Clarity at Death: A Poignant TED Talk

An old adage says that a person is not truly ready to live unless they are ready to die. What if we could prepare ourselves to live life without regrets? This medical technician has identified three desires (patterns) of the dying: The need for forgiveness, to be remembered, and to have had significance (meaning). I do not know if he is a Christian but I want to affirm that in an ultimate sense, only in Christ can these three desires be met.

The enduring picture of vicarious atonement–the innocent victim (animal) for human debt to God–was fulfilled in Jesus’ death on the cross. “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved.” (Acts 4.12 NIV). Secondly, the need to be remembered and therefore loved (although he said it was to live on in memories of others, and so immortality) will never be truly realized from humans. Please note what Ecclesiastes says about this matter: “No one remembers the former generations, and even those yet to come will not be remembered by those who follow them.” (1.11 NIV). Also, the need to have a meaningful life can only be found in God who defines it by creation and sustaining love.


Having responded to many cases since then where patients were in their last moments and there was nothing I could do for them, in almost every case, they have all had the same reaction to the truth, of inner peace and acceptance. In fact, there are three patterns I have observed in all these cases.

The first pattern always kind of shocked me. Regardless of religious belief or cultural background, there’s a need for forgiveness. Whether they call it sin or they simply say they have a regret, their guilt is universal. I had once cared for an elderly gentleman who was having a massive heart attack. As I prepared myself and my equipment for his imminent cardiac arrest, I began to tell the patient of his imminent demise. He already knew by my tone of voice and body language. As I placed the defibrillator pads on his chest, prepping for what was going to happen, he looked me in the eye and said, “I wish I had spent more time with my children and grandchildren instead of being selfish with my time.” Faced with imminent death, all he wanted was forgiveness.

The second pattern I observe is the need for remembrance. Whether it was to be remembered in my thoughts or their loved ones’, they needed to feel that they would be living on. There’s a need for immortality within the hearts and thoughts of their loved ones, myself, my crew, or anyone around. Countless times, I have had a patient look me in the eyes and say, “Will you remember me?”

The final pattern I observe always touched me the deepest, to the soul. The dying need to know that their life had meaning. They need to know that they did not waste their life on meaningless tasks. This came to me very, very early in my career. I had responded to a call. There was a female in her late 50s severely pinned within a vehicle. She had been t-boned at a high rate of speed, critical, critical condition. As the fire department worked to remove her from the car, I climbed in to begin to render care. As we talked, she had said to me, “There was so much more I wanted to do with my life.” She had felt she had not left her mark on this Earth. As we talked further, it would turn out that she was a mother of two adopted children who were both on their way to medical school. Because of her, two children had a chance they never would have had otherwise and would go on to save lives in the medical field as medical doctors. It would end up taking 45 minutes to free her from the vehicle. However, she perished prior to freeing her.

Is the Brain Like a Computer?

Thomas Aquinas does get some things right obviously and The Map of the Soul may be one of them. Despite my disagreement with some of his philosophical views, I hardily stand with him on the immaterial part of humanity. Here are some observations and insights from a top Neurosurgeon.

“Doctor, what’s that sound?”

The voice startled me. I was performing brain surgery on a woman with a tumor near the area that controls speech. I was removing much of her frontal lobe, in order to remove the tumor. To map her speech area with an electrical probe, I needed her to be awake. So I performed the surgery under mild local sedation only. The brain itself feels no pain.

It took me a moment to realize that it was my patient, not a nurse, speaking to me from under the surgical drapes. “Just the sound of the instruments,” I replied, not entirely candid. The sound was a lot of her frontal lobe going up my sucker into a canister.

“It’s loud,” she said, half-laughing from nervousness and a sedative. “How’s the operation going?”

“Fine. Everything’s going well. How do you feel?”

“OK. Sleepy. It doesn’t hurt.”

We chatted as I worked. She was drowsy, but quite coherent. She went on to recover nicely. Her tumor had been benign, and her prognosis was good.

Francis Crick, neuroscientist and co-discoverer of the helical structure of DNA, expressed the widespread view that the mind is a function of material stuff: “A person’s mental activities are entirely due to the behavior of nerve cells, glial cells, and the atoms, ions, and molecules that make them up and influenced them.” How, then, is it possible to converse with someone while removing the large portions of her brain that serve thought and reasoning?

I’m a neuroscientist and professor of neurosurgery. The mind-brain question haunts me. Neurosurgeons alter the brain on a daily basis, and what we find doesn’t fit the prevailing view that the brain runs the mind as computer hardware runs software.

I have scores of patients who are missing large areas of their brains, yet who have quite good minds. I have a patient born with two-thirds of her brain absent. She’s a normal junior high kid who loves to play soccer. Another patient, missing a similar amount of brain tissue, is an accomplished musician with a master’s degree in English.

How can this be? It wasn’t until I read Thomas Aquinas that I began to understand.

Aquinas began by reaching back to an earlier thinker. Following Aristotle, he posited that the human soul has three kinds of powers. It has vegetative powers, which serve physiological functions such as heartbeat, respiration, and metabolism. It has sensitive powers, such as sensation, perception, memory, sensitive appetite, and locomotion. The vegetative and sensitive powers are caused by matter, in a purely physical way.

But the human soul also has intellect and will, powers of a wholly different kind. With our intellect, we can think of universal concepts, such as mercy and justice and abstract mathematics. With our will, we can act on abstract principles. Because thinking of abstract concepts entails thoughts removed from particular things, Aquinas reasoned, intellect couldn’t be a material thing. Intellect and will are immaterial powers.

Aquinas taught that our soul’s immaterial powers are only facilitated by matter, not caused by it, and the correlation is loose. His insight presaged certain findings of modern neuroscience.

Wilder Penfield, an early-twentieth-century neurosurgeon who pioneered seizure surgery, noted that during brain stimulation on awake patients, he was never able to stimulate the mind itself—the sense of “I”—but only fragmented sensations and perceptions and movements and memories. Our core identity cannot be evoked or altered by physical stimulation of the brain.

Relatedly, Penfield observed that spontaneous electrical discharges in the brain cause involuntary sensations and movements and even emotions, but never abstract reasoning or calculation. There are no “calculus” seizures or “moral” seizures, in which patients involuntarily take second derivatives or ponder mercy.

Similar observations emerge from Roger Sperry’s famous studies of patients who had undergone surgery to disconnect the hemispheres of the brain. This was done to prevent seizures. The post-operative patients experienced peculiar perceptual and behavioral changes, but they retained unity of personal identity—a unified intellect and will. The changes Sperry discovered in his research (for which he won a Nobel Prize) were so subtle as to pass unnoticed in everyday life.

In the past decade, British researcher Adrian Owen has found using fMRI imaging that some patients with such severe brain damage that they are considered to be in a persistent vegetative state are actually capable of sophisticated thought. The “comatose” patients’ brain scans show that, in reply to questions by an examiner, the patients are in fact thinking and imagining.

The woman on the operating table who was talking to me while I removed her frontal lobe had both material and immaterial powers of mind. Our higher brain functions defy precise mapping onto brain tissue, because they are not generated by tissue, as our lower brain functions are.

Materialism, the view that matter is all that exists, is the premise of much contemporary thinking about what a human being is. Yet evidence from the laboratory, operating room, and clinical experience points to a less fashionable conclusion: Human beings straddle the material and immaterial realms.

We can do better science—and medicine—when we recognize that human beings have abilities that transcend reductionist material explanations. In this century of unprecedented advances in brain research, it’s remarkable that the deepest insights emerge from an ancient paradigm: Thomas Aquinas’s map of the soul.

