Happy Monday as we get back after it here on the podcast. Pastor John, I know one of the things you really enjoy is answering questions in front of students — open-floor Q and As. You’ve been doing this for over fifty years, and you’re still at it — currently investing in the lives of students at Bethlehem College & Seminary. This time with students is built into your schedule now. And recently, in that context with BCS students, you had a chance to walk through the theological battles you’ve fought over the decades. And I was wondering, looking back on those battles, if you could share with us here on APJ what you said in private. Rehearse those battles, decade by decade. And, if you could, tell us what points you were trying to make in rehearsing this history with the students.
As part of my happy responsibilities as chancellor of Bethlehem College & Seminary, I regularly participate in what we call TableTalk, where the students gather to eat their lunch and ask questions of the leaders — and I’m one of those — related to life, related to ministry, how it relates to the issues of our day. I generally begin those sessions with some thoughts off my front burner just to prime the pump of questions and throw it open to whatever the students want to talk about.
“The best way to prepare for faithful, obedient, fruitful ministry in the next fifty years is to know your Bible deeply, thoroughly, confidently, joyfully.”
A few weeks ago, I tried to make this point in my introductory comments. I said something like this, looking at the students: “Since the issues that you will be facing in ten, twenty, thirty, forty, fifty years from now — you’ll be my age in fifty years — since those issues that you’ll be facing are utterly unpredictable, and in some cases unimaginable, your best preparation right now in your teens and twenties and thirties is to gain the spiritual and intellectual abilities to interpret God’s never-changing word in Scripture according to its true, God-intended meaning, which will never leave you speechless, never, but always provide the profoundest wisdom for every new challenge, none of which takes God off guard.”
That was my main point to try to get across to them. And then to drive the point home, I gave them a glimpse into the controversies of the last fifty years of my life and how precious the Bible has become as an absolutely sure compass for staying the course of truth and wisdom, and as an anchor to keep me from being driven about by every wind of doctrine, and as a treasure chest of holy joy that satisfies so deeply that I’m not sucked into the seductive pleasures that, on the surface, change from era to era. (They don’t really change, but the form changes.)
Decades of Controversies
Here’s part of the glimpse that I gave them into my fifty-year history of dealing with unexpected issues. But let me say at the outset that I’m not going to focus on race and abortion as one of those issues, because they’re just pervasive. I mean, for the last decades of my life, I have lived every decade with issues of race that need to be addressed and issues of abortion that need to be addressed. So, understand that those are huge issues, and the fact that I don’t mention them in the list doesn’t mean they’re absent. It means they’re everywhere.
1960s: History and Criticism
In the 1960s, I was coming to terms with the controversy surrounding fresh historical arguments for the factual resurrection of Jesus Christ. Daniel Fuller’s Easter Faith and History had been published in 1965. Wolfhart Pannenberg was making waves with his 1968 book Revelation as History, where he argued that the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth was a historical event as real as your getting out of bed this morning, which in German Bultmannian circles in the ’60s was absolutely radical. He was one of the teachers I had, by the way, at the University of Munich in the 1970s.
Hand in glove with the controversy was the whole issue of the modern methodology of critical biblical scholarship. In 1966, George Ladd published The New Testament and Criticism, where he tried to sort out what was usable in so-called higher criticism and what was contradictory to the inspired nature of Scripture. Those were crucial days for me, crucial like crux, like crossroads. How I thank God, in the ways I could have gone, that he held on to me for his glory and for his word.
1970s: Eschatology, Anthropology, and Bibliology
Then came the 1970s and three huge issues. In 1970, Hal Lindsey published The Late Great Planet Earth. By 1999, that book had sold 35 million copies. In it, he virtually predicted the second coming by 1988 — I don’t know how that book stays in print unless they adjusted it — and he popularized the pre-tribulational rapture view of the second coming. And I wrote a paper in response to this. It became very personal because my father and I locked horns over this. There’s nobody I loved more than my father, and I didn’t want to alienate him. We got along pretty well, although that book brought a lot of stuff to the fore.
In 1975, Paul Jewett published Man as Male and Female, in which he said that when Paul instructed only men to teach and have authority in the church, he simply made a mistake. Paul just made a mistake and allowed his rabbinical background to silence his radical Christian newness. From then on to this very day, I knew that’s an issue I’ll never be able to get away from, because there are more critical things going on there, more reasons to be concerned than just one.
In 1976, Harold Lindsell published The Battle for the Bible and brought to public awareness how many Christian institutions were sliding away from a commitment to the inerrancy of Scripture. In 1978, the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy produced “The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy.” I wrote a review of Lindsell’s book, and I’m very happy with what happened in Chicago. I’m happy to sign on to the Chicago statement on inerrancy.
1980s: Sovereignty and Missions
In the 1980s, two controversies stand out. Professor of philosophy Thomas Talbott and I went back and forth with articles in Reformed Journal over the sovereignty of God in Romans 9. I think the titles were like, “How Does a Sovereign God Love?” I published a book on Romans 9 called The Justification of God, which focused on Romans 9:1–23. And so, the understanding of God’s sovereignty in history and in salvation dominated the early 1980s.
Near the end of the decade, the missiological controversy surrounding the new language of “unreached people groups” and whether that was a biblical way to think or not was a huge issue for me. Does the Great Commission focus on reaching as many individuals as possible, which is what I had thought, or on reaching all the ethnolinguistic groups in the world?
1990s: Open Theism
Then much of the 1990s was dominated by open theism. Does God have an exhaustive foreknowledge of the future? Open theism said no, he doesn’t. Its chief spokesman was and is right here in the Twin Cities as a pastor, and so he and I debated back and forth. We had lunch together. I wrote much, and other people wrote very good books. Thankfully, I think open theism was basically marginalized, though it hasn’t gone away.
2000s: Emergent Church
In the 2000s, the emergent church flourished for a season and then morphed into other things. I don’t think it’s entirely gone away, but it’s not the movement it was. I took two of those leaders out to lunch one time, just to give our folks a flavor of what we’re talking about with the emergent church. I said to them, “Talking to you guys is like trying to nail Jell-O to the wall,” to which they responded, “That’s not what Jell-O is for.” That really gives a good flavor of how doctrinally amorphous that movement was.
2010s: Justification and Ecumenism
In the 2010s, the doctrine of justification was very controverted and prominent. I wrote a whole book, The Future of Justification, responding to N.T. Wright. On the same front, friends of mine were involved relationally in some very difficult conversations called Evangelicals and Catholics Together, which broke some hearts over how good Reformed brothers didn’t relate to Catholics in the same way.
2020s: The Swirling Decade
Which brings us then swirling into the last decade with the splintering of evangelicalism because of Trump, the realities of so-called “same-sex marriage,” the realities of so-called “gender transition,” vaccination mandates, critical race theory, systemic racism, cancel culture. None of these things can be ignored by a pastor — I think, indeed, by a thoughtful layperson — and I’ve written on virtually all of them.
Go Deep with God
But the point for that TableTalk — and maybe for this moment in Ask Pastor John — is this: if you live long enough, you will be confronted by issues and controversies that are so many and so diverse and sometimes so complex that you cannot possibly predict or specifically prepare for them. The best way for our students and our listeners to APJ to prepare for faithful, obedient, fruitful ministry in the next fifty years is to know your Bible deeply, thoroughly, confidently, joyfully.
Other studies are important, absolutely important. This study of the Bible is essential. If you have gone deep with God by means of a rigorous and accurate understanding of his word, you’ll always be relevant, and you’ll never be speechless.