Friday, July 30, 2010

Book Review: Why Johnny Can't Preach

T. David Gordon: Why Johnny Can’t Preach (Philipsburg, P. & R. 2009) Pp.108

This slender volume deserves to have an influence far above its size. Many have lamented the terrible state of the Evangelical pulpit today, that so many evangelical pastors are, frankly, lousy preachers. They can get up into the pulpit and ramble on for 45 minutes, and no-one has a clue what the point of the sermon was five minutes after it was delivered.

There is general agreement that this is so, where there has been little work is on why it is so. Gordon’s book is an essay in that direction. He argues that the problem is not, at least in Reformed circles, that the seminaries have declined, but that the students going in are rather different from what they were, having been formed by a culture where reading texts and writing considered, careful, structured essays are less common than they were in the past. Simply put, our preachers are suffering from an overdose of the trivial, and have not been taught how to read or how to write – at least not carefully.

Chapter 1 is dedicated to the thesis that “Johnny Can’t Preach.” R.L. Dabney’s criteria for preaching are used as a framework for good preaching, and some preliminary points as to why this is the case are set out. The next chapter is entitled “Johnny Can’t Read (Texts),” and argues that modern people, on the whole, do not know how to read a text deeply. Chapter three is entitled “Johnny Can’t Write,” a fact that most teachers today – and magazine editors – can attest! Chapter four is “A Few Thoughts About Content”, where Gordon explains some examples of bad preaching, and suggests that Evangelical preaching needs to be… well, Evangelical! The final chapter, “Teaching Johnny to Preach,” suggests some ways forward.

This is a unique work, and deserves to be read by all involved in ministerial training – especially the students. I then prescribe a volume of John Henry Newman (for style alone, I’m not going Roman Catholic), the works of Benjamin B. Warfield, and plenty of Calvin, all read carefully for style as well as information. Where possible ministers ought to write book reviews for a magazine – there are plenty of magazines out there, and part of writing a review involves reading a book carefully. Sadly the blog doesn’t help as it should, since there is no editor to tell the minister that his writing style is atrocious.

Get this book from your local Christian Bookshop. But if you think you'll get funny looks asking for Newman, you can get one of his books online. Or just ask for G.K. Chesterton.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Book Review - D.A. Carson on Scripture

D.A. Carson: Collected Writings on Scripture (Leicester, Apollos, 2010) Pp. 335, Hardcover

D.A. Carson has, it seems, now reached the point where he merits a “collected writings” volume. This opening sentence should not be read as a criticism, because it isn’t – this book is an unalloyed good thing. The binding is another matter, however. Real cloth binding would have been far more appropriate than the rather cheap hardcover binding that needs to be hidden by the attractive dust jacket.

With the criticism out of the way early, we can move on to the contents. This book collects five essays and five book reviews that are broadly united by the theme of Scripture. They cover a period from 1983 to 2008, and all are worth the effort in reprinting them.

D.A. Carson is an excellent writer, and one of the men that our modern preachers need to read simply for style, let alone content! He is also a very thoughtful writer, and when he publishes a book, it is usually required reading. This book, although its various parts were originally published in a variety of places, is another required reading piece.

It begins with an essay on “Approaching the Bible” taken from the IVP New Bible Commentary, which serves as an introduction to the whole book as much as anything else. The second piece, “Recent Developments in the Doctrine of Scripture” deals with “recent developments” in 1986, when it was written. The realisation that we are now some 24 years from that date is rather staggering! Given the passage of time, it is remarkable how relevant this essay is, since it still falls within the period during which writings may be seen as “dated” rather than “classic”. The third essay, “Unity and Diversity in the New Testament: The Possibility of Systematic Theology,” is excellent, as it shows that Biblical theology and Systematic theology are not opposed to one another if properly understood. Chapter 4, on Redaction Criticism, is perhaps a little dated, since Redaction Criticism is no longer as much in vogue as once it was. Still, it is a helpful essay and useful in thinking through the application of literary tools in Bible study. The last essay in the first section, “Is the Doctrine of Claritas Scripturae Still Relevant Today,” is timeless, as it addresses the perspicuity of Scripture, and what this means and does not mean.

Part 2 is headed by two lengthy reviews, each of three books on the Bible, and then rounded off by three shorter pieces. Each review deals with questions that are still buzzing, the nature of inspiration, the Incarnational analogy as applied to Scripture, and the question of the truth of the Bible. Even if the reader has not read the books dealt with, he will be left informed about the current state of the question among Evangelicals.