Michael Egnor is a professor of neurological surgery at Stony Brook University School of Medicine.

Misconceptualizing God (Part 2)

Part 1 of this topic sought to show the origin of wrong ideas about God. In this post, I endeavor to show how God is misconceptualized in the doctrine of the final dissolution of the wicked. Here, again, this touches on the Goodness of God, or, Omnibenificence. It seems as though if God can be portrayed as unkind, he is less likely to be trusted.

Overwhelmingly, in the bible, the end of the wicked is spoken of in terms of destruction. It is mainly a few verses in the N.T. that derives the doctrine of Eternal Conscious Torment (“ECT”). There are many very good refutations of this doctrine, such as Edward Fudge’s The Fire that Consumes to mention one, but many others expand additional reasons. In this post, I focus on what many conclude to be the strongest defense of ECT, namely the philosophical formulations of Anselm picked up by Aquinas. Their idea goes something along these lines: Since God is infinite, then all sins against Him are severely infinite. This cannot be the case and has zero support from scripture being almost purely philosophically derived (and wrong in my view). Some would say that to slap a king is more severe than slapping an ordinary person and so deserves the greater punishment. This merely ‘sounds good’ but nowhere from scripture is there a parallel, at least not to the extent that the subscribers to ECT can use as support. Additionally, it is claimed at least by some, that after death, the wicked are still sinning and so deserve everlasting torment.

This contention is refutable along at least two lines: 1. Is. 40.2 states “Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and proclaim to her that her hard service has been completed, that her sin has been paid for, that she has received from the LORD’s hand double for all her sins.” It is quite obvious that the sins were finite even though doubled. The reason that the punishment was doubled was the well attested “double sin.” The O.T. prophets told Israel that when they departed from the Lord, it was a sin as well as the sin act itself usually in the form of idolatry. They had left the fountain of water to dig out for themselves cisterns which could hold no water.

2. The wicked are not accountable after death. They are certainly not righteous in any sense, but the accounting stops as shown by several verses: “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each of us may receive what is due us for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad.” (2Cor.5.10) The time on earth in the body is the designated probationary scope. Otherwise, the righteous just keep getting more righteous after death!

Rev. 20.12 sets the judgment scene and limits it to the record while on earth: “And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Another book was opened, which is the book of life. The dead were judged according to what they had done as recorded in the books.” Again, a running record doesn’t seem to be spoken of and therefore the judging pertains only to earthly life.

Misconceptualizing God–Part One

Two lies are stated in Gen. 3.4-5, both of them subtle. The first is explicit but technical so as to deceive: “you shall not surely die” (KJV). While the pair, after eating did not die physically at once, that very day they died. Here are two reasons: 1. They needed a remedy since they were now alienated from God (by hiding) and from themselves (tried to cover their nakedness). After this sin, and the subsequent judgment of 3.14-19-(notice the Lord is speaking to them as normally as any earthly judge-a preincarnate theophany of the Eternal Son), in His mercy He clothed them with animal skins which involved an innocent victim (the foreshadowed substitute). 2. Paul tells the Christians in Eph. 2.1–“As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins.” Here the apostle says to the living before they believed, they were in some sense “dead”, so a death occurred at the fall.

The focus of this post is another lie, though even more subtle, implied in vs. 5: “for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” The hint is ‘that God is holding out on them’ with the idea that God is not sharing, or put another way, that God is not all good. God’s ultimate goodness is in question. It’s an accusation against God. This was the first accusation and all others follow. The devil is not merely “the accuser of the brethren” (Rev. 12.10).

Echos of Scripture in the Gospels- A Review by Guy Waters


In a recent post I reproduced an interview of Richard Hays. Here is a review of his latest book which is very informative on its own and whets the appetite for further investigation.



One does not have to preach, teach, or even read the New Testament for long in order to discover how steeped its authors are in the Old Testament. The OT surfaces on virtually every page of the NT. It serves a range of purposes, whether for witness to unbelief or for the instruction and guidance of the church. And it speaks with divine authority – like the NT, it is the very word of God.

One salutary trend in the last generation of the academic study of the NT has been a growing estimation of the place and importance of the OT to the NT. Students of the NT increasingly appreciate the degree to which the OT is woven into the warp and woof of the NT message. To attempt to read the NT independently of the OT is to misread the NT.

A pioneer in this branch of recent scholarship is Richard Hays, the George Washington Ivey Professor of New Testament at Duke Divinity School in Durham, NC. His Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul (1989) invigorated the study of the apostle Paul’s use of the OT. His recent release, Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels (2016), promises to do the same for the Four Gospels.

The substance of ESG consists of four chapters detailing the method and practice of each of the Four Evangelists in handling the Old Testament. Introductory and concluding chapters frame these four chapters. Although brief, these two chapters set forth the principles and methods that inform the book as a whole. As such, they merit particular attention.

Two terms characterize Hays’ understanding of the Evangelists’ handling of the OT writings. The first is “figuration.” The Gospels evidence what Hays, following Erich Auerbach, terms “figural interpretation.” What is “figural interpretation”? It is a correspondence between “two events or persons” that “can be discerned only after the second event has occurred and imparted a new pattern of significance to the first” (3). Hays distances figuration from “prediction” – “figural reading of the Bible need not presume that the OT authors – or the characters that they narrate – were conscious of predicting or anticipating Christ” (2, cf. 359). Positively, the NT writers engage in the practice of what Hays terms “reading backwards.” In light of the redemptive and revelatory work of Christ in his death and resurrection, the NT writers “retrospectively” read or “reinterpret” the OT in “transformati[ve]” ways (358). The conviction that Jesus is Israel’s Messiah and that he was crucified and raised from the dead comes to define, characterize and distinguish Christian readings of the OT from all other readings of the NT.

The second term that characterizes Hays’ understanding of the Gospel writers’ engagement of the OT is “metalepsis.” Metalepsis is “a literary technique of citing or echoing a small bit of a precursor text in such a way that the reader can grasp the significance of the echo only by recalling or recovering the original context from which the fragmentary echo came and then reading the two texts in dialogical juxtaposition” (11). Metalepsis is hardly unique to the biblical writers. It surfaces in other literature, classical music, and even popular film and music.1 It is a technique that the NT writers use to great effect. They may employ it at multiple levels -when, for instance, they quote the OT, allude to the OT, or echo the OT (“quotations” are “introduced by a citation formula or … feature the verbatim reproduction of an extended chain of words…;” “allusions” either “imbed several words from the precursor text” or “explicitly mention notable characters or events;” an “echo” is “a word or phrase that evokes, for the alert reader, a reminiscence of an earlier text,” 10). As importantly, metalepsis serves the NT writers’ greater end of explicating the person and work of Jesus Christ with reference to the Scriptures of the OT. OT quotations, allusions, and echoes, whether they are expressly metaleptic or not, are the brushes and oils with which the NT authors paint the portrait of Christ in their writings.

