Corruption of Biblical Studies by Johnathan Berman

This is a fantastic essay by Jonathan Berman of Bar Ilan. With thanks to William Ross for the heads up. Midway through we read The point: in biblical studies, there are two types of practitioners: genuine scholars, and conservative scholars. The former are presumed innocent, motivated only by the disinterested and rigorous search for truth […]

via The Corruption of Biblical Studies — Zwinglius Redivivus

All the Benefits of Christ Obtain from Union with Him

Timothy Miller is an Assistant Professor of Biblical Studies at Maranatha Baptist Bible College. Here is a journal article published in 2013 by him tracing the order of salvation expressed in the bible. While being a Baptist myself, I recognized the position he argues for due, in part, to the usual Baptist perspective of biblical exegesis prior to doctrinal formulation. For the last ten years the debate has been raging between professors at two schools: Westminster Theological Seminary (Philadelphia) and Westminster Seminary California.

Timothy Miller’s presentation of the positions (and defense of Priority of Union) has clarified the debate. Understanding our position in Christ gives impetus to our ministry for Christ. It is one of the best theological discussions I have ever read. Enjoy!

The Best Book on Theodicy

A nod to old Tom Aquinas again featuring Thomistic Philosopher Edward Feser. According to Feser, Brian Davies’s The Reality of God and the Problem of Evil  treats this subject in a masterful way. In essence, it is the privileging of ethics from a human vantage upon God. I sort of have my own view from an ironic and rhetorical perspective which is developing but will be in a future post. I wholly agree with Davies though in his insightful analysis. Here is Edward Feser being interviewed  by Connor Grubaugh over at First Things.

This is the best book in print on the problem of evil. It develops two key Thomistic insights: First, you cannot properly understand the problem of evil without understanding the nature of God’s causal relationship to the world. Second, you cannot properly understand the problem of evil if you conceive of God in anthropomorphic terms—as something like a human agent, only bigger and stronger. If the world is like a story, God is not a character in the story alongside other characters; he is like the author of the story. And just as it makes no sense to think of an author as being unjust to his characters, neither does it make sense to think of God as being unjust to his creatures. While God is perfectly good, it is a deep mistake to think that this entails that he is a kind of cosmic Boy Scout, and that the problem of evil is a question about whether he deserves all his merit badges. Davies also shows how, from a Thomistic point of view, the approach to the problem of evil taken by contemporary philosophers of religion like Alvin Plantinga and Richard Swinburne is misguided and presupposes too anthropomorphic a conception of God.

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.

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.

The Seven Christian Disciplines (Part 2)

The goal Simon Peter wants his audience to experience is “the knowledge of Jesus Christ” (vs. 8). I mentioned previously that this is a comprehensive knowledge from building these 7 disciplines in our lives. Verse 8 also tells us the default nature of a believer is bareness without these qualities. These disciplines are exercised by faith and upon faith (vs. 5). Grace and peace will be dispensed by God as the believer deploys the disciplines in their lives (vs. 2). Also, those things necessary for life and godliness arrive with this fuller knowledge of Jesus Christ (vs. 3).

The New Covenant promised to Israel had as its most distinguishing feature that all individuals would “know” the Lord (see Jer. 31.31). This means that all under (or in) The New Covenant would “know” the Lord intimately in their hearts. The Lord would now be “in” them directing and teaching His chosen ones through a new, fuller relationship provided by Christ’s sacrifice for our sins and conquering death through the Resurrection.  The New Covenant was promised to Israel and so it was fulfilled to Israel in that Christ fulfilled the Passover and 50 days later (Pentecost) sent The Spirit fulfilling the feast of Shavuot (weeks–7 weeks and 1 day). The embryonic church was all Jewish and they were the ones with whom The New Covenant was made. They were both ethnic and spiritual Israel. The unbelievers in Israel were not included in this new entity where all would “know” The Lord.

As I mentioned, these disciplines were to be added to the faith we have received (vss. 1,5). Therefore, after believing in Christ, as an act of faith, Peter urges us to add these qualities to our lives as a foundation for fuller understanding Christ through The Spirit. These qualities will ensure that we do not quench or grieve The Spirit. Instead, these disciplines provide commodious arrangements where The Spirit may illumine our hearts about all we have in Christ.

The first of these disciplines then is virtue (some translators render arete as goodness, excellence). Generally speaking, translators have struggled to define the term as it relates to the recipients to whom Peter was writing. Originally, the term appears in ancient Greek as what characterized the Olympic contestants: physical prowess. The Greek Games eventually included poetic readings and also the term arete referred to the qualities of speaking as well. By first century usage the term is understood to connote an ‘all-around excellence.’ In vs. 3 the term is used of God in that He has called the believers either to or by this excellence (the preposition’s meaning is governed by context and so an interpretive choice needs to be made). To me it seems “to” is the better choice if the goal were seen in an idealistic sense. Christians will not be able to have complete excellence but see it as something to aspire towards. For the most part, however, either rendering of the preposition hardly makes a difference. God has inherent excellence by which He calls us or He calls us to imitation of Himself.

In connection with faith and excellence Christians are to add “knowledge” (gnosin). This “knowledge” doesn’t have to be bible knowledge necessarily since in a very real sense: ‘all truth is God’s truth.’ Many areas of study will either directly indicate God’s truth or support it indirectly. Bible knowledge is necessary regardless of what other knowledge is gained as indicated by vs. 19: “we have the prophetic word more fully confirmed, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.” The study of the scriptures is assumed by the writers of the N.T. since they quote so much of the previous given revelation contained in the O.T.

The next discipline is self-control which Peter connects with knowledge, and, as itself, is connected with arete. Here, I wish to point out that while the disciplines are all interconnected, they are added to our faith (vs. 5) therefore they are performed in faith. Noting their progressive nature, the disciplines seem more defined as they are listed. While excellence is added to faith, it needs some knowledge to perform cogently. Overall excellence is directed by knowledge. Knowledge though may overextend itself if not corralled by self control. Self control may give up without perseverance. Perseverance may devolve into stubbornness without true godliness refining the Christian along biblical ways. Godliness can be cold if it is merely an exercise without a horizontal dimension of brotherly kindness toward others. Brotherly affection will remain earth-bound if another quality is not present: love.

Simon Peter tells his readers that great promises toward Christians will enable them to experience the divine nature and so not be mired in things which corrupt: inordinate desire (vs. 4). These disciplines continually performed and perfected contain two promises: 1. Will never stumble into sin (vs. 10), and 2. A rich entrance (rewards) provided into the eternal kingdom (vs. 11).