This is a surprisingly easy book to read, considering the subjects dealt with, and ought to be required reading for anyone wanting to get a handle on the questions agitating the Christian world about the Bible today. Order from your local Christian Bookshop where possible.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Ergun Caner is Guilty!

The title of this post is one no reasonable person can doubt now. Yet Norman Geisler and others seem to think otherwise! The evidence is all against them, as are the actions of Liberty Seminary - you simply do not demote a man who has done nothing wrong! The evidence is all out there, including audio presentations and videos of Caner disamminating his mythological past. Note well, plural, videos. Nor are the things said in the most recent of these videos (here) just off-the-cuff remarks or exaggerations. Caner has said, over and over, that he came to the US from Turkey as a teenager. Not just once or twice, but repeatedly, and in situations where he was recorded saying these things. At the same time, in other situations involving print media (including his books) he was telling the truth, that he came to the US at a very early age from Sweden.

There is simply no way that any rational person can come to any other conclusion than this - Ergun Caner has been telling blatant untruths to make himself sound more impressive than he actually is. These are not "misstatements". A misstatement would be my saying I first preached at Wattisham Strict Baptist Chapel in 2004 - it was in fact 2005. Or that when I was a child I almost set fire to the crib scene in St. Thomas' Church, Norwich, by leaning against a candlestick. My memory has, according to my mother, falsely placed this one, it was in St. Giles' Church. But St. Thomas' was the church we usually went to, hence the error of memory. The point is that both of these events actually took place! In terms of the candle incident, I was very young, and so I forgot where it happened, but it still happened. Caner did not go to a Madrassa in Beirut - and so that is a lie, not a misstatement. My saying that I almost set the crib scene alight in St. Thomas' Church in Norwich would be a misstatement, I am afraid that what Caner has said are mostly lies.

They are lies, please take note. Lying is a sin. "Everyone who loves and practices falsehood" is condemned to spend eternity outside of the New Jerusalem in Revelation 22:15, along with the sorcerers, the sexually immoral, murderers and idolaters! It seems to me that sadly far too many Evangelicals ignore this passage. God does not give ministers a pass on telling lies. What is more, lies can never serve the truth - let us beware of thinking that they can!

It appears that Liberty may be "letting Dr. Caner go," as they say. I was once "let go" from a job - it means being fired. Frankly, I am not surprised that Liberty's giving him the boot!

Sunday, July 18, 2010

We are Not Infallible!

Recently a friend gave me a copy of a work by J.C. Ryle entitled The Fallibility of Ministers. Based on Galatians 2.11-16, it is of course directed primarily against the dogma of Papal Infallibility. But the title reminds us that the truth is not merely that the Pope both can and does err, but that all ministers and teachers are subject to error. God alone is inerrant and infallible - and that is why His Word does not err and contains no mistakes. The Biblical authors were "Carried along by the Holy Spirit", as Peter says. We are not.

Whenever a teacher gets it into his or her head that he or she is infallible, that person is in for trouble. Firstly, because he or she has become a fanatic, and secondly because he or she has just placed his or her self above all criticism. In other words, that person has become a little pope, no matter how opposed to Rome he may be, or how warm are his protestations of protestantism.

Ministers are not infallible, we make mistakes. This is plainly seen when we consider that some men are Presbyterian, others hold to Independency to be the church order instituted by God. Some of us believe Baptism is rightly administered only to those who profess faith in Christ, others that it is rightly administered to their children as well. Both of us cannot be right (though both of us may of course be wrong). So neither my teaching, nor that of any other man should be regarded as in and of itself true. Ordination does not confer infallibility, any more than faith does.

So beware the man or woman who refuses to admit mistakes. One suspects that this idea that the minister is infallible has contributed to the cover-up over Ergun Caner - his defenders feel they must at all costs conceal the fact that they were so mistaken about the man! And, at the risk of re-opening an old controversy, this is Part of Gail Riplinger's problem - she refuses to admit she is capable of basic factual error, resulting in New Age Bible Versions still being in print, riddled with all the errors it contains! When I contacted AV Publications concerning a factual error in Hazardous Materials, I received a reply that was nothing less than a defence of a demonstrable factual error. What was it? Well, I pointed out that R.C. Trench did not choose to put the sybol on his title page, and it was in fact the publisher's logo. The reply, instead of accepting that an error had been made, said words to the effect of "well, why was he using an occult publisher?" The answer was that he wasn't, he was using a general publisher!