How does Hays see each Evangelist turning to the OT in order to craft his particular portrait of Christ? Hays shows how each Gospel engages the OT in order to tell the story of Israel, Jesus, and the church. Mark handles Scripture in a way that, “like his narrative style more generally, is indirect and allusive” (98). There are comparatively fewer citations in Mark than in other Gospels – “Mark for the most part works his narrative magic through hints and allusions” (ibid.). If this is Mark’s narrative technique, what, then, is the narrative or story that Mark tells? As the curtain rises on the Gospel, Mark understands “Israel still under exile,” requiring nothing less than “divine intervention” for her “deliverance” (16). John the Baptist’s sudden appearance at the beginning of Mark heralds both impending eschatological judgment (Mark 1:2-3 and Mal 3:1 [LXX]) and a new exodus (Mark 1:2-3 and Exod 23:20 [LXX]). The one who will bring this restoration is not John but Jesus, whose death, Mark underscores, “stands in direct continuity with God’s covenant with Israel” (Mark 14:24-25 and Exod 24:8, Zech 9:11) (35,36). Lamentably, the Jewish leaders’ blindness and resistance to Jesus not only signifies that they are under divine judgment, but also serves to bring Jesus to the cross (44). Jesus’ parable of the Tenants (Mark 12:1-12), however, deftly engages multiple OT texts (Isa 5:1-7, Gen 22:2, Gen 37:20 LXX, Psa 118:22-23) to point to the vindication of Jesus and the restoration of the people of God (ibid.).

Mark’s portrait of Jesus is inexplicable apart from his handling of the OT. Precisely in referencing many passages from the OT, Mark presents Jesus as Davidic king, the Son of Man, the Crucified Messiah, and the God of Israel. Mark, for instance, affirms “Jesus’ identity with the one God of Israel” not “explicitly” but precisely “through riddle-like allusions to the Old Testament” (62), such as Isa 40:3, 9-10 in Mark 1:2-3; Psa 107:23-32, Job 38:8-11, Psa 89:9, Psa 106:8-12, Isa 51:9-11, and Psa 44:23 in Mark 4:35-41; and Jer 8:13 in Mark 11:12-14.

Mark also crafts the church’s identity with reference to the OT. Mark 13, with multiple echoes of Daniel, Isaiah, and Joel, sets the church’s persecution in the context of the “time of crisis that precedes God’s final saving action and restoration of justice” (91). The opening lines of Mark (1:1-3), in their echoes of Psa 2:7, and Isa 64:1, 40:15, 17, serve, with other texts in Mark, to characterize the church as “a community that owes ultimate allegiance to God,” not Caesar (94). The church, furthermore, has a call to bear witness to Jesus Christ before the nations – a matter less stated than presupposed in Mark, not least in his engagement with the OT (Mark 11:17 with Isa 56:17; Mark 13:10 with Isa 2:2-4; Mark 15:39 with Mark 1:11 and Psa 2:7).

We may offer briefer synopses of the ways in which Hays sees Matt, Luke, and John presenting Israel, Christ, and the church by way of engagement with the OT. Like Mark, Matthew depicts Israel’s history, at the opening of his Gospel, in terms of an exile poised to conclude through Jesus. For Matthew, Jesus brings Israel’s story to a conclusion as he “embodies the radical covenant obedience that God has already desired of his people” and “gathers around himself a new community within Israel” (139). Matthew shares Mark’s conviction that Jesus is one with the God of Israel, expressing it explicitly (1:23, 28:20). Matthew, furthermore, gives Jesus’ identity “Israeological specification,” even as Jesus brings fulfillment to “Israel’s story” (139). That is to say, Matthew’s account of Jesus’ suffering and triumph echoes the history and experiences not only of the nation, but also of such leading figures of the nation as Moses, David, and Solomon. Since Matthew understands the OT to be a “narrative of God’s mercy [that] embrace[s] the Gentiles,” the people of God will not only contain Gentiles but be commissioned to go into the world to make disciples of the nations (175).

If Matthew characteristically understands the OT in terms of predictions that find their fulfillment in Christ, then Luke understands the OT in terms of promises that find their fulfillment in Christ, a point especially emphasized in the opening chapters and in the concluding chapter of his Gospel (192, 193). Luke, furthermore, prefers “implicit correspondences, suggested through the literary devices of allusion and echo,” the cumulative effect of which is to “create a narrative world thick with scriptural memory” (193). Luke understands Israel in need of “liberation” from “captivity to oppressive powers” (195). She is in need of a new Exodus, and it is Jesus, the Divine Redeemer, who has come to accomplish that work. Luke draws from the OT in order to show that the redeemed people of God must assume a posture of “confrontation” against the “power of empire” and of “revelation to the Gentile world” (265).

John shares the Synoptics’ conviction that one must “read backwards” and so “reinterpret Scripture in light of a new revelation imparted by Jesus and focused on the person of Jesus himself” (283, emphasis original). But John differs from the Synoptics in an important respect. While John does cite, allude to, and echo the OT, his “intertextual sensibility is more visual than auditory” (284). John prefers selected “images and figures from Israel’s Scripture” to shine light on the identity of Jesus (ibid., emphasis removed). Consequently, Israel, her festivals, law, and history constitute the “symbolic matrix for [John’s] portrayal of Jesus” (289). For this reason, Hays notes, “it is hard to distinguish the Evangelist’s interpretation of Israel from his interpretation of Jesus” (ibid.). In like fashion, John represents the people of God in two leading images with deep roots in the OT – a vine and a flock of sheep. Significantly, both images further illumine the Vine and the Good Shepherd to whom the church belongs (343).

No survey can do justice either to the encyclopedic scope of ESG or the complexities of its exegetical engagement with hundreds of passages from the Gospels (and the OT). What about ESG commends it to the reader as meriting careful study and reflection? We may point to three strengths of the work. First, ESG provides readers with a helpful conceptual and terminological apparatus to reflect with care and precision on the use of the OT in the Gospels. While “figuration” and “metalepsis” may not be household terms, these terms endeavor to capture precisely how the Evangelists read the OT. Acknowledging the distinction among quotation, allusion, and echo proves helpful to readers of the Gospels in ascertaining the “volume” of an OT engagement in any given passage of the Gospels. Hays will occasionally alert readers to a particularly “low volume” engagement. After arguing for an echo of 2 Kings in Luke 24:31, he appends a disclaimer. “This proposed reading of a hypothetical faint echo goes far beyond anything that can be ascribed with any degree of confidence to Luke’s authorial intention,” not withstanding the “unexpected satisfactions” that “the linkage yields” (242). Hays, then, commendably exercises a measure of restraint in advancing this reading. Whether or not readers agree with his assessment of this (or any other) text, ESG provides them the tools with which to make informed exegetical judgments.

A second strength of ESG is its individual attention to the ways in which each Evangelist interprets the OT. While the Gospel authors share a body of core convictions about the person and work of Christ and the OT’s relation to Christ, these convictions come to expression in distinct ways in the Four Gospels. Hays helpfully highlights the ways in which Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John characteristically relate the OT to Christ – Mark’s indirect and elusive engagement of the OT; Matthew’s preference for prediction and fulfillment; Luke’s emphasis upon promise and fulfillment in the context of a grand and global narrative; John’s visually oriented selection of images from Scripture that highlight the unique identity of Jesus Christ. Awareness of these patterns will not only assist one to be a more careful reader and expositor of this portion of the canon, but also help one to appreciate the breadth and reach of the ways in which Christ brings the OT to fulfillment.