The Social Setting of Textual Transmission

Garrick V. Allen reviews Alan Mugridge’s study of early papyri to determine if aspects of the setting can found in the production of these copies. Mugridge’s work and Allen’s review highlight for the non-specialist the various areas under examination. Transmission studies have always fascinated and confirmed the historicity of the text for me.


Alan Mugridge. Copying Early Christian Texts: A Study of Scribal Practice. WUNT 362. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2016. xx + 558 pages. ISBN: 9783161546884.

Review by Garrick V. Allen, Dublin City University.

In this valuable resource, Alan Mugridge examines the codicological features of 548 early papyri originating from before the fourth century CE in an effort to be understand the social setting of their production. He is particularly interested to ascertain whether the copyists of the early Greek papyri transmitting early Christian works were ‘Christians’ (not necessarily professional scribes), or if communities hired professional copyists outside their immediate social context. The entirety of this detailed volume is devoted to the argument that “the copyists of the majority of Christian texts were trained scribes, probably working in a variety of settings, and that there is no firm evidence that the copyists were generally Christian” (p. 2). This argument has drastic implications for how we understand the textual transmission and variation of early Christian documents.

In his first chapter (“The Papyri and their Handwriting”) Mugridge lays the foundation for this study by defining “Christian Papyri” (pp. 2–5). He also identifies a small control group of non-Christian papyri (pp. 5–6). He examines the date, languages, the writing material used in the example documents (papyrus, parchment, wood), the presence of non-Christian material among Christian documents, and the provenance of the material (heavily weighted toward Egypt). Mugridge also clears the ground by providing a taxonomy of writing activity in this period, which proves essential to his evaluation of the “professionalism” of particular manuscripts (pp. 11–22).

The second chapter (pp. 26–50) examines the features of the papyri identified in its title: “context, material, form and size.” Mugridge examines the correlation between the quality of a manuscript’s palaeographic profile and its other features. He notes that most literary or sacred works tend to have a higher quality producer and that of other types of works. Additionally, multilingual features of a papyrus indicate a learned producer, and Mugridge notes examples of Coptic glosses, Latin translations, and the presence of other languages among the Greek exemplars (e.g. Syriac, Demotic, Hebrew onomastica). However, he argues that the form of a manuscript (codex, roll, sheet, or wood) does not necessarily correlate to the quality of writing. He concludes by comparing the palaeographic profiles of his corpus against the size of the exemplars, noting that the professionalism of the copy does not necessarily have any relationship to its size. The producers of Christian papyri fit into the overall trend of the corpus, with some exceptions (p. 49).

Next, the layout of the corpus is compared to the skill of the palaeography in an effort to divine a relationship between the two (pp. 51–70). Mugridge concludes that the wide margins, narrow columns, and wide inter-columnar spaces generally correspond to well-trained hand (esp. in rolls), but that these features are not absolutely correlated to scribal expertise. The most prescient feature is the consistency of margin sizes, which closely corresponds to the quality of the hand.

The next chapter (pp. 71–91) examines the presence of reading aids in his corpus to explore the relationship between the level of professionalism in palaeography and the presence of these aids. Mugridge explores a number of paratexts, including pagination, titles and headings, section markers, sense units, stichometry, punctuation, and a series lectional notations. He concludes that there is no difference in the deployment of these paratexts in skilled or unskilled copies, and “Christian” and “non-Christian” copies.

The final substantial analytical chapter – “Writing the Text” – explores a variety of scribal habits and copying mechanics preserved in the corpus (pp. 92–143). Again, the analysis of these features is correlated to the quality of an exemplar’s palaeography to explore the relationship between “skilled” scribes and the mechanics of a manuscript’s production. Especially in his discussion of nomina sacra (pp. 121–37), Mugridge is keen to argue that the personal convictions of a scribe are not necessarily borne out by the content or features of their copy. We need not think that the copyist of a manuscript with nomina sacra was a Christian.

The last chapter of the book (pp. 144–54) is a summary of Mugridge’s conclusions, in which he argues that the level of professionalism in Christian papyri through the fourth century was relatively high and that the format and size of manuscript bearing Christian works are commensurate to the broader textual culture. From this, he concludes that “most copyists were not simply occasional writers who turned their hand to copy manuscripts of personal value to themselves or to friends” (p. 148). Early Christian works were produced like all other works in the Roman world at the time – primarily by trained professionals (p. 149). Here, Mugridge comes to his underlying contention: because it is not possible to identify the scribes of Christian works as Christian themselves, one cannot ascribe perceived theological changes in texts to scribes. Also, the use of professional scribes ensures the accuracy of copying, indicating that the early Christian papyri offer a special insight into the text of the works they contain. The analysis portion of this work is supported further by twelve tables of data, ranging from the content of the papyri to various marginal measurements to the presence of nomina sacra, that serve as the foundation for Mugridge’s conclusions (pp.  445–517).

Following the conclusion, Mugridge includes a “Catalogue of Papyri” (pp. 155–413), which is by far the most valuable aspect of the volume. For each papyrus in his corpus, he provides the date, provenance, publication information, contents, location, various catalogue numbers, a brief bibliography, locations of plates, a terse description, and comment on the hand. This vast aggregation of data should prove beneficial for future papyrological studies on early Christian artefacts. The book also necessarily includes a concordance that compares Mugridge’s numeration system to the systems of the Leuven Database of Ancient Books, Rahlfs, Turner, van Haelst, the Repertorium, and Gregory-Aland (pp. 518–36).

All in all, this thick volume represents an arduous and prodigious effort on the part of the author. Its organization, scope, and methodological tenacity are characteristics to which studies of this type should aspire. I am convinced by Mugridge’s argument that early Christian manuscripts are not of a lesser quality or different nature to exemplars that transmit non-Christian works. Careful craftsmanship and an appreciation for the norms of production are the markers of the majority of these early exemplars. It would, in fact, be strange to imagine that early Christianity possessed a textual culture devoid of any influence from contemporary practices of artefact production.

However, I am less convinced by Mugridge’s conclusion that, because these manuscripts show signs of professionalism, they were likely produced by non-Christian professionals responsible also for the production of pagan literature and documentary material. In all probability, some early Christian manuscripts were produced by those outside the community, but the evidence remains ambiguous. The material evidence that Mugridge musters fails to conclusively point in either direction. The rarity of stichometric notations would seem to indicate that very few of the remnant manuscripts, as far as we can tell, were produced for a profit. Also, while he asserts that by the fourth century many scribes were Christians, he assumes that professional scribes in an earlier period were not. He insinuates that professional copies mean that they were produced by non-Christians for profit. In fact, the underlying argument of the book seems to be that, because early Christian literature was copied by non-Christian professionals, then the reliability of the text of these exemplars is very high for two reasons: (1) professionals generally copied more accurately that non-experts, and (2) non-Christians would have no reason to alter the wording of a text for theological reasons. If this is Mugridge’s underlying argument (a sort of anti-Ehrman polemic), a textual analysis of this corpus would seem more appropriate than a material one, since the best way to observe the religious conviction of a copyist is to judge the textual changes made to a copy, especially when those changes are exegetically motivated or show a level of awareness of remote parallels. Although, even then, it is difficult to distinguish between the work of the scribe, his or her copy, and an antecedent exegete or exegetical tradition.

