Thursday, March 27, 2008

The Vine, part III

Continuing with thoughts on The Vine imagery employed by Jesus in John 15... If Keener hints at covenant community as the resolution of the vine imagery, then Ross is explicit in The Inner Sanctuary...

It is plainly implied in these words that there are two sets of branches in the vine – fruitful and fruitless ones…the professing followers of Christ may be spiritually fruitful, or the reverse…He gives us plainly to understand that as in it (the Church) there would be always some fruit-bearing Christians, because of his dwelling in them by his spirit, so there would also be fruitless ones, because, while externally united to him, they would nevertheless be internally separated from him.
…here is an emblem of the visible Church. It consists of fruitless as well as fruitful branches – of nominal as well as real Christians. And yet the fact that there are fruitless branches in the vine, does not destroy the connection between Christ and his true people.

This is exactly what Ridderbos writes in his commentary, the words in which being extremely important, especially when coupled with dividing...

‘What makes Jesus the true vine is that, as the one sent by God, he gathers a community, a fellowship of life, in which his word exerts a redeeming, life-creating, continually purifying, and dividing effect.’

‘There is a sort of fellowship with Jesus, a temporary faith and fruitbearing…’

Here we have the only, for me at least, satisfactory explanation of the Vine imagery which Jesus employs in John 15. The Vine represents Jesus, the true embodiment of the covenant people of God in the new covenant. All who belong to the covenant community are in some sense joined to Christ. Some within the covenant community will reject the covenant and be lost. It is only within the biblical category of covenant that the Johannine warnings of falling away make sense alongside the doctrine of election. Jesus is the True Vine, the True Israel, and the Church is his body. Thanks be to God.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

The Vine, part II

Continuing with John 15, Morris follows Carson in identifying the two options for the language of cutting off. Morris writes that the earliest Christian interpretation was that the words referred to the apostate Jewish nation. But, he rejects this, stating that the en emoi language shows that his primary thought was of apostate Christians. On the cutting off of branches, Morris keeps the force of Jesus words, writing...
An unfaithful Christian suffers the fate of an unfruitful branch.
Hendrikson gets to grips with what the en emoi language itself signifies...

Thus, all who are brought into close contact with Christ are compared with branches that are in the vine. Some bear fruit; others do not....

Commenting on verse 6, Hendrikson writes that the branches represent...
each individual who is brought into close contact with Christ and his gospel
So for Hendrikson en emoi represents 'close contact' with Christ, although this is not immediately clarified any further (I didn't read the whole commentary). Keener (in his weighty tome of a 2Vol commentary - even weightier than his Matthew work) mentions the 'c' word in connection with these verses, and with this, we have definite progress...
Most draw from this (the biblical image of Israel as a vine) the implication that John believes that those grafted into Christ, rather than into ethnic Israel, are in salvific covenant with God.
For Keener,
It is through identifying with Christ that believers…are grafted into the historic people of God.
Keener keeps the force of Jesus words alive. For him, the language of cutting off is a...
vital Johannine warning against falling away.
This is good stuff, identifying the salvation-historical perspective of the imagery and also clarifying the en emoi language both as related to covenant and as 'identifying with Christ'. For me, this identification of the OT covenant background in the vine imagery is essential to the interpretation of Jesus' words in John 15. It is the category of covenant that makes sense of these words...part III to follow...

Monday, March 24, 2008

The Vine, part I

After a bit of a delay since the last post, I thought I'd better post again on Jesus' words in John 15,

'every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away'


'if anyone does not abide in me, he is thrown away as a branch and dries up; and they gather them, and cast them into the fire, and they are burned'

These verses cause some difficulty for many commentators, it seems to me. You can almost hear them uncomfortably shifting in their seats! Why is this? It is because this is one of those passages. You know, the ones where the natural reading just doesn’t seem to fit too well within the systematic schema into which we want to force it. This can lead to a level of gobbledegoo (Sylvia Plath's spelling) of which the author seems totally unaware. A good example of this in the case of John 15:1-6 is in Andreas Kostenberger’s generally excellent commentary…

Some who appear to be members in good standing in the Christian community may eventually turn out never truly to have been part of it in the first place…

How this can be reconciled with the plain words of Jesus is, to say the least, unclear. Jesus says that the branches that are thrown away are, at some point and in some sense, ‘in’ him. But Kostenberger doesn't seem a million miles away from Calvin (commentary on John)...

Many are reckoned by men’s opinions to be in the vine, who in fact have no root in the vine. Thus in the prophets the Lord calls the people of Israel His vine because by outward profession they had the name of the church.

What Calvin identifies as 'men's opinions' seems to me actually to be the opinion of Jesus himself. Carson doesn't fare any better here. To be fair, he does set out the options: (i) taking the verses and the phrase in me eschatologically as referring to the cutting off of fruitless Israel, or (ii) taking these as referring to apostate Christians. But he then dismisses both... is hard to see in what sense Jews who never put their trust in Jesus were once 'in him', even if they once belonged to the vine of Israel before it was superseded by Jesus. But the latter view, that these dead braches are apostate Christians, must confront the strong evidence within John that true disciples are preserved to the end.

Carson eventually comes to a rather unsatisfactory conclusion...

It is more satisfactory to recognize that asking the in me language to settle such disputes is to push the vine imagery too far.
If Jesus' words on unfruitful branches can be dismissed as a narrative flourish, fair enough. But, they can't be. More on this to come from Ross, Ridderbos and Shepherd...