Beware the infallible teacher - and doubly beware the infallible female teacher!

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Looking for Answers in the Wrong Place

One of the most amazingly daft ideas I have ever come across is that somehow natural science can decide for us questions of morality. This is foolish, because natural science (I possess a batchelor's degree in environmental science from the University of Liverpool, so I think I know something about natural science) can only describe what is. Morality, however, is a matter of how human beings ought to behave, and that cannot be the same as how human beings do behave. Why? Because we are all agreed that there are boundaries to acceptable human behaviour. It is an unarguable fact that murder, pederasty, incest, rape and torture happen. Yet there are (thankfully) very few people who think that they are fine, good things - and quite right too!

So why is it that there are attempts to argue that we should accept homosexual behaviour because it is 'natural'? If natural science tells us that some people are disposed to homosexual behaviour, while others are not, then does it follow it's good? No! Moral questions are outside of the realm of natural science - and rightly so. Natural science tells us what is, it cannot tell us what is good.

Which is why you will not see our lawmakers going to scientists to learn ethics.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

The Distorting Mirror

This article crystallises certain thoughts I have expressed on other occasions in conversation. One of the great influences on the life of most of the population of this country, and of the world, is television. For this reason, television broadcasters have, potentially, a great deal of power. Television brings both reports of the factual (news and documentaries), and fictional drama, into the home.

As a 'factual' source, the spin that the broadcaster puts on the facts is all-important, and if only one side is shown, it appears to be the only side. Thus television's depiction of an issue is important for the formation of public opinion on it. It as said that the Vietnam war was lost, not in Vietnam, but in the living rooms of America, as the public at home saw a war that seems unwinnable (though arguably no more so that World War 1). It makes some of us wonder what would have happened had the Trenches of Flanders been shown on television in America? Would America ever have entered the First World War?

But this is just an example. More dangerous, in terms of opinion-forming, are dramas that are set in 'the real world'. I have always argued that Eastenders is far more dangerous than Harry Potter for children. Harru Potter, after all, lives in a fantasy world of magic, with dragons and other such magical creatures. Eastenders, on the other hand, is supposed to depict real life. But it cannot. After all, real life is not dramatic enough to hold an audience! The audience do not want their life to be depicted on TV (after all, they already live that!), but excitement, danger and adventure. Now, it is one thing for that excitement to be shown in a thriller, but the Soap Opera is supposed to be a realistic depiction of life. In fact the modern soap (with the possible exception of police soap The Bill) is a distorting mirror. The soaps have adopted ever more improbably storylines over recent years, in one case even bringing a character back from the dead! And so the depiction of a Christian pastor as a deranged killer is only to be expected - after all, the religious nutter is a common trope in sensational fiction (and let us be honest, that is what modern soaps are).

If this were an isolated incident, I would mutter something about a lack of imagination and go and do something else, but this is part of a pattern. The BBC has also been responsible for a number of dramas in which 'Christian' terrorist groups have appeared, despite the fact that no such group has ever existed. It is almost as if in the world these fictional characters inhabit it is Christians, not Muslims, who are making terrorist threats!

Despite the increasing Muslim population of many British cities, and the mosques rising among the chimneys and church towers in these cities, Islam still has the status of a "foreign" religion on TV, and therefore the BBC generally depict it favourably. All well and good. But it seems that there is an undue bias against Christianity, with Christian characters often being depicted in a negative way. What is the danger? It is that this distorting mirror will encourage people to think of Christians as "nutters", and all the while the protest is "we are just being true to life." Nonsense, TV is a distorting mirror. And if what people see on TV does not affect their behaviour, why does anyone buy advertising on commercial TV?

It has been said of the press that they possess power without responsibility. The BBC would do well to remember what Uncle Ben told Peter Parker: "With great power comes great responsibility," namely the responsibility to use that power wisely. As fr the viwers, we must recall that TV does not, and cannot, depict reality. Drama depicts the world the writer creates.

Incidentally, the murderous religious nut is a tired, hackneyed idea as well, and indicates a failure of imagination. Plus the writers of these negative potrayals (I myself saw the offending episode of the dire BBC series Bonekickers, which is second only to the BBC's Robin Hood in terms of direness) seem to have done minimal research on Christianity, leading to their characters acting like no real Christian on earth, mixing Protestant and Roman Catholic practice freely... and now I will be silent, before I burst a blood-vessel.

Monday, July 12, 2010

"Moral" means more than sexual!