Garrick V. Allen
Dublin City University
garrick.allen [at]

The Seven Christian Disciplines: 2 Peter 1. 5-15 (Part One)

In 1973 I enrolled in a bible college to study the scriptures. I was warned that this college like the many others in the Fundamentalist Orbit had strict rules on all kinds of activities such as keeping one’s dorm room clean. If the bed was not made or the room unkempt then demerits would soon be issued by the hall monitors who would check them before chapel and it would not take many infractions before expulsion from the college occurred. The exhortation from The Apostle Peter however is starkly different from the Fundamentalists both in its goal and nature. If this institution would have focused upon biblical motivations and goals then Christian training would have been better accomplished in the lives of their students. As a point of record I never received any demerits while at the college but others were actually expelled because of demerits. I, in misguided zeal, myself became a stickler of all things ethical and moral in the lives of other Christians for a period of time. I was following Christian leaders after all and these leaders had, at best, a fuzzy understanding of the Christian life as explained in the scriptures.

These qualities or disciplines that Simon Peter lists are regarded as crucially important to the early Christians in that he wants to repeatedly remind his readers of their deployment in in their lives (vss. 12-13). These followers of Christ already knew the disciplines, but Peter thought they were so important as to continually remind his audience of them and to even record them for posterity before his own prophesied death (vss. 14-15). These qualities then form very important instruction for The Church of Jesus since they were given by an Apostle of Christ, and as such have received completed instruction (John 16.12-13) and are placed first in the Universal Church (1 Cor. 12.28).

Conceptually, how should these exercises or disciplines be viewed in regard to other instructions in the bible? Firstly, in the family of God, His revelation is given to us to study and continually ponder and reflect upon for our benefit (see Dt. 6.4-9). In analyzing The Book of Proverbs it is easy to recognize the work as instruction for godly living to someone operating in the context of a redeemed community yet exposed to dangers and temptations. Solomon’s Book (divinely inspired) deals with relating horizontally among others whereas The Mosaic Law dealt primarily about the vertical relationship between a person and God (yes, of course societal and other benefits accrued from The Mosaic Law as well). The Book of Proverbs helps believers during their time on earth to navigate their way successfully. The proverbs instructs on how to build character or discipline oneself to interact with others while on sinful earth. Neither Solomon’s Proverbs or Peter’s list of disciplines promise any direct reward for keeping them. Rather they (the disciplines) function as preparatory for other blessings. This then, is quite different than working for sanctification which is almost what the Fundamentalists were doing. Sanctification is a grace by The Spirit where the believer becomes more reflective of Christ. Christ is seen in the believer by the Spirit’s presence. The degree of the Spirit’s operation in the believer, as I understand it, is directly rewarded at the judgement. The Book of Proverbs and the list of disciplines in Peter instead provide ‘a ground’ or a basis of continually living successfully on earth (2Pe.1.10: “you will never stumble”).

I propose that these qualities in 2 Peter resemble the instructions given in the O.T. book of Proverbs. In Pr. 1.2 a summary statement appears at the beginning of Solomon’s work indicating purpose: “to know wisdom and instruction” this idea of knowing (lada’at) speaks of realizing, perceiving, personal internalization according to Bruce Waltke’s study of The Book of Proverbs. This “experiencing of wisdom” that Solomon calls his listeners to in 1.2 is, in essence, what Peter says the disciplines he lists accomplishes by the term epignosko (knowledge) of Jesus Christ in 2Pet. 1.8. This is a fuller knowledge than in 1.5 since that term “knowledge” (gnosin) is distinguished as preparatory and in part toward the knowledge (epignosko) of Jesus Christ. All the elements Peter lists completes this knowledge so it seems in context that epignosko  indicates a fuller orbed  realization or an experiencing of the spiritual wisdom that is in Christ. In Col. 2.3, Paul agrees with this sentiment saying: that in Jesus are “hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.” Of course in the eternal state the redeemed will have no need for the wisdom contained in Proverbs or 2 Peter. These disciplines enable a blessed life during the evil days of this world. As redeemed Christians we are still responsible for our own fall in Adam so no room exists for complaints about our troubles now.

In part 2 I will discuss the disciplines while this post introduced their nature and how they fit in an over all conception of biblical instruction.


T. S. Elliot on Unconscious Influence

James Anderson points out Elliot’s observation on what often affects us unwittingly. Both the Old and New Testaments of the bible tells us to watch our words and deeds. The only real way to do this is to consciously decide to observe the command. It is another matter entirely that when we try to do right that we fail. This is because we attempted righteousness from ourselves. This is not possible without aid from God and is for a different post (I should say that this is where God often shows a person that forgiveness and reconciliation are found in Jesus whether prospective in The Old or retrospective in The New).

Some insight from Eliot’s essay “Religion and Literature” (1935):

Now what we get, as we gradually grow up and read more and more, and read a greater diversity of authors, is a variety of views of life. But what people commonly assume, I suspect, is that we gain this experience of other men’s views of life only by “improving reading.” This, it is supposed, is a reward we get by applying ourselves to Shakespeare, and Dante, and Goethe, and Emerson, and Carlyle, and dozens of other respectable writers. The rest of our reading for amusement is merely killing time. But I incline to come to the alarming conclusion that it is just the literature that we read for “amusement,” or “purely for pleasure” that may have the greatest and least suspected influence upon us. It is the literature which we read with the least effort that can have the easiest and most insidious influence upon us. Hence it is that the influence of popular novelists, and of popular plays of contemporary life, requires to be scrutinized most closely. And it is chiefly contemporary literature that the majority of people ever read in this attitude of “purely for pleasure,” of pure passivity.

The relation to my subject of what I have been saying should now be a little more apparent. Though we may read literature merely for pleasure, of “entertainment” or of “aesthetic enjoyment,” this reading never affects simply a sort of special sense: it affects our moral and religious existence. And I say that while individual modern writers of eminence can be improving, contemporary literature as a whole tends to be degrading. And that even the effect of the better writers, in an age like ours, may be degrading to some readers; for we must remember that what a writer does to people is not necessarily what he intends to do. It may be only what people are capable of having done to them. People exercise an unconscious selection in being influenced. A writer like D. H. Lawrence may be in his effect either beneficial or pernicious. I am not sure that I have not had some pernicious influence myself.

