Before I start I need to say that I love Phillip Jensen. I have loved listening to his preaching, reading his books and also I have appreciated the few times that I have had a chance to speak briefly with him. He has always been gracious and helpful when I have chatted with him. I also need to say that I have asked Phillip to come and speak at the Resolved Church weekend away next year and am still keen for him to do so. I am saying all this because I will critique some of my dear brother’s words and I don’t want anyone to think that I don’t thank God for his ministry.
A few weeks ago Phillip sat down with St Helen’s Bishopsgate to talk about preaching. In his own inimitable way he talks about Calvinism, Calvinists and the danger of preaching the system rather than the text. If you haven’t yet watched video check it out before you continue.
We need to say that Phillip is right on his big idea. When we preach the system of Calvinism, or any system for that matter, rather than the text we force the text into saying some weird and wonderful things that it doesn’t say or we flatten out the text and we don’t let it speak for itself. This warning is always apropos to any preacher or Bible college student.
But there are a few issues I have with what Phillip said:
1. I don’t think we can “just preach the Bible” without some kind of system. Due to the nature of the Bible and human nature we need a system to hang different parts of the Bible on. Now Phillip would agree with this I am sure and if you look at his ministry he created a great systematic theological/evangelistic tract called Two Ways to live. But if you ask anyone who reads the Bible, whether they be an MTS student from UNSW or a preacher at Hillsong they would say they “just read the Bible” but, on certain things at least, they come out with totally different readings. Why is this so? It is because they have presuppositions or a system they bring to the text. This is natural and, to a certain extent, unavoidable. The question shouldn’t be whether we are bringing a system to the text or not, because we all do, it should be is the system we are bringing to the text informed by the text and shaped by it. Theological systems and exegesis are forever in a symbiotic relationship where each is affected by the other. Phillip has made us aware of the danger of preaching a system rather than the text and that is always helpful but what he doesn’t say is that we are always bringing a system of theology to the text. That is not a bad thing as long as our system of theology is always flowing out of the Bible.
2. The question that was in my mind as I was watching the video was: Who is Phillip talking about? Phillip makes a distinction between Calvinists and the followers of Calvin. Calvinists, in Phillip’s view, preach the system rather than the text and end up doing more education rather than evangelism. Whereas followers of Calvin read the text and do evangelism. But who is Phillip talking about? Is it John Piper? Is it Mark Dever? Is it Tim Keller? The problem with mentioning a group of people like Calvinists, tarring them with the same brush and offering only anecdotal evidence is that the assertions made are, at the one and the same time, both indefensible and irrefutable. They are indefensible because you need evidence to back up your argument and Phillip hasn’t given us any and they are irrefutable because there is no evidence to argue against and to introduce counter evidence against and any counter evidence we would offer is dismissed out of hand (for evidence of this look at the video from 9:40-10:30 mark).
3. That are also historical inaccuracies in what Phillip said. Around the 10:30 mark in the video Phillip says that the outcome of the ministry of the 17th century Puritans, who were Calvinists, was that in the north eastern states of America Quakerism and Unitarianism flourished in the wake of their ministries. Phillip is wide of the mark here. If you read George Marsden’s biography of Jonathan Edwards Jonathan Edwards: A Life it is clear that the reason Edwards, and other Calvinists of his day, emphasized the Calvinism and Calvinistic teaching was because they saw Arminiainism as a threat that would bring the downfall of theology and belief in the Biblical God. History shows that the north east states of America went into theological decline not because of the Calvinism of the Puritans but because of the Arminianism of Charles Finney and others coupled with the onslaught of enlightenment. Phillip implies that the reason why the north east of the United States is the most unchristian part of the United States is because of the Puritans of the seventeen hundreds and their Calvinism, which may make one thing that if you call yourself a Calvinist your theological children will be heading into a theological ditch. But this, as we have seen, doesn’t ground itself in history but speculation.
4. Is Phillip guilty of his own critique? Over the years I have loved Phillip’s preaching. At one point I think I had about one hundred of his tapes (yes I listened to tapes I am that old!). But I do remember one sermon of his on the parable of the Good Samaritan. His big idea was that we have read this parable wrong. The parable is not about social justice or about helping your neighbour. It is actually about Jesus, who is the ultimate good Samaritan, rescuing us (we are the man lying on the ground beaten to a pulp). Now I listened to this sermon over a decade ago so I may not have nailed what Phillip said but even if I am close to what he said isn’t Phillip doing the very thing he is critiquing? Read any good commentator and they will say that the parable is about being a neighbour to anyone you meet and not primarily about salvation. It is in this instance Phillip has applied his system of theology to the text and not let the text say what it really says.
Phillip is right, we all need to make sure that we preach the text of the Bible and not our system of theology. This is always a great piece of advice but there are a few major things I think he needs to pull back on.
Now I am going to tell someone about Jesus because that is what Calvinists, like my self, do.
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