A third strength of ESG is its strong emphasis upon the deity of Christ as a central message of each of the Four Gospels. Higher critical scholarship has long been dismissive of historic Christianity’s insistence that the NT teaches that Jesus Christ is the eternal Son of God. Among the Gospels, Hays observes, Mark and Luke are “usually thought to have the ‘lowest’ or most ‘primitive’ Christologies” (363). It is refreshing, then, to see Hays, writing from within and to historical critical scholarship, argue that that the Four Gospels bear united and unambiguous testimony to the full deity of Christ. Hays does not merely argue this point from such express statements as those of John 1:1, 18. Rather, he primarily argues this point from the ways in which the Evangelists handle the OT in relation to Jesus. When one properly grasps the web of OT interactions evident in Mark 6:45-52, for instance, it is difficult to deny that Mark is calling his readers to understand Jesus’ identity with the God of Israel (70-73). Hays patiently demonstrates that the quantity and volume of such evidence vindicates the historic church’s longstanding understanding of the NT’s testimony to the deity of Jesus Christ.

Reformed and evangelical readers will, at points, find themselves in disagreement with ESG. Even here, however, ESG provokes its readers to reflect carefully upon important dimensions of the study of the Gospels’ engagement with the OT. We may take up one such matter that sits near to the center of ESG.

Hays insists that the Gospel writers engage in the practice of “reading backwards.” That is to say, the NT writers read the OT retrospectively. Convinced that Jesus is Israel’s Messiah, the Son of God, crucified and raised for the sinners, the NT writers scour the OT to discern instances in which the OT writers prefigure Christ. Hays terms this practice “revelatory retrospective reading” (259). Hays alternately characterizes the resultant interpretations of the OT in terms of transformation, transfiguration, and continuation (in distinction from the “negation or rejection” of the OT, 363). Hays insists that the patterns that emerge on the pages of the Gospels evidence “a divinely crafted pattern of coherence within the events and characters of the biblical narratives” (359, emphasis removed). Thus, not “human intentionality” but “the mysterious providence of God” accounts for the correspondences, whether on the micro- or macro- level.

In advancing these claims, Hays is concerned not to insist that the process works in reverse. “Figural reading of the Bible need not presume that the Old Testament authors – or the characters that they narrate – were conscious of predicting or anticipating Christ” (2). More polemically, Hays distances himself from the claim that “the authors of the Old Testament’s narratives and poems actually did intentionally forecast the details of Jesus’ life” (359).

Hays accurately claims and demonstrates that the NT writers testify to their own insensibility prior to the resurrection to the ways in which the OT comes to fulfillment in Christ (see John 2:22, Luke 24:22-27). He is correct to say that the cross and resurrection of Christ were redemptive and revelatory events, and that, in light of this new revelation in Christ, the disciples in community read earlier revelation with new eyes, as it were.

But the NT writers suggest that there is a connection deeper still between earlier and later revelation. To take an example from the companion volume to Luke’s Gospel, Peter in his Pentecost sermon, after citing David’s words in Psalm 16 (Acts 2:25-28), says of David, “Brothers I may say to you with confidence about the patriarch David that he both died and was buried, and his tomb is with us to this day. Being therefore a prophet, and knowing that God had sworn with an oath to him that he would set one of his descendants on his throne, he foresaw and spoke about the resurrection of the Christ, that he was not abandoned to Hades, nor did his flesh see corruption. This Jesus God raised up, and of that we are all witnesses” (Act 2:29-32). Peter is saying that David, in his capacity as a prophet, spoke in advance of the resurrection of Christ. Peter would later say something similar of all OT prophets – “concerning this salvation, the prophets who prophesied about the grace that was to be yours searched and inquired carefully, inquiring what person or time the Spirit of Christ in them was indicating when he predicted the sufferings of Christ and the subsequent glories” (1 Pet 1:10-11).

It is for this reason that, when Paul entered the synagogues of Judea and the broader Mediterranean world, he made a point of proving or demonstrating from the Scriptures that Jesus was the Messiah (Acts 9:22, 17:2-3, cf. 18:28). That is to say, Christians could and did publicly advance the claim to unbelievers from the OT that Jesus was the Messiah, and that by way of rational demonstration. Surely this project was only feasible if these Christian believers were convinced that their convictions resided in the OT text itself and were capable of demonstration or proof independently of one’s commitment to Jesus of Nazareth.

The NT writers, to be sure, are largely silent concerning the degree to which the OT authors were aware and conscious of the One to whom they were pointing. They are generally content to affirm that the OT authors pointed to Christ. The NT writers are more concerned to insist that the project of “reading backwards” is a possible undertaking only because of the organic and progressive character of biblical revelation. This character of revelation offers a ready explanation why the NT writers are not doing violence to the text of the OT, much less the intention of the human authors of the OT. None of this is to say that Hays affirms that the Gospels’ readings of the OT are violent or contingent. It is to say that “reading backwards” at best only partly accounts for the manner in which the Evangelists read and explained the OT.

ESG is sure to set a new standard for the study of the Old Testament in the Gospels, and deservedly so. For those who are seeking both clarity in how to read the OT along with the authors of the Gospels, and insight into the particular ways in which the Evangelists handled dozens of text of OT Scripture, ESG will not disappoint. On those occasions when readers dissent from ESG, they will nevertheless find ESG a stimulating and worthwhile conversation partner. Thoughtful readers cannot but emerge from ESG with a conceptually clearer grasp of the ways in which the Gospels handle the OT. And since the authors of the Gospels take us to the OT precisely in order to take us to Jesus Christ, the effort expended in reading and reflecting upon ESG will be well spent.

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Scholar Profile: Craig Keener

The Miracle Writer

Craig Keener: A Scholar Who Pursued the Truth of Impossible Things

by Terrell Clemmons

Craig Keener was walking home from school one day when two young men in suits and ties stopped him. “Do you know where you’ll go when you die?”

“Probably either heaven or hell,” Craig joked. His family was intellectual, but not religious.

At that, the men launched into a series of Bible verses about how Jesus died so that he could be forgiven and have eternal life. At age fifteen, Craig was already quite practiced in ridiculing Christians and using his knowledge of science and philosophy to expose flaws in their reasoning, but he listened patiently for a while before interrupting. “Sir, I’m sorry, but quoting the Bible can’t persuade me. I’m an atheist. I don’t believe in the Bible. Do you have any other arguments?”

Clearly, the street evangelists hadn’t expected this, and Craig moved to press his advantage. “If there’s a God, then where did the dinosaur bones come from?”

This was another question they weren’t prepared for, but after an awkward silence, the more vocal one pronounced, “The devil put them there to confuse us.”

This is ridiculous, Craig thought. “I’m leaving,” he shrugged, and turned to go.

A Compelling Presence

He was right. It was a ridiculous answer. But strangely, as Craig continued on, he found himself trembling. Although he’d become a convinced atheist by age nine, he had been rethinking his atheist certainties for some time. Plato in particular, whom he’d read at age thirteen, had provoked something of an existential crisis. Plato had put forth an idea for the immortality of the soul, but Craig didn’t think Plato’s argument really worked. What happens after we die? he’d started to wonder. If there is nothing higher than ourselves, then is life just a fleeting, meaningless accident? Craig very much wanted immortality, to the extent that he had pleaded in the privacy of his own soul, God if you’re out there, please show me.

He’d expected God, if he existed at all, to reveal himself through some kind of scientific evidence. But what he got that day after school was something far more personally compelling: evidence of God’s own presence. By the time he reached home and shut himself into his bedroom, the demanding presence was so strong his knees buckled. Craig didn’t understand how Jesus dying and rising could have anything to do with restoring him to God, “but if that’s what you’re saying, I’ll believe it,” he gasped. “But God, I don’t know how to be restored to you. So if you really want me to belong to you, you’re going to have to save me yourself.”