One can only imagine what Eliot would have concluded about the influence of movies, TV shows, and YouTube videos on our “moral and religious existence.”

Subtle and Deceptive Terminology

Leonardo De Chirico is a pastor in Rome, Italy. His PhD is from Kings College London. Here he examines the use of term by Roman Catholics which now carries new meanings.

Words to those in Thessaloniki by Paul in the First Century seem appropriate:  Don’t suppress the Spirit, and don’t stifle those who have a word from the Master. On the other hand, don’t be gullible. Check out everything, and keep only what’s good. Throw out anything tainted with evil. (The Message)

Evangelization seems to be a popular word. Being traditionally part of the vocabulary used by evangelicals (often referred to as “evangelism”), it has become increasingly used by Roman Catholics too. It was Paul VI with his 1975 exhortation Evangelii Nuntiandi who introduced it in Catholic language. It was Benedict XVI who launched in 2010 a new Vatican department to support efforts towards the “new evangelization”. It is Pope Francis who regularly speaks about and practices forms of evangelization, making it a central task of the Church, as attested in his 2013 exhortation The Joy of the Gospel.

The word “evangelization” is therefore used across the spectrum of the Christian world. The question is: What is the meaning of it? How is it defined? What does it refer to? In his last motu proprio (i.e. a document signed by the Pope on his own initiative) on April 1st, 2017, Pope Francis opens a window on what he has in mind when he speaks about evangelization. The document is entitled Sanctuarium in Ecclesia (The Sanctuary in the Church) and transfers the competences on the sanctuaries to the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of the New Evangelization, the Vatican department inaugurated by Benedict XVI. The basic idea is that sanctuaries and shrines are thought of as being primary places where evangelization takes place and must be encouraged.

Focus on Sanctuaries

What is a sanctuary? Fatima, Guadalupe, Aparecida, Lourdes … these are places where major sanctuaries attract millions of pilgrims and visitors every year. These are shrines dedicated to Mary or to a particular saint, at which special devotions are practiced and promoted in the form of rosaries, prayers, pilgrimages, contemplation of sacred images, etc. They are home to popular forms of spirituality that endure in spite of the steady decline of religious practice associated with the local parish.

Francis explains that sanctuaries are places “where popular piety has felt firsthand the mysterious presence of the Mother of God, the saints and the blessed”. In approaching and entering them, many people “deeply experience the closeness of God, the tenderness of the Virgin Mary and the company of the Saints: an experience of true spirituality that cannot be devalued”. God, the Virgin Mary, and the saints are all considered to be part of the same spiritual experience. Moreover, “many Shrines have been perceived as part of the lives of individuals, families and communities to the extent that they have shaped the identity of entire generations, even affecting the history of some nations”.

Therefore, given their inspirational and symbolic importance, “walking towards the Sanctuary and participating in the spirituality expressed by these places is already an act of evangelization that deserves to be valued for its intense pastoral value”. It follows that “the Shrines, in the variety of their forms, express an irreplaceable opportunity for evangelization in our time” and “a genuine place of evangelization”.

What Evangelization Are We Talking About?

We come back to the question previously asked. The word evangelization is used here; the practice of it is apparently endorsed. Evangelicals, for whom the word strikes deep spiritual chords, may celebrate the emphasis that the Roman Catholic Church is putting on evangelization. Yet a careful and honest reading of the document shows that the kind of “evangelization” the Pope is advocating for here is something utterly distant from the biblical meaning of the word.

According to the 1974 Lausanne Covenant, perhaps the most representative evangelical document of the 20th century, evangelism is “the proclamation of the historical, biblical Christ as Saviour and Lord, with a view to persuading people to come to him personally and so be reconciled to God” (n. 4). Notice the different elements of this neat and clear definition: “proclamation”, “historical and biblical Christ”, “persuasion”, “personal reconciliation to God”. None of these elements can be found in what happens in and around the shrines according to the Pope. There is no proclamation of the biblical gospel, but rather contemplation of sacred images and the practice of other forms of Catholic piety. There is little focus on the biblical Saviour and Lord, but rather devotion to Mary and the saints. There is no persuasion to abandon one’s own idols to turn to the living God, but rather encouragement to cultivate deeply entrenched forms of spurious spirituality. There is little or no talk of the necessity of being reconciled to God, but rather the reinforcement of the idea that pilgrims and nations already “belong” to God.

What evangelization are we talking about? The word is the same, but the meaning is far different. In its understanding and practice of evangelization, the Roman Catholic Church legitimately brings in the whole of its theological system, which is based on a combination of the Bible and traditions, Christ and the saints, faith and folk piety, and so on. Its evangelization promotes and commends this kind of blurred and erroneous gospel. Before celebrating the fact that the Catholic Church has become seriously engaged in evangelization, one needs to understand what kind of evangelization Rome stands for.

Paul Helm Discussing Judgment

The philosopher introduces a book by his Christian friend and adds his own perspective. I want to state however, other existing formulas to Gal. 3.23-5. Helm portrays the plural variously: “protection, correction or discipline, destruction.” These do not seem to align neatly. Other commentators see a singular law being the guardian of many people. Believing the latter idea, I merely quibble a minor point which in no way distracts from the whole.

It is a great pleasure to be asked to write some words of introduction to the latest book of my long-time friend, Melvin Tinker. He has many gifts, one of which, not the least, is as an apologist for the faith. Melvin’s contemporary  style, his wide reading, his knowledge of the Bible, and his theological grasp enliven and inform all that he has to say.

The new book may be thought of as an exercise in consistency, or better in Christian integrity. None of us have any difficulty in finding warm and comforting words from the Bible: Psalm 23, or Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, or the way Jesus welcomed children, or fed the hungry and healed the sick. But the Bible has a darker side. Not only Jesus’ kind words and deeds, but his anger, his driving men from the Temple with a hand-made whip, his pointed remarks about the division his teaching will cause, and his statements on Hell as well as on Heaven, for example.

In this book Melvin is dealing with this darker side. If the Christian teaching about the Bible being one book, with one overall theme or message, is true, we must not overlook its darker side. The  darker side of Jesus’ ministry, but also the deeds of the ‘God of the Old Testament’. In a day when the Bible is dissected by the critics, or divided by specialists, this in itself is a welcome emphasis.  The Bible is the one word of God, and its entirety is to be taken seriously and faced honestly. The darker side cannot simply be brushed under the carpet. Apart from anything else, this is simply to push the culture further away from the sunnier side of its teaching. For as was aptly said, ‘If you belittle the disease you belittle the physician.’ The Lord our God is one Lord. Integrity demands that we form a consistent judgment of both the shadows and the sunshine.