One of the most frustrating things about the whole Ergun Caner affair has been the insistence from some quarters (including Norman Geisler) that Ergun Caner has done nothing "Morally wrong." I beg to differ. It seems almost as if the only moral failing recognised in some quarters today is sexual. I used to think that the claim that some quarters of evangelicalism were obsessed with sex was a canard, now I'm not so sure.

Morality is about far more than one's relations with the opposite sex. Take this example. Was this man guilty of moral wrongdoing? Well, I don't see how you can say otherwise! He disobeyed the deacons and damaged church property, then tried to pack the church with new members. He was no heretic, guilty of no financial crime - but morally wrong.

Ergun Caner has not been caught with his pants down. He has, however, been caught with his pants on fire. Lying is a serious sin: "everyone who loves and practices falsehood" are listed with "the sorcerers and the sexually immoral and murderers and idolaters" in Revelation 22.15 as being "Outside" the city of God. Liars beware!

So let's show some integrity. Let's admit that pastors who lie must be disciplined the same as pastors who sleep with their secretaries, pastors who fiddle the books, and pastors who break into the chapel after the deacons (or, more biblically, other elders) try to fire them.

Thursday, July 8, 2010


Mis-selling an insurance policy or a mortgage is a serious offence. Mis-selling a book is much less serious - but it is still serious. Consider those "memoirs" that have been revealed to be works of fiction. People really believed (though in many cases really ought to have known better) that they were reading factual works, only to find that in fact they were reading fantasy!

Ergun Caner is a published author. I have read only one of his books, Unveiling Islam, from Kregel Publications. Recently I contacted Kregel with my concerns about the fact I bought the book on the srength of Caner's now-exposed false biography.

Looking on the Kregel website, I found the following description of the Caner brothers on the site: "Raised as Sunni Muslims, their father a leader in their local mosque, brothers Ergun and Emir Caner were immersed in Islam. Now Christians, respected evangelical scholars, and theologians, the Caner brothers are fully qualified to present an inside view of the Muslim life". The actual product detail page says: "Raised as Sunni Muslims by a leader in the faith, brothers Ergun and Emir Caner have lived the Muslim life. Now Christians, and highly respected theology professors, the Caner brothers are particularly qualified to present an unprecedented insider's look at Islam."

We now know that both of these decriptions are false. Ergun and Emir were in their mother's custody following a divorce when both brothers were under ten. Now, it so happens that my own background is similar in that point. Like the Caners, my mother was my custodial parent, while I saw my father at week-ends. Now, if Ergun and Emir Caner's mother was their custodial parent, they were in fact raised by their mother, not their father. If, as Emir has said, their mother was not a Muslim, then they cannot have been "immersed in Islam."

Which brings us to why Ergun's false story about the Madrassa was necessary. He was converted at 14, 15 or 16. This is very young for someone who received instruction in Islam only every other week-end from a non-custodial parent. Again, I was in a liberal Anglican church until I was 18. I learned liberal theology at secondary school - but I am no expert in liberalism! Only if I had been a liberal theological student could that possibly be the case - and hence Ergun Caner's non-existent training in the madrassa. Smoke and mirrors to get us to buy his books, and to make his reputation. Note Kregel's description of the Caner brothers: "Highly respected theology professors." For Ergun, this may change, if he does not repent and confess his lying!

Incidentally, the fact that the Caner brothers edited the series "the Costly Call" is rather unfortunate in the light of the now-revealed fact that Ergun has consistently represented himself as uffering far more than he actually did for becoming a Christian.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

The Church is not a Democracy

Recently our government here in Britain invited members of the public to suggest which laws they would like to see abolished. Predictably someone suggested the law of gravity. There's always one, isn't there?

Now, in a democracy, laws change. Drivers are no longer forced to be preceded by a man with a red flag (and a good thing too!). Dog owners no longer need a licence for most breeds, I don't need a licence for my aged Phillips Stealla radio. And in a democracy, the will of the majority is behind changes to the law. That is all well and good - in a democracy.

The church, however, is not a democracy. The Kingdom of God is a monarchy, and not a limited constitutional monarchy either! So the laws are not up for re-negotiation. The Episcopal Church USA has forgotten this in its mad dash to look just like the most liberal part of western culture, and the Church of England is not far behind. To be honest, if a man can be a clergyman and deny every essential tenet of the faith, I'm not going to get too excited just because suddenly a man who lives with another man as with a woman can be a bishop. They began with a doctrinal down-grade, it does not surprise me that "Where there is no revelation the people cast off all restraint." The will of God trumps the will of the majority every time, especially in the church. Now, one can go off and join the Unitarians, or found your own little group, if you think that Christianity's wrong, but please, don't call yourself a Christian! If you (British language coming up here) say you are a republican, but uphold the monarchy, you are not "a new kind of republican", you are a monarchist!