At that moment, he felt something rushing through his body. It was unlike anything he’d ever experienced before. He didn’t know much about Christianity at this point, but he did know three things: he knew that God was real, that God was found in Christ, and that from that moment forward, he would devote everything to him.

An Adolescent Scholar

Up until then, Craig had planned to be an astrophysicist, because if there was truth to be found, naturally one would seek it out by studying the universe. But now, he only wanted to preach the gospel. He didn’t want anyone else to suffer the agony of missing God’s saving love. His usual half-hour walk home from school sometimes took four hours because he spent so much time talking with people about Christ. In some ways, he resembled a dreamy adolescent, only he was falling in love with God.

But he was also still a young scholar with a mind hungry for knowledge. He started attending a church and reading forty chapters of the Bible a day, a pace that took him through the New Testament about once a week, or the whole Bible once a month. It struck him, reading this way, that the Bible was not just a collection of memory verses with a lot of blank space in between. It contained narratives and streams of thought. Reading the Bible in context helped him figure out what a particular passage might be saying and then assimilate multiple passages into a comprehensive whole.

He further realized that the biblical authors took certain things for granted as they wrote. Paul’s readers, for example, would already know what situations were being addressed when Paul discussed matters such as head coverings or greeting one another with a holy kiss. But Craig didn’t always know what the situations were. He needed background information on the cultural settings to help him understand.

Eventually it registered with him that these texts had been written in Greek and Roman environments, and that he himself had already read a number of ancient texts from those settings. He’d read Tacitus, the Roman historian, for example, and the Iliad, the Aeneid, and some of the Greek playwrights. All of these could provide background information on the New Testament texts, and he marveled that in the foreknowledge of God, he could draw from one of his pre-conversion pastimes to fuel his post-conversion passion to know God.

All of this studying, combined with a growing, intimate prayer life, revealed to him a God whose love for his people was unfathomably deep, and a Savior whose earthly life had held many sorrows. Craig, too, had known sorrow and the woundedness of broken relationships. He told God he was willing to suffer whatever brokenness might come, so long as God’s own presence would stay with him through it.

When it came time for college, he turned down a National Merit Scholarship and headed off to Bible college on faith.

Taking on Materialism

Throughout his years of schooling, he continued collecting background information. For his own purposes, he wanted a resource that provided this information, and he decided that he would write one himself if none existed by the time he finished his Ph.D. And so in 1994, he published the first-of-its-kind Bible Background Commentary—New Testament, which makes scholarly background data accessible to the general reader. One after another, more background commentaries followed.

While working on a commentary on the Book of Acts, he realized that a primary reason many people gave for doubting its historical reliability was the miracles it reported. In the modern West, this is largely due to the influence of David Hume, who’d asserted that uniform human experience rules out miracles. Not only was Hume’s argument faulty in itself, Craig knew, but human experience was certainly not uniform on the matter. Craig knew of several eyewitness accounts of miracles that were in his estimation quite credible.

And so, even though he knew it would probably get him laughed at in scholarly circles, he decided to deal with the matter in his Acts commentary. He started out addressing it in a footnote, but the footnote eventually grew into the two-volume, 1,200-page Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts (2011), which documents hundreds of contemporary accounts of miracles. The objective was not to prove the truth of the Bible’s miracles, but to challenge scholars who dismiss them as historically implausible legends. Like all of his work, Miracles is meticulously researched and documented.

Trans-racial Ties That Bind

Craig Keener is an admittedly absent-minded professor who can get lost in his work, but from the day of his conversion he also regularly sought out Christian fellowship. When he arrived in Durham, North Carolina, to begin work on his Ph.D. at Duke University, he was in deep pain over a broken relationship. Before he’d even settled into an apartment, “Grandma Johnson,” an African American neighbor raising several grandchildren alone, befriended him. “The Lord told me to offer you somethin’ to eat,” she told him, “and to invite you to church this mornin’.” Through Grandma Johnson, he discovered both the comfort of Southern cooking and the cathartic joy of African American worship. The black church, he discovered, really knew how to deal with pain.

He found himself drawn to his black brothers and sisters in Christ, and soon after receiving his doctorate, he was ordained at the Orange Grove Missionary Baptist Church. With racial-reconciliation ministry a high personal priority, the thought had entered his mind that an ideal ministry partner for him might be an African woman. And so, when a new doctoral student from the Congo joined an InterVarsity meeting he was helping to lead, he was more than casually struck by her beauty and character.

Médine Moussounga was hard to forget, and a cherished friendship ensued. But neither of them felt led to pursue any relationship beyond that, and Médine completed her doctoral program and returned to the Congo just as a violent civil war was breaking out.

Nearly twelve years would pass before they would see one another again.


Médine Moussounga grew up in a home devoted to God. Both her parents had converted to Christianity from traditional African religions, and although the Moussounga home was happy and loving, the city of Dolisie where they lived, like much of Africa, lacked many of the resources the developed world takes for granted. Risk of disease, abduction, and unmitigated violence were ongoing realities for her siblings and her.

The war to which she returned eventually compelled Médine and her family to flee their home. Not knowing whether she would live or die, she wrote a letter to her dear American friend Craig, whom she knew would faithfully pray for them until further notice.

For eighteen months the Moussounga family lived on the run as refugees. And for eighteen months, Craig prayed and waited in lonely anguish. By war’s end, Craig and Médine both knew they wanted to marry each other, but reality itself seemed to conspire against it. At one point, after yet another prayer of desperation, Craig sensed God responding to him: The way is hard because I am cutting a new way before you, clearing a new path for you through the stubborn rocks. You don’t know the future—but you know my character. Look to the future not with fear, but as a challenge. . . . I am with you.

Whether or not Craig ever welcomed the challenge, the presence of God did indeed see them through, and after a seemingly interminable series of hurdles born of different continents, cultures, and government bureaucracies, Craig and Médine were married in 2001 at Palmer Theological Seminary near Philadelphia, where Craig served as a professor of New Testament. Today the Keener family lives in Wilmore, Kentucky, where Craig teaches at Asbury Theological Seminary.

Their beautiful story is told in Impossible Love: The True Story of an African Civil War, Miracles, and Hope Against All Odds. It’s three stories, actually—Craig’s, Médine’s, and theirs together. Beyond that, though, and more importantly, it’s a story of the faithful God who still works miracles and whose surpassing love accomplishes impossible things. •


How to Read the Bible

The challenge of understanding the bible is similar to unassembled jig-saw puzzle pieces where the solution has been lost. Due to their shape and such, the pieces seem to fit variously if imperfectly.
The Bible contains no ‘filler material.’ Attempting to read the bible as a means to derive only what one thinks is pertinent to themselves is folly. The bible is far more involved and complex than most imagine. Here is a longer interview, a trove of rich knowledge as Richard Hays discusses approaching the text of scripture. Professor Hays has been diagnosed with terminal cancer and is writing essays in the time remaining to him.

Interview by Garrett Brown

The Deep and Subtle Unity of the Bible

A conversation with Richard B. Hays.

Would you start by telling our readers a little bit about yourself and your background?

I grew up in Oklahoma, went to an Episcopal day school as a high school student, and had a rich education there that included daily chapel. That had the effect of getting the Book of Common Prayer into my bones, although I was a Methodist by family upbringing.

I went to Yale as an undergraduate and ended up being an English major. I was particularly immersed in poetry and drama of the 16th and 17th centuries. After that, I went to seminary, graduated from Yale Divinity School in 1977, and continued on to a PhD at Emory in New Testament Studies.

How did you switch from English to New Testament Studies? What led to that decision?