Preparatory to this, we need to be reminded of God’s character. Any attentive reader of the Bible can see that it is impossible to make sense of it without the idea that God has a mind of his own. He is not simply the rather ineffective help to satisfying the latest desires of men and women. In any case, these are constantly shifting, with an ever-enlarging portfolio of ‘rights’ to benefit from.  God is not a human agent, not even a human prime minister or president or business leader, but our Creator and Lord. He is not driven by his desires to please us, but is just and holy. Because of this his love, disclosed in his covenant with Abraham and in Jesus the Mediator of the Covenant, is not moody, but deep and unwavering, rooted in his own unchanging character, and involving the humiliation and death of God incarnate. God did not spare his Son but delivered him up for us all.

God has a plan. Much of the detail of this plan is hidden from us, but it is clear that it involves the choice of a people, the people of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and of blessing of them through a gracious covenant. This arrangement both allows for the  people’s chastisement if and when their fidelity to the covenant falters, and their protection from the attacks of surrounding nations intent on snuffing them out. Paul, the Apostle to the Gentiles, says that in the Old Testament the people of God were under age, ‘under guardians and managers’ while being surrounded by bitter enemies. Both the correction  and protection of his people required that their God undertook acts of holy discipline and destruction.

In other words, Melvin is arguing from the Bible itself, that it is necessary to contextualize the darker side of things. These are not isolated events which show us that God, is capable of losing his temper, or of being vicious and bloodthirsty. This is not how the destruction of the Canaanites is to be seen. Rather they are instances of his protective care of his people, just as the disobedience of his own people has to be visited with the destructive-corrective action of God. These are parts of one consistent picture, what Melvin refers to as the non-partisan action of God. Not an isolated case of bullying or of loss of composure, but the understanding of God as ‘the judge of all the earth’ who ‘does what is just’. Though God is high and lifted up, nonetheless he has a deep commitment of grace and love to his unprepossessing people. The nations surrounding Israel were not pure and innocent, but idolatrous and abominable. Their actions revealed their detestable character, calling for righteous  punishment.

God does not suddenly grow up, as if the caterpillar of the Old Testament becomes the butterfly of the New Testament. However, his revelation does develop from being focussed exclusively on Israel to his concern for the international church of Jesus Christ.  This is the true, the full, ‘Israel of God. ’It is in Jesus Christ, the Suffering Servant, that we see God’s wrath and grace best refracted.

To spell out these dark themes in some detail is characteristic of the courage and commitment to the truth that is Melvin’s outlook. Some of this makes uncomfortable reading, but then Melvin’s  aim is not  to ‘speak to us smooth words….illusions’, but to be faithful to the God of Israel and the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. As he says, both Testaments portray ‘God in his holiness as implacably opposed to all sin which issues in judgment, and yet in his love he shows mercy which calls for repentance’.


The Burial and Empty Tomb of Jesus


Instead of trying to wax eloquent about my understanding of the empty tomb, here is Craig Evans contextualizing the scene.

So if the body of Jesus received proper burial late Friday afternoon, why did women visit his tomb early Sunday morning? The Gospels tell that the women brought spices with them (Mark 16:1; Luke 24:1). They did this because of the Jewish custom of visiting the tomb of the recently deceased every day for one week (Josephus, Ant. 17.200; Semahot 12.1; cf. Gen 50:10; 1 Sam 31:13). This was primary burial, or the first funeral, as it were. The spices and perfume helped mask the unpleasant odor of the decomposing corpse. One year later, as prescribed by Jewish custom (b. Qiddushin 31b), family members gathered up the skeletal remains and placed them in a niche, or in an ossuary (m. Sanh. 6:6; Semahot 12.9). In the case of one executed, the remains were collected from the burial place of shame and placed in the family tomb or other place of honor (m. Sanh. 6:5–6; Semahot 13.7). The belief was that after one year of death, and the consequent wasting away of the flesh, removed the stain of guilt.

According to the Gospel of Matthew, the tomb of Jesus was sealed, which made it clear that his body could not be removed and placed elsewhere. The famous Nazareth burial inscription (SEG VIII 13) is probably relevant here. Tampering with tombs was a serious offence. If such happens, Caesar orders that charges be laid. However, visiting the tomb of an executed criminal and weeping quietly were permitted (m. Sanh. 6:6). This is what the women plan to do, so they wonder who will assist them in moving aside the heavy stone (Mark 16:3), that they might enter the tomb, anoint the body of Jesus, and silently pray and grieve.

As it turns out, all of their preparations and plans were thrown to the wind. When they arrive at the place of burial, they find that the stone has been rolled aside and there is no body of Jesus to be anointed. There will be no one week of private, quiet mourning. What has happened? It is probable that they assumed that the body of Jesus had been removed by the Jewish authorities, perhaps on the grounds that the body should have been placed in tomb previously used and designated for the burial of the executed. Perhaps the kindness of Joseph of Arimathea in making his not-yet-used tomb available for Jesus had been overriden by the high priest. It is not likely that the first thing that popped into the minds of the women was resurrection.

What persuaded the women, and soon after several of the male disciples, that Jesus had in fact been raised from the dead was not the empty tomb but actual appearances of Jesus to them. The appearances demonstrated that Jesus still lived; the empty tomb made it possible to speak of resurrection and not merely ghostly apparitions. After all, according to the Jewish understand, resurrection was the raising up of the dead from their dusty graves (as in Isa 26:19; Dan 12:2).

The appearances of Jesus, not only to disciples, supporters, and friends, but also to the indifferent and hostile, offer strong evidence that he had in fact been raised from the dead, that the Easter proclamation was not a hoax or silly urban legend. The resurrection of Jesus, which includes the story of his death and burial, is consistent with all known evidence and makes very good sense of the narratives that the four New Testament Gospels give us. It is therefore important to become familiar with the relevant background archaeology and literature.

Resources for Reply

Prof. James Anderson has conveniently listed his writings that help Christians “give reply” for the reason they hope in Christ’s work. “Apologetics” is a funny name to give to the study of defending the faith but initially, in the first Christian century, the use of that Greek word meant: “to give answer,” or “reply.” Some methods are better than others and by studying God’s word we will be  more competent. The calling, convincing, and saving of sinners is an act of God where He ordains the means as well. As Christians we are to disciple all nations until the full number of the Gentiles are brought into the fold. 