Friday, March 14, 2008

Heading Home

Tomorrow morning I head home after a week spent at HTC, staying in the greatest Guest House of the modern era (this is a wholly private judgement, although not entirely unfounded!) and enjoying my place in the Community of Faith and Scholarship.

This week I've spent a little time reading, contemplating and debating the nature of the relationship between covenant and salvation. This has mainly been driven by our own exegesis in the Greek Texts class of John 15. Norman Shepherd writes in The Call of Grace that...
frequently this passage has created nothing but problems.
Next week I hope to post on The Vine of John 15, and the manoeuvres that commentators make around Jesus statement that branches in him will be cut off if they do not bear fruit. But for now, I'll leave you with a couple of quotes from Ridderbos' excellent commentary on John's Gospel...

the disciples’ belonging to Jesus…denotes not only a personal relationship but also their incorporation into the great community of the people God has appropriated for himself out of the world.

What makes Jesus the true vine is that, as the one sent by God, he gathers a community, a fellowship of life, in which his word exerts a redeeming, life-creating, continually purifying, and dividing effect.


Tuesday, March 11, 2008

HTC in Evangelical Magazine (of Wales)

In the latest (March 2008) edition of the Evangelical Magazine (of Wales), there's a double page article entitled 'An Astonishing Story'. It's been written by Mark Barnes, who is pastor of Bethel Independent Evangelical Church, Clydach. It retells the story of Highland Theological College, from its beginnings to the exciting developments of the present day. Even when you know the story, reading it again reminds you how phenomenal the development of HTC has been!

The Evangelical Theological College of Wales (Bryntirion - now WEST) gave advice and support to the fledgling college in 1994, including guidance on gaining accreditation from the University of Wales. Some 14 years on, HTC has over 150 students on Access, BA, DMin, MTh and PhD courses; 16 full-time staff including 5 full-time academics; and 5 further part-time academic staff. And the library has grown from 1,500 to more than 64,000 volumes.

It's great to read the story whoever you are, but especially when you are studying at HTC, working for the Kingdom in Scotland, having worked for that same kingdom in your homeland of Wales. There is both older and recent history of ecclesiastic connections between Wales and Scotland. And we are two nations sharing Presbyterianism as a significant feature of our history (although to different extents!). These connections are not only a part of the past but, I pray, a significant part of the future...

Monday, March 10, 2008

Language, Culture and Faith

Many moons ago, back in Wales, I stumbled across this article by Fearghas MacFhionnlaigh, entitled 'Creative Tensions: Personal Reflections of an Evangelical Christian and Gaelic Poet'. It appeared in an edition of SBET (and in those days you could get some SBET articles on the Rutherford House website).

Looking back, I can see that I am indebted to Scottish Theology. This article falls within that sentiment and when I first read it, it made a huge impact on me. At the time I read it, my Welsh was much better than the halting excuse-for-Welsh that I can manage now, but I have always carried with me questions on the relationships between language, culture, identity and faith. This article tackles these issues superbly and was a big influence in the ethos of the generation.NEXT young people's work when it started up back in Wales.

Plus, the author quotes from Orwell, Van Til, Sartre and Calvin. Do you need anymore incentive to read it!

Gach smuain a-chum ùmhlachd Chrìosd, 2 Corintianaich 10:5

Yn arwain pobl i fod yn ufudd i'r Meseia, 2 Corinthiad 10:5

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

The House That Jesus Built

In South Uist and Benbecula Free Church, we're currently running a series of studies based on Dale Ralph Davis' book, The House that Jesus Built. Dale Ralph Davis is pastor of Woodland Presbyterian Church, Hattiesburg, Mississippi. It has just four main sections, is written in an easy, non-technical style that's ideal for seekers as well as Christians, and it's only 64 pages in total, so it's not daunting for people to take away and read. The four sections are:

  • What Our Church Believes: mainly on the Bible, God and salvation, but with a very good section entitled Life is wholly holy;
  • What Our Church Is: looking in a realistic way at exactly that, including explaining what a Presbyterian church is, and how to join a church;
  • How Christians Live: which has sections on reading the Bible, the sacraments, prayer, worship and fellowship; and
  • The Matter that Matters: a final section on responding to Jesus.
It's published by Christian Focus and is available (right now!) for £2.99. Bargain! Here's the blurb...

People are often curious and occasionally apprehensive about what the church is like. Not many people come sliding out of a reformed pipeline and straight into a pew – they come from all over the religious and non-religious spectrum. We don’t want people to be surprised in a bad way about what they will encounter – thus this book. Although written for a Presbyterian church, it does not assume that only Presbyterians are reformed, happily many Anglicans, Lutherans, Baptists and others would place themselves under the ‘reformed’ banner and can find help in this little book.

Monday, March 03, 2008

HTC Newsletter, Spring 2008

The latest HTC newsletter is out, where you can read more about the following:
  • Andrew McGowan appointed UHI Professor of Theology (to add to being Honorary Professor at Aberdeen, Adjunct Professor at RTS and Visiting Professor at Westminster); warmest congragulations to the Principal!
  • HTC Library expands (again) with acquisition of Rutherford House library and several important works on Calvin;
  • Peter Mackenzie to be inducted at Bulkington Congregational Church (good one Peter!);
  • Richard Dawkins to deliver UHI lecture 'Science and the God Delusion'; and
  • Andrew McGowan to deliver UHI lecture 'Is there a place for theology in a modern university?'.

All exciting stuff!

HTC Website Update

HTC now has a groovier website - and increasing groove on a website can only be a good thing! The old website displayed a definite lack of groove, but that was then. This is now.