When I graduated from Yale, I had no intention of pursuing an academic career. I got a job teaching high school English in Longmeadow, Massachusetts. I did that for a couple of years, but I found myself frustrated because I kept discovering that the great literature I was teaching inevitably raised fundamental questions about the meaning of life and how people respond to suffering and the complexity of the human predicament.

As a public school English teacher, I felt constrained, not being able to speak very freely about religious matters. I ended up deciding that I needed to go back and learn more about Christian tradition, theology, and Scripture in order to be able to answer the questions I myself had.

Then, once I got into biblical studies courses in seminary, I was both fascinated by the subject matter and puzzled by the ways I found a lot of biblical scholars approaching the text: in many cases, they seemed less interested in the wholeness and message of the text than in trying to excavate some hypothetical prehistory of the text.

My response to that has left its stamp on most of my work as a New Testament scholar. I’ve been attempting to interpret the Bible with the sensibility of someone trained as a literary reader of texts and, through that kind of reading, to recover the powerful and surprising messages of Scripture.

It is certainly a pattern that distinguishes your work. You’re always attentive to the larger work and the way in which a coherent reading of the text has to inform each of its parts. Was there a part of your literary training or sensibility early on that helped to discipline that kind of reading?

That’s a nice observation. I think so. When I was an undergraduate at Yale in the 1960s, the English department was still fundamentally shaped by what was called the New Criticism. That approach predated the emergence of deconstruction and the various kinds of postmodernist approaches to literature that have since become dominant.

The New Critics were not particularly concerned about the historical circumstances of the production of the text, or influences on the author, or those kinds of things. Rather, I was taught to look at the way in which the language of the text itself worked—its imagery, music, metaphor—and to think about how the text functioned as a complete work of art. I think that approach to interpretation has informed the pattern you’re describing in my scholarship.

The Bible is just not a collection of little verses or tidbits of wisdom. When we’re reading the Gospel of Luke, for example, we’re reading a text that has a narrative shape to it. To see what’s going on in the text, you have to read the thing whole and see how the parts relate to the whole.

And the same thing applies not only to individual gospels but also, analogously, to the Bible as a whole. It has a deep and subtle narrative unity—not because unity has been superimposed by ecclesial fiat or by some clever editorial design, but because the diverse biblical witnesses bear common witness to God’s grace-filled action in the story of Israel. The emergence of the biblical writings themselves, in their complexity and diversity, is itself part of God’s mysterious “authorial” action. That’s why I believe that the Old Testament and the New have an underlying narrative unity that can be discerned only in retrospect, when we read the whole thing together.

That approach is uncommon these days. Our interpretative efforts can be so focused on a certain strand of narrative or a theme. There are many reasons why that happens. But it can also make one blind to the way in which these things function as a part of the larger narrative.

Yes, I think you’re right about that. It’s partly a function of the decline of humanities in general in liberal arts education. We are taught to read instrumentally to extract information. We’re not taught as well as perhaps we once were to read texts as literary works of art that have their own integrity and their own way of addressing us.

I may be a voice crying in the wilderness in that regard. I’m trying in what I write to help people see that wholeness.

Let’s talk about some of your work. The operative one here is the one that you wrote in 1989 called Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul. What prompted you to write that book? Were you trying to illuminate something that was under-appreciated or ignored at the time?

Yes, as it turned out, very much so. The genesis and development of that book were entirely unexpected. When I was at Yale, one of my teaching tasks was to teach the intermediate Greek reading course for divinity students.

One year, it occurred to me it would be fun to have them read New Testament texts alongside texts from the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures) and to see how the New Testament authors were quoting and using these Old Testament texts and what differences were introduced in the quotations.

I had no idea when I started to do that how fascinating it would turn out to be; I had no idea how complex the differences are between the Septuagint texts and the way that they get taken up into the New Testament.

It started me down a trail of investigating for myself the problems the class had brought up. I didn’t know where I was going, but I had hold of a rope and I was following it hand-over-hand out of the cave to see where it led. When I started to write Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul, I thought of it as an inductive study that would work out of purely descriptive analysis of a series of examples to see what I could say about how Paul was using the Old Testament.

I ended up in a lot of places I never would have predicted. At the time I wrote that book there was a consensus among most New Testament scholars that Paul’s quotations of the Old Testament were simply atomistic proof texting, ignoring the context from which they came.

But the more I looked into the evidence, I decided that was just wrong: actually, the Old Testament was extremely formative for the way Paul thought, and his citations frequently did evoke an awareness of the larger literary Old Testament context from which they were taken.

A large part of Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul is taken up with trying to demonstrate the phenomenon of metalepsis. It’s a term I learned from the literary scholar and poet John Hollander, who had written an elegant book called The Figure of Echo: A Mode of Allusion in Milton and After. Hollander made the point that all great literature is densely allusive and that very often poetic texts are full of echoes of earlier texts. A sensitive reading requires us to recognize that and to see where the echoes come from.

Metalepsis is a literary device of quoting a piece of text that beckons the reader to discover more of the original context from which the fragmentary citation came. That was the discovery I made in writing Echoes of Scripture in Letters of Paul. It really opened up in the field of New Testament studies a very different way of thinking about how Paul was related to his own Jewish tradition.

At the time, there was a certain body of scholarship that argued that because Paul was a trained rabbi, you could understand his uses of the Old Testament as instances of midrashic biblical interpretation in the rabbinic mode. There were attempts to show how that worked out formally in Paul’s citation practices. I found those very unsatisfying as well. I don’t actually think that Paul, in his letters, works in the same stylistic vein or genre as Jewish biblical midrash. There are different things going on there.

I was blazing a different trail in analyzing Paul as a writer who taps into his deep knowledge of Jewish Scripture and evokes Jewish scriptural narratives in a way that is literarily rich and suggestive.

We’ll get into this a little bit later with the gospels, but I’m curious about the letters of Paul. Are there other examples from that time and place where you can compare what he’s doing if isn’t midrash? In other words, as a point of comparison, are there texts that do what he’s doing, or is he inventing a new genre in his use of metalepsis?

The genre of the letter, of course—the epistle—is not a Pauline invention. There are plenty of letters in antiquity. And Paul certainly didn’t invent metalepsis, either; it is a pervasive trope in all literature. But his particular way of re-reading Israel’s Scripture through the lenses of the story of the death and resurrection of Jesus does not have obvious precursors.

Surely, the church fathers who came after Paul picked up on these tropes and did similar things with them. I’m wondering then if there’s a way to think of what he was doing; maybe it’s de novo. I don’t know.

It’s hard to come up with something that’s an exact parallel. There are analogies of different sorts. What he’s not doing, for example, is the genre of biblical commentary. You can compare the works of Philo, who is a Jewish author, who actually give extended allegorical expositions of particular biblical texts.

In the Dead Sea Scrolls, you have examples of commentaries that go, more or less, line by line and perform what’s called pesher exegesis. This kind of commentary quotes a line of Scripture and then says, “Its interpretation is …” Then it goes to the next line and says, “Its interpretation is …”

Paul doesn’t do that kind of thing exactly. What Paul is doing is more like what a preacher does in evoking a text and then reflecting upon it in various ways, in a way that tries to be edifying for his readers. If we had access to synagogue sermons contemporary with Paul, which we don’t (they simply haven’t survived in literary form), they might offer closer parallels. Perhaps the closest parallels are to be found within the intertextuality of the Old Testament itself: for example, the way that Isaiah evokes the creation and exodus stories.