One criticism of presuppositional apologetics is that its advocates rarely if ever offer serious arguments for their distinctive claims (e.g., the claim that our ability to reason presupposes the existence of God). The criticism is overstated, but there is a measure of truth to it. I count myself a presuppositionalist, but I’ve been frustrated in the past by presuppositionalists who seem to imagine that declaring what Van Til’s “transcendental argument” purports to demonstrate is tantamount to actually making that demonstration. Simply asserting that “without God you can’t prove anything at all” or that “your very ability to reason presupposes the existence of God” does nothing whatsoever to explain why those weighty assertions should be believed. Likewise for the failure of non-Christians to answer questions asking them to account for their ability to reason, to know truths about the world, to make meaningful moral judgments, etc., in terms of their own worldviews. Questions cannot substitute for arguments, no matter how pointed those questions may be.

So it’s important for presuppositionalists to present arguments in support of their claims, and to ensure their critics are aware of those arguments so that they can be critically evaluated. In that spirit, I thought it would be useful to gather in one place my own presuppositional arguments, as well as my attempts to explain or reconstruct the arguments of other presuppositionalists:

In addition, my book Why Should I Believe Christianity? offers a broadly presuppositional (and evidential!) case for the biblical Christian worldview.

Indeed, He Wrote of Me (John 5:46)

“Do not suppose that I will accuse you before the Father. The one who accuses you is Moses, in whom you have placed your hope. If you believed Moses, you would believe me, because he wrote about me. But if you do not believe what Moses wrote, how will you believe my words?” (NET)


For the longest time the clause: Indeed, he wrote of Me at the end of verse 46 of John 5, I, like most other readers I consulted, believed the writing referred to the prophecies of Christ’s coming in predictive form such as Balaam’s oracles: “A Star  out of Jacob, and a Scepter shall rise out of Israel.”  However, looking at the wording of Heb. 10. 5-10, another more pervasive, albeit implicit reference is indicated.

The key verse in my contention is Heb.10:7 – Then I said, ‘Here I am: I have come—it is written of me in the scroll of the book—to do your will, O God.’ This clause connects well with the claim in John’s Gospel of Moses writing about Jesus since the content spoken about in Hebrews 10.5-10 is solely written by Moses (sacrificial system) while predictive prophecies of Christ’s advent in Moses’ writings are far rarer.

A note about the Law of Moses at this juncture is appropriate since Christians, along with society in general today, are removed both in thought and practice of animal sacrifices. First, Num. 3.10 indicates that only Aaron and his sons are to serve as priests. This is why Jesus could say in Mk. 2.26: “When Abiathar was High Priest.” Narrowly (and falsely), Abimelech was High Priest and Abiathar was a son among many other of Abimelech’s sons. Additionally, some may say that these sons of Aaron in Num. 3.10 refer to his sons after he (Aaron) has died. According to several biblical sections, the living sons of Aaron seemed to perform the High Priestly work while Aaron was living. Therefore, it seems best to regard all of The High Priest’s sons as alternate High Priests. This reality seems implicit since any number of reasons could occur to render the father either unclean or possibly ill and so, a son could stand in the father’s stead to perform the yearly entrance into the most holy place on Yom Kippur. The succession of the priesthood would be the firstborn son with the other sons then relegated to other priestly duties but not as alternates which would then be inherited by the new High Priest’s sons.

The rationale of animal sacrifices is the substitution of an innocent victim in the stead of the sinner. Most Christians who I know regard the institution of these sacrifices at the Fall of Humanity in Eden. The covering of the guilty pair required animal skins, hence a sacrifice. The Mosaic Law of sacrifices greatly expanded and codified the observances to further reflect The Redeemer. So, when thinking about the “Law of Moses,” it is primarily about the law of sacrifices instead of the laws of human regulations like the Ten Commandments. The Law of Moses included both of these observances.

Returning to our text, John 5: 45-47, this section seems a discrete ‘sense unit’ where the flow is closely related in the narrative. Jesus presents His purpose in a partially veiled way: He did not come to condemn the world but to save it as He said elsewhere. The false hope of Moses’ “regulations keeping” such as the punctilious Sabbath observance by the Pharisees while they plotted murder in their heart, is what will condemn them in the end. The reason is clear: no one has or is able to keep the Mosaic regulations flawlessly except Jesus.

This is where the prescribed sacrifices for purification from sin appear in the text as a remedy for failure to perform the regulations: The “sin offering” code involved putting one’s hands on the head of a prescribed animal and confessing the sin they committed. Then the substitute victim would be slaughtered and the blood ritually splashed on the exterior of the Bronze Altar. Also, once a year The Day of Atonement purified the observant worshipers for that previous year. Thus, the real blessings of the Mosaic code was not the performance of laws tediously kept, but the laws of the sacrifices, since they were shadows of the “the good things” to come in Christ.

Since the law has only a shadow of the good things to come and not the true form of these realities, it can never, by the same sacrifices that are continually offered year after year, make perfect those who approach. Otherwise, would they not have ceased being offered, since the worshipers, cleansed once for all, would no longer have any consciousness of sin? But in these sacrifices there is a reminder of sin year after year. For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins. Consequently, when Christ came into the world, he said,

“Sacrifices and offerings you have not desired, but a body you have prepared for me; in burnt offerings and sin offerings you have taken no pleasure. Then I said, ‘See, God, I have come to do your will, O God’ (in the scroll of the book it is written of me).” When he said above, “You have neither desired nor taken pleasure in sacrifices and offerings and burnt offerings and sin offerings” (these are offered according to the law), then he added, “See, I have come to do your will.” He abolishes the first in order to establish the second. And it is by God’s will that we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all. (Heb. 10.1-10 NRSV)



Nash Reviews Van Til

Douglas Douma reproduces Nash’s review in which he points out some items which seem ‘loose ends’ in the theology of Cornelius Van Til. Gordon Clark was the most prominent and bitterest rival to Van Til in formulating Christian thought. These two theologians’ thoughts organize into Presuppositional (Van Til) and Evidentiary (Clark) Apologetic stances.

No student of Christian theology and philosophy should regard his education as complete until he has carefully worked his way through at least one of Professor Van Til’s books. In this extension of his earlier Defense of the Faith, Van Til continues his attack on all systems of thought that exalt the autonomy of man at the expense of the sovereign God of the Scriptures. If God is sovereign, nothing can be above him (such as the law of logic) or can exist independently of him (such as “facts”). Human knowledge is impossible unless man’s knowledge is analogical of the divine knowledge, that is, unless man thinks God’s thoughts after him. Van Til’s purpose in this book is to show modern man the relevance of Christianity by demonstrating that only Christianity has the answer to the questions that modern thought seeks in vain.