And this goes for all God has said. Norman Geisler is trying to defend Ergun Caner, but has actually ended up saying that lying is acceptable if it is "one of us" who lies. No, lying is never acceptable, especially if it is "one of us" who is guilty of it. Lying is a sin! But Geisler is bending over backwards to deny that Caner ever did anything wrong. Liberty University beg to differ, and I would not be at all surprised if Caner was no longer on faculty there in the 2011-12 academic year.

We are not at liberty to re-write any of God's laws, for any reason. Not even because we're sure he's a nice man and a friend. Now, is Jeffrey John's situation worse than Caner's? In one way, yesm because Jeffrey John is an apostate. But in another sense, both involve men flouting God's law, and others covering up for them. And now I need to see about the sparrow that just did a Kamikaze run on my study window.

Monday, July 5, 2010

The Shame of a Drunk Culture

The BBC report the findings of a worrying recent study here. This is deeply worrying. We need no-one to tell us that drunkenness is a serious problem in our cities - at least, those of us who live in cities don't. Stoke on Trent police report that, while there has been an overall drop in crime, there has been an increase in drink-related violent crime.

Contrary to the traditional beliefs of some Protestants, the Bible does not forbid the drinking of alcohol - Jesus turned water into wine, not unfermented grape juice. There is nothing at all wrong with drinking alcohol. But what the Bible clearly forbids is drunkenness. "Wine is a mocker, strong drink is raging, and whoever is deceived thereby is not wise" (Prov. 20.1). Drunkenness makes a man beastly, it takes away rational thought and leads people to behave foolishly, violently and shamefully. Secondly, while "a little wine" (1 Timothy 5.23) may do some good, drunkenness leads to damaged health: "Who has woe? Who has sorrows? Who has wounds without cause? Who has redness of eyes? They that tarry long at the wine; they that go to seek mixed wine" (Prov. 23.29,30). It is these folk who are to be found in the Accident and Emergency unit of your local hospital at the week-end, and these who are going to require serious treatment for their livers in the future. And all because we are trying to escape from the emptiness of our lives. We ought to be reading Ecclesiastes and facing it, not getting drunk and trying to hide from reality. "Do not be drunk with wine, which leads to debauchery, but be filled with the Holy Spirit." A man filled with wine is the opposite of a man filled with the Spirit.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

On Narcissism

Recently I watched through the run of the modern-day Battlestar Galactia. It is, as expected, quite different from the original in many ways. Very sensibly, characters are played with little if any similarities to the originals. Though it is great fun to watch Jamie Bamber as Lee Adama opposite Richard Hatch as Tom Zarek. Obviously the two Apollos work well together.

One of the most interesting of the new versions of original characters is Gaius Baltar. The original Baltar was a thoroughly rotten villain who deliberately sold humanity out to the genocidal robotic Cylons in exchange for power, alternately vicious and cowardly. John Colicos played the character perfectly, and is still great fun to watch in the role today.

In the modern version of the show, Gaius Baltar, played by James Callis, is weak, yes, but the defining characteristic of the character is his narcissism. Gaius Baltar has only one loyalty, and that is to Gaius Baltar. His narcissism blinds him to mistakes that he makes (which result in the genocide of humanity at the hands of the Cylons). James Callis portrays the character wonderfully.

Baltar is a villain in both versions of the show. But the modern Baltar is a villain because he is so utterly self-centred. At one point, discussing why Baltar did what he did, a character notes that Baltar always sees himself as the victim, never as the perpetrator. And that is the genius of the show's writers, they see this for what it is. The man who always sees himself as a victim is finally a villain, because his world revolves around himself. Only the man whose world does not revolve around himself is capable of doing truly heroic things - because he is the only man who is actually selfless.

It is therefore hugely ironic that modern evangelical preaching has tended to be self-centred, "be the best that you can be." But this is not the Bible's focus at all. The Bible focuses on God and what He has done, in Christ, for us. To Baltar, it is all his story, to the Christian, this is all God's story.

This is the first time I have written anything based on popular culture. It may well be the last.