I do think that the letters of Paul, in the way they use Scripture, are, at least as far as I know, distinctive in their own historical setting.

Since the time that book was published, do you find that others have followed your lead in investigating these literary connections? Are scholars doing a better job of seeing these echoes?

Yes. There’s been a flood of articles and monographs, many of which even pick up the term “echoes” in their titles. Many of these are informative and edifying, even brilliant. On the other hand, sometimes when reading some of that stuff, I feel a little bit like the “Sorcerer’s apprentice,” who let the brooms out of the closet. People’s imaginations occasionally run wild. I’m not responsible, I hope, for all of that.

Let’s talk about your two most recent books, Reading Backwards and Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels, which are closely linked.

Reading Backwards is the published version of a lecture series, the Hulsean Lectures, which I gave at Cambridge University. When I was asked to give those lectures, I was, at that time, serving as Dean of the Divinity School at Duke and was overwhelmed by administrative work.

I had previously written hundreds of manuscript pages of work I’d been doing for the book which eventually became Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels. What I did in the Hulsean Lectures was to extract material out of that much larger unfinished manuscript and condense it into the lectures that became Reading Backwards.

Those lectures focused very narrowly on the question of how the gospel writers draw upon Israel’s Scripture in order to narrate the divine identity of Jesus. It’s a Christologically focused set of excerpts from the larger and older manuscript.

When I finally completed and published the bigger book, Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels, it included most of the material that was in the Hulseans, but now in its larger, original context.

For both books, your starting point is, in many ways, the story of the road to Emmaus in Luke 24. Can you talk about how that passage sets up your argument?

For readers who may not have that text immediately at hand or in mind, Luke tells the story of two travelers who had been followers of Jesus. despondently leaving the city of Jerusalem after Jesus’ crucifixion.

The risen Jesus then appears along the road and walks with them, but they don’t recognize him. He asks them, “What are you talking about?” and they say, “Oh, we’re very sad and hopeless because Jesus, who we thought was a great prophet, has been put to death by the Romans and the Jewish authorities. We had hoped he would be the one to redeem Israel, but in fact, obviously not because he was killed.” I’m paraphrasing, of course.

Jesus then says, “Oh, foolish and slow of heart to believe the Scriptures,” and launches into a long exposition of how Moses and all the prophets bore witness to the fact that the Messiah must suffer and be raised. It’s only then when they finally arrive at their destination in the little town of Emmaus, sit down in a table together, and break bread together that their eyes are opened and they recognize him.

So there’s a post-resurrectional exposition of Scripture as revelatory. In Luke’s gospel this suggests the fundamental insight that only in retrospect can you come to understand how Moses and the prophets bear witness to Jesus.

How is reading backward in a figural sense different from reading prophecy forward? And why is the difference important for readers to appreciate?

If we read the Old Testament as predictive prophecy, there are several problems with that. First, not very much of the Old Testament actually does take the form of making predictions about some future coming Messiah. Attempts to make it read that way are often rightly seen as forced and artificial.

To take a single example, the New Testament passion narratives repeatedly echo Psalm 22, culminating in Jesus’ dying cry, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” But Psalm 22, read on its own terms as a lament psalm, though it looks forward to future deliverance and vindication, does not purport to be making predictions about a future coming figure. Rather, when the Evangelists retell the story of the crucifixion, they retrospectively discern the striking correspondences to the psalm.

To be sure, in the Old Testament, there are a few passages that look forward in hope to a future king who will restore the kingdom, a lot of those particularly in the Psalms. There are also enigmatic passages, of course, in Isaiah that refer to a suffering figure, although that figure is never described there as a Messiah.

But the whole picture doesn’t really come together until you read the text, as I say, “backwards,” through the lens of cross and resurrection. Once you have the story of Jesus, you can go back to the older texts and have a kind of “Aha!” recognition that certain things are foreshadowed there, but there’s a big difference between foreshadowing and prophecy.

When you’re moving forward in a narrative, you can’t know what is foreshadowed until you see the full unfolding of the plot and see what actually happens in the end, and then you can do a second reading of the text in light of its ending. That second reading allows you to unravel clues that you never would’ve seen before.

That’s why the approach of reading backwards, which Erich Auerbach has described as figural exegesis, is a much more helpful description of what’s actually going on in the New Testament itself.

I realize that your book is not a critique of other critical approaches, but there are a few things that your two most recent books certainly do challenge. One of them is the notion of high and low Christologies. What is generally meant by that and how does your work frustrate these distinctions?

Good question. That distinction between high and low Christology has to do with the extent to which any particular text thinks of Jesus as God or not. Is Jesus a human figure, a prophet?—that’s a “low” Christology. Is Jesus an incarnation of God?—that’s a “high” Christology.

Many works of New Testament scholarship will say that the high Christology is a late development, and that the original, earliest traditions about Jesus represent a low Christology. He was simply a Palestinian prophet and teacher, who was executed. That’s the historical fact, and then it took about a century for the church eventually to develop the mythological claim that He was divine—and to superimpose that idea as a dogmatic overlay on the earlier simple stories of Jesus.

I’m painting there with a very broad brush, but that’s the way the terms are usually used. John is of course thought to have the highest Christology, and usually Mark and Luke, the lowest Christologies. I came to the conclusion as I studied this material that that was fundamentally wrong. Instead, all four gospels in their different ways, at their foundational layers, bear witness to Jesus as the embodiment of the God of Israel.

The Gospel of Mark doesn’t have the concept of incarnation in the way that John does, but we find Jesus consistently in that gospel doing things that God alone can do: forgive sins, still storms, etc., etc. It’s evoking narrative patterns from the Old Testament to show that Jesus is doing acts that identify him with the Divine.

The terms high and low Christology are misleading to start with. As the church ultimately declared at the Council of Chalcedon, Jesus was fully human and fully divine. What we see in the four gospels is the astonished and astonishing narrative testimony to that reality. All four gospels tell distinct stories that portray the human figure, Jesus, as the mysterious embodiment of Israel’s God. They do it in four different narrative ways, but they’re all doing the same thing. It is as though the single event of Jesus’ life/death/resurrection was a Big Bang—an explosion that spun out the hermeneutical universe of narrative and biblical reinter-pretation that we see in manifold forms in the gospels.

John Stackhouse reviews Gary Anderson’s “Charity”

In his fine study of Sin: A History (Yale, 2010), Notre Dame professor of theology Gary Anderson rendered an understanding of his subject richly textured by references to the Hebrew Bible, New Testament, intertestamental literature, early rabbinical writings, and patristics. In this new book, he offers a parallel look at charity. And that’s the problem. Anderson argues in Charity that good works—and particularly the good work of giving alms—generate merit much as evil works generate damage, or debt, or some other problem in the universe. In this neatly symmetrical economy, therefore, good works serve to fill the holes or pay the debts or fix the problems generated by bad ones. And such an economy is widely approved: it’s called (although Anderson never refers to it thus) as the dharma-karma construct inherent in all Indian religions.

Anderson enjoys ranging fairly widely in his sources, but not that widely. And he earnestly wants to commend his views to Christians and Jews, and even Protestant Christians who are resistant to any talk of meritorious action. So his challenge is to square this idea of charity generating something very like a credit in a heavenly treasury with a generic Christian reliance on the atoning work of Jesus Christ and even with a Protestant appreciation of sola gratia and sola fide. So I shall respond to his effort as one such Protestant reader: initially resistant, but genuinely open also to new ideas that can be shown to have adequate scriptural backing. After all, I’m a sola scriptura person as well.