The thesis of modern theology, philosophy, and science is that “nothing can be said conceptually about a God who is above what Kant calls the world of phenomena, the world of experience.” But, Van Til counters, if the God of Christian theism does not exist (or cannot be known), then Chance is ultimate. And if Chance is ultimate, then nothing (neither words, nor thoughts, nor events) can have any meaning. But if nothing has meaning, it is impossible to deny (or affirm) the existence of God or anything else. The effort to eliminate God turns out to be self-defeating. “If Christian theism is not true, then nothing is true…. So far as modern thought is not based upon the presupposition of the truth of Christianity it is lost in utter darkness. Christianity is the only alternative to chaos.” The “death of God” is simply the inevitable result of the elevation of autonomous man over God. It is what we should have expected all along.

The foundation of all non-Christian thought is the presupposition of human autonomy. Van Til is especially hard on non-Reformed Christians who try to support their faith by appeals to logic, to “facts,” or to probability. If God is sovereign, neither he nor his Word can be compromised by such appeals. Van Til also attacks (correctly, I think) the modern dialectical approach to Scriptures, which prides itself on its “dialogue” with modern man. The dialogue is spurious, Van Til contends, because the Christ presented by dialectical theology is a Christ that no one can know.

While Van Til devotes space to several of his critics (Floyd Hamilton and J. Oliver Buswell, Jr.), his book does not contain one reference to the man who over the years has offered the most serious objections to his position. I am referring to Van Til’s “fellow Calvinist,” Gordon Clark of Butler University. Clark continues to be concerned over the qualitative difference that exists in Van Til’s system between the divine and human knowledge. According to Van Til, God’s knowledge and man’s do not (and cannot) coincide at a single point, from which it follows that no proposition can mean the same thing to God and man. Clark’s contention is then that Van Til’s view leads to skepticism, because if God knows all truth and man’s “knowledge” does not coincide with what God knows at a single point, then man does not possess knowledge. Until Van Til answers this objection, I must agree with Clark.

I have several objections of my own, also. All Van Til’s conclusions are supposed to follow from the principles set forth in his first three chapters, but it is exactly at this point that his argument is weakest. Take, for example, his defense of the Scriptures. Like Van Til, I believe in the authority and the inspiration of the Bible. But so far as the ultimate validity of his system is concerned, everything depends on Van Til’s ability to defend the authority of the Scriptures without making any appeal to logic or to “facts.” He argues then that the authority of the Scriptures is self-attesting.

As I see it, a self-attesting truth is one that cannot be questioned. A good example of a self-attesting truth would be an analytic statement like “All bachelors are unmarried man.” No evidence can be offered that could throw the truth of this statement into questions; no evidence is even needed to support its truth. But in the case of the Scriptures, even Van Til admits that there are problems. He does not think the problems are sufficient to undermine the authority of the Bible, but the important thing here is his recognition that problems do exist. I fail to understand how a system of truth that faces problems which even Van Til admits may never be fully resolved (see page 35) can be self-attesting.

A second problem concerns Van Til’s peculiar understanding of the term fact. It is impossible, he argues, to separate a fact from its ultimate interpretation, which means God’s interpretation. I am willing to grant this, but how is a sincere disciple of Van Til supposed to know when his facts are God-interpreted? When they are consistent with the Scriptures? Hardly, for the Bible says nothing about most of the facts in question. When our interpretation coincides with God’s? Hardly, for we must never forget that there is no point of identity between the divine and human knowledge. I content then that Van Til’s use of “facts” is vacuous, since there is no way for man to know when his facts are God-interpreted.

Finally, I am most uncomfortable in the presence of Van Til’s treatment of logic, which he derides as a test of truth. Yet at the same time, he warns that we must not take the biblical teaching about both divine sovereignty and human responsibility as a contradiction. In fact, he admits on the bottom of page 38 that the presence of a logical contradiction in the Bible would be evidence against the Bible’s claim to be the Word of God. For the life of me, I cannot understand this vacillating use of logic. It looks very much as if Van Til introduces logic when it is convenient and ushers it out the back door when it is no longer needed.

I believe these problems are serious. But I do not think they detract from the importance of this book or from Van Til’s stature as one of the most important and original Christian apologists of this century.

Questions that Inform

Sometimes a question is asked and and the hearer learns items from how the question is asked or maybe the content of the question tells the one asking certain things about the questioner. For instance: a class of students may ask the lecturer questions about the lesson where the lecturer gauges the general and specific comprehension of the students. However, this is not my focus.

Language usage has fascinated me from my youngest years. I almost couldn’t help it. Whenever my parents wanted to talk among themselves something they didn’t want their children knowing, they would speak their native language, which wasn’t native to their children. Also, the language of our home was different from the surrounding culture. So, I had one language to talk with my friends and at school, another with which to converse with my sister, brothers, and parents, and one to try to figure out what was being kept from me. All languages have ways to ask questions, give commands, and make statements according to Peter Cottrell and Max Turner in Linguistic and Biblical Interpretation.

However, these authors note, about 70% of the interrogatives in the New Testament are rhetorical, and as such, they give information rather than making a quest for content. The authors give a few examples to highlight this feature: When the writer of Hebrews states: “How shall we neglect so great a salvation? (2.3)” he is not expecting his audience to formulate creative ways of neglect. Additionally, in John 7.51, Nicodemus asks his fellows at the Sanhedrin: “Does our Law judge a man without first giving him a hearing and learning what he does?” It is not that Nicodemus didn’t know the answer to his question, but to remind them of what they were ignoring.

Hammer Strikes Anvil Moment: Gal. 4.4

But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman (Gal. 4.4a)

Here, Paul sets forth in a logical sense what needed to happen for the redemption of humanity. I stress this logical connection since no verbal connection exists explicitly. No argument is presented that would point to any nascent Gnosticism among the recipients as to why “born of a woman” is used if in fact Paul was combating the idea that Jesus was an unimbodied spirit. Paul’s appeal to the Galatian Christians uses theological reasoning to show the dire consequences of leaving Christ to return to human efforts such as the Jewish O.T. observances formulated in syncretism with the faith of Christ.

Exploring the clause contextually shows that The Law’s regulations functioned to enslave (v.3). Yet this Law Christ fulfilled in our stead: “born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children. (vss.4b-5). So we are enslaved sinners by nature and freely adopted by grace.

