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'

and

'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...

...it 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who never put their trust in Jesus were once 'in him', even if they once belonged to the vine of Israel before it was superseded by Jesus.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...