in merely being “nice” but recognized that he needed change and wanted to know if Jesus could provide it.  Jesus publicly reached out to him and identified himself with him, and, touched by Jesus’ love and generosity, Zacchaeus became generous.  The pastor noticed that, in a sense, the Gospels associate salvation with giving: Jesus affirmed that salvation came to Zacchaeus’ house after Zacchaeus announced his intention to give generously to the poor.  The rich young ruler in Luke 18, by contrast, walked away from the Kingdom of God because he was unwilling to sell all that he had and give to the poor.  The preacher said that our generosity is an indication that we have been personally impacted and touched by the love, generosity, and grace of God.  The pastor also said that God wants people to switch their game: they are playing the game of law and performance, but God wants them to switch to the game of grace.

D.  I went to the “Word of Faith” church’s monthly praise and prayer service.  It had some “Word of Faith” elements: wanting financial increase from God, claiming God’s “promises,” sowing a seed and reaping a harvest.  The pastor talked about the deaths of many prominent church planters, and also Billy Graham.  He said that he believes that God is raising up a new generation of spiritual fathers and mothers, as God raised up Joshua to replace Moses.  Pastors from the church were going out and laying hands on people, praying for them.  One of them prayed for me, asking God that I might have a new beginning, that the desires of my heart might be met in God, that God might give me a thirst for God, and that I might enjoy God’s people.

I’ll stop here.  I hesitantly leave the comments open, in case someone wants to offer feedback.  I can envision people reading (C.) and cynically saying, “That sounds like salvation by works,” or “That sounds like a fund-raising ploy.”  Or reading (A.) and saying, “Is the Missouri-Synod becoming Joel Osteenish these days?”  I relay these items, not out of total agreement, or even having ideas about how I can relate them to my own life and walk with God.  Still, I think that they are getting at something, even if one can take them to unhelpful extremes if one is not careful.


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