Knowing Where We Stand: The Message of John’s Epistles by Peter Barnes

Knowing Where We Stand: The Message of John’s Epistles by Peter Barnes (Darlington: Evangelical Press 1998).

Martin Luther said of 1 John, ‘I have never read a book written in simpler words than this one, and yet the words are inexpressible.’  The aim of this popular level commentary is to turn the inexpressible profundities of John’s three epistles back into simplicity for the benefit of clergy and lay-people alike. Using the New King James Version text, the minister of Nambucca River Presbyterian Church in New South Wales focuses on the three tests of right belief, love, and obedience found in 1 John.  He is constantly aware of the modern danger of down-playing absolute truth, and encourages us that there are such things as right and wrong where doctrine is concerned.  He is concerned to apply the Bible’s message in a provocative and challenging way, not content to leave applications broad and ill-defined.  Several ‘false-prophets’ are named and shamed in the course of the book, including Barbara Theiring, Robert Schuller, Oral Roberts and Kenneth Copeland.  There are scathing criticisms of CH Dodd and William Barclay too, as well as thoughtful critiques of John Stott, David Jackman and others who have written on 1 John from an evangelical perspective. 

Barnes can be pastorally insightful in his applications.  I particularly liked his comment that ‘we are usually very ready to believe that other people are sinners, but we must test ourselves first’ (page 69).  Occasionally he is in danger of forgetting this himself, as he applies the message of 1 John to the New Age, Buddhism, Mormonism, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Christadelphians, liberal ‘Christians’ and even ‘professing evangelicals’ (by which he means those who claim to be evangelical but who fail to meet his criteria of approval).  I would have appreciated a more sustained critique of positions closer to home.  Barnes never pulls punches, however, and for that he is to be commended.

They say that it is possible to reconstruct most of the New Testament from references in the early church Fathers.  Buy this book, and the multiple cross-references on every page will make patristics redundant!  If you find yourself running low on quotations to sprinkle around in your sermons then why not plunder this book – there are about ten in every chapter, along with the obligatory hymn to illustrate the point, sometimes quite unnecessarily.  On page 127 we are treated to four lines by Daniel Webster Whittle, which do nothing but regurgitate 2 Timothy 1:12.  Other hymn citations leave the reader with the distinct impression that English hymnody must have nothing very substantial to offer post-Wesley.

The real weakness with this book is that it is not really an exposition of John’s epistles at all, but a handbook of traditional evangelical dogma expounded with the use of evangeli-jargon, copious proof-texts and old hymns.  It starts off in 1 John, but never stays there very long.  The cover claims it is ‘a thorough, stimulating and informed study of these epistles.’  It is certainly informed, if by that we mean that the author has read a great deal and the footnotes look impressive.  It is occasionally stimulating.  It is by no means a thorough study of John’s epistles, which are treated more as a collection of pithy proverbs than as epistles.  This is not the place to go for an exegesis or interpretation of John – but for polemic, quotations, and doctrinal framework, it’s harder to fault.

This review was first published in Churchman 113/2 (1999).

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