Bible-believers of all sorts can travel a long way with Anderson’s concerns, of course. The Epistle of James, yes, but also much of the gospels and epistles by the other apostles make clear that genuine faith—trust in God’s salvation to forgive, renew, rehabilitate, and mature—issues properly in appropriate actions. And high on the list of any such faithful actions would be practical care for the poor: “This is true religion” (James 1:27), as well as the passage to which Anderson himself often refers, Matthew 25: 31-46. So far, so good.

To what end, however, is all this good work aimed? Martin Luther, in his famous tract “The Freedom of a Christian,” argues that God in Christ has so abundantly blessed us that we need no longer seek our own benefit in good works. God has already bestowed upon us, is bestowing upon us, and in the world to come shall bestow upon us goods we could not possibly merit. We are free, therefore, truly to seek the good of the other—out of grateful obedience to God who commands us to love our neighbors.

To be sure, as is typical of Luther writing in the early stages of the Reformation, when his field of view was filled with the Roman Catholic Church of his day, the tract does not deal much with the rigors of sanctification that await any truly converted person. It would take prodding from Erasmus on one side and from the Radical Reformation on the other for Luther to balance out his celebration of God’s active righteousness in us with counsel about how to realize God’s healing and improving work in us toward an eternity spent in God’s holy presence—a time when it would simply no longer do to be simul justus et peccator.

Such concerns for “lived” or “actual” righteousness, however, are at the core of Old Testament religion. Within the “this-world” horizon of ancient Israel and Second Temple Judaism, good works were promised divine blessing per the Deuteronomic covenant. Anderson bores into the Hebrew Bible, yes, but especially into Apocryphal texts—Tobit above all—as well as subsequent rabbinical literature to show that charity stands as a way of investing in God’s economy. Since God stands with the poor, giving to them (with scant hope, in most cases, of ever receiving repayment) is, in truth, “lending to Yhwh.” And since Yhwh is no one’s debtor, but instead loves to bless those who bless others, almsgiving is certain to result in … well, what?

Anderson hedges here, as he sees the sources themselves to be divided. Some see a frankly commercial metaphor of cause and effect, of investment and return. (Let’s call this the “automatic version” of merit.) Others shrink back from this rather magical view of the cosmos and instead see one’s good works piling up beside God in heaven as a memorial, as a prompt for God to respond generously—albeit with no kind of compulsion upon the Almighty. (We’ll call this the “suggestive version” of merit.)

If God is, in fact, moved to respond (one way or the other), in what form does he bless? In the “this-world” setting, God heals sicknesses, provides long life, and fills that life with material goods, healthy children, and happy marriage—per Job at the beginning and end of his story. Tobit also is willing to see God’s blessing fully realized only in the welfare of Tobit’s offspring, the extension, as it were, of his life into subsequent generations.

But Christian readers also look at this question in a “world to come” horizon—as do later Jews as well. And here Anderson’s exposition becomes yet more provocative, particularly for Protestants. Rather than dealing with the common Christian folklore of good works resulting in condign acquisitions—say, you get a lovely mansion while I get a tidy hovel—Anderson turns to the question of deficits. Few of us there be who enter the life to come entirely fit for an eternity of perfect holiness. Thus there is purgatory to make us ready. Purgatory, like sanctification in this life, generally hurts. But good works, and charity in particular, are acts of faith and as such advance us toward holiness. Thus such works shorten our purgatorial stage.

Furthermore (and you kinda knew this was coming, didn’t you?), loved ones can engage in acts of charity on behalf of the dead, offering up to God their prayers and alms either in expectation that the departed will benefit thereby (the automatic version) or in hope that God will have mercy (the suggestive version). Anderson even mentions as part of this economy both medieval Jews and medieval Christians setting aside considerable amounts of their estates to endow prayers for them and almsgiving on their behalf after their deaths—particularly if they do not have kin upon whom they can rely to engage in such helpful works. So, yes, indulgences, penance, purgatory, masses for the dead—all come rushing back, even as Anderson does his utmost to keep John Tetzel out of view.

What, then, should a Protestant make of all this?

Frankly, not much. The biblical content is awfully narrow, and for the Protestant skeptic that is exactly what one would expect. Yes, Proverbs 10:2 is invoked a lot, and Anderson claims that it is among the most frequently exposited verses by the Fathers. Still, if there really is a purgatory and almsgiving really can be rendered on behalf of others, one might expect the New Testament to be more directive about such a crucial matter and the early church to have relayed to us a robust tradition. I think we Protestants have not satisfactorily answered the question of what happens to Christians who die without being fully holy. There may well be a kind of purgative/maturational experience ahead of some or even most of us after death. But to connect that straightforward extension of what we know about the process of sanctification in this life is one thing. To connect it with a quasi-material scheme of works, merits, transferable credits, and the like is quite another.

Back in the 16th century, and in every century since, Protestants have asked whether such a scheme is coherent. Is there in fact a parallel between sin and charity, between evil works that cause a problem to be solved and good works that solve that problem?

More particularly, Is the idea of “supererogation” coherent in a Christian view of things? If sin, as defined in the Bible, is a “missing the mark” or a “straying off the path” (to pick the two metaphors most frequent in the Old Testament), how can one “hit the mark” or “stay on the path” in a way that makes up for previous misses/missteps? What would “really hitting the mark” look like, or “really staying on the path”? From a Protestant point of view, vocational obedience is just required, and of everybody all the time. There is no way to be “extra-faithful.”

Atoning for sin is one thing. Either each of us atones for our own sin in hell, or we turn to the crucified Jesus as our substitute. That makes clear enough sense. But sanctification is not about building up as a parallel to sin tearing down except in the most basic of metaphors (as in “edification” or the imagery of worthwhile labor versus vanity in 1 Corinthians 3). Yes, Jesus does tell us to do what we are supposed to do and we will then have “treasure in heaven” (Matt. 6:20). But we are to do what we are supposed to do, and thus receive the blessing of the God who always wants to bless and always does bless unless we impede him (or unless, in the convoluted subtlety of his plan of salvation in this topsy-turvy world, he must temporarily and uncharacteristically forbear blessing). There is nothing “extra good” we can do to make up for what we didn’t do right or did wrong before. If I am to give a certain amount of money, say, to the poor, then I am to give that money to the poor. That’s my calling. There’s no such thing—at least, not that this Protestant can see in the New Testament—as giving, say, an extra percentage to the poor to make up for my bad temper or corrupt business dealings or slothful parenting … or even previous stinginess to the needy.

The “reward” of cooperating with God in the process of sanctification is, therefore, holiness. It is acquiring the knowledge of, and taste regarding, and appetite for the good. It is enjoying thereby both greater experience of and greater appreciation for what is truly good—just as a long-disciplined musician enjoys a symphony more than does the ignorant theologian beside her, and just as an accomplished athlete sees beauty in a game that others find to be yet another dull 1-0 snorefest. Sanctification results in—indeed, consists in—improved capacities and relationships. How, therefore, can they be transferred to someone else?

The parallel between sin and charity, therefore, just doesn’t hold. Anderson gives it a masterful try, but as a responsible scholar he knows he has to mine mostly extrabiblical sources. And that sort of exercise, however interesting to a Protestant, just cannot win the day on a matter so profound.

At least, that’s what I’m counting on. Otherwise, I hope our three sons all convert to Catholicism in due course and do for me what I have, alas, failed to do for my forbears. And Gary Anderson will, I’m sure kindly, shake his head at my folly.

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