Thus, no explicit reason seems to exist for the clause “born of a woman” but several implicit ideas are present to suggest a connection. Previously, Paul spoke of the “Seed of Abraham” being Christ and those who belong to Christ as the resultant “seed of Abraham” (see ch. 3), this is the significant ‘one and the many’ examples of the use of “seed” in scripture. Paul clearly says “seed” is singular and the reference is Christ, then further in ch. 3 he says the resultant believers in Christ constitute also “the seed of Abraham.” This is exactly what the sentence imposed in Gen. 3. 15 does with this word “seed”: it uses it collectively and in a singular fashion at the same time. It will not do to just translate the word “offspring” and be done with it. This was the practice of some in the past which clouded the issue. The best resource to fully explain the ‘one and the many’ usages of “seed” is John Sailhamer’s Meaning of the Pentateuch.

So I have already given it away what I believe the implicit use is for the clause “born of a woman.” Since Paul has already mentioned “the Seed of Abraham” a few lines back “born of a woman” refers to the “seed of the woman.” When God called Abram, it was in light of the previously imposed sentence on the serpent, namely, the Seed of the woman would crush the head of the serpent as the final judgment. That this Seed would have its heel pierced by the snake speaks of the priestly office in dying and conquering death for the collective “seed” (humanity).

So God’s call to Abram with the promise that “in your Seed all the nations would be blessed” (Gal.3.16-modern translators have obscured the citation to “seed” in many places but in 3.16 it would be nonsensical to render it “offspring” as it defeats Paul’s usage), has as its antecedent the Gen. 3.15 passage of the “seed of the woman.” Therefore, in a compositional and logical sense, the clause “born of a woman” connects with the previous “Seed of Abraham” since that clause itself has its foundation in the promise of redemption in Gen.3.15 of that “Seed of the woman” who would vicariously die instead of us. So it is a hammer-anvil moment where a definitive moment occurs: God sent His Son, born of a woman to fulfill the crucial requirement of being the Last Adam. Hence, because of the virgin birth, Christ has no connection with Adam’s failure and becomes the Savior of the world.


Interpreting Funerary Scenes



Here are a few images posted on Prof. Rasmussen’s site ( In his post, Carl Rasmussen points out the dog underneath and connects it with the account of Jesus and the Syrophonecian woman to show the typical domestic scene and the plausibility of the narrative.

These images depict idyllic moments which those, now interred, would have participated in during their earthly life. The scenes portrayed seem to render periods of the deceased while in the prime of life and not immediately before their death when they would have been enfeebled generally (This observation is not limited solely on these ancient Grecian reliefs but reflects this author’s familiarity with other Grecian, Etruscan, and Latin ossuaries and sarcophagi).

Some preliminary observations, which await confirmation, can be made from these scenes:

1.Only the men ate reclined while the woman is seated and may have served the food.

2. The servant is always younger, naked (to show no weapons are secreted by the servant while the man is prone).

3. The reclining and drinking of the man probably depicts the eventual drowsiness and resultant sleep of that activity. The woman would wait and assist with this eventuality and tuck the man in for the night.



Steve Hays: Christ, Christmas and Children

This is a great post and shows how Jesus meets our needs in unexpected ways. We have a wonderful God.
Recently I was thinking about the value of Christmas or Christmas Eve services for children. Christianity has a natural appeal or connection to children that’s lacking in Islam or rabbinical Judaism because God became a child. When children sing Christmas carols, they can personally relate to those carols, because God personally related to their situation by becoming a child and passing through the stages of maturation. In the Incarnation, God relates to humans at our own level, and not just in a generic sense, but from infancy through adulthood.
At the other end of the lifecycle, we can relate to Jesus in part because he shared in the experience of human mortality. Once again, Islam and rabbinical Judaism lack that vital connection.
Likewise, Easter speaks to the elderly, as well as those who lose loved ones through death. It carries the hope of restoration and reunion in the face of the grave.

Prof Hurtado’s Survey of Early Christians

Here is an informative snippet from Larry Hurtado:

In the plentiful cafeteria of religious options available in the first three centuries, early Christianity stands out. This was truly a time of religious diversity and development that included the traditional Roman and Greek pantheons, of course, as well as the deities of the various other peoples and localities encompassed in the Roman Empire. Among the latter were city gods (such as Artemis of Ephesus), and deities of areas such as Phrygia, Syria, and Egypt. There were also lesser divinities of families and households, and even spiritual beings thought to be linked to such specific sites as bridges and kitchens. Additionally, there were new (and refashioned) religious movements aplenty. The title of a book on Roman-era religion captured well the overall religious situation: it was “A World Full of Gods” (Keith Hopkins, A World Full of Gods: Pagans, Jews, and Christians in the Roman Empire [Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1999]).

So, on the one hand, early Christianity appeared as only one option among many, and only one new religious movement among others. To use another metaphor, early Christianity entered “the ‘traffic’ as a new movement on a very crowded and well-traveled highway of religious activity.” (I lift the phrasing here from my somewhat fuller discussion of “The Religious Environment” of early Christianity in my book, At the Origins of Christian Worship: The Context and Character of Earliest Christian Devotion [Eerdmans, 1999], 7 [7-38].) On the other hand, early Christianity was quite distinctive in that setting, even in the diverse and pluralized religious options of the time. Indeed, for many observers then, it was objectionably different, and seen as even a serious threat to Roman-era piety, to family solidarity, and to society. In my recent book, Destroyer of the Gods: Early Christian Distinctiveness in the Roman World (Baylor University Press, 2016), I focus on several features of early Christianity that made it unusual, even odd, in the first three centuries. I also note that these same features have become cultural commonplaces for us, through the influence of Christianity in Western culture. In this essay, I can only touch on a few of the matters discussed more fully in this book.

Early Christian Impiety

The first thing to emphasize is that early Christianity was often criticized as impiety, even atheism. Here’s why. In the Roman world, in principle all gods are valid and so deserve worship (sacrifice). Traditionalist Romans might object to the importation of foreign gods into Rome, and might consider the religious practices of some other nations strange or even odious. But they did not call into question that the gods of the various peoples were real and valid recipients of worship, at least by the nations to which they were attached. The gods guarded families, cities, and the Empire, and so reverencing them was a key way of demonstrating social solidarity and of contributing to the health and stability of one’s various social circles. To refuse to worship a god was a serious matter. It was deemed an anti-social action, and could even generate the charge of atheism.

Early Christians, however, were expected to turn away from worshiping the various “pagan” gods, all of them, and to confine their worship to “the true and living God and … his Son … Jesus” (1 Thess 1:9-10). Christians were to regard all the other deities as “idols,” a derisive term inherited from Jewish tradition and signifying their unworthiness to be treated as gods. The early Christian stance did not so much involve denying the existence of the pagan gods. Instead, it was the validity of worshiping them that was the issue. Paul, for example, referred to the various pagan deities as “demons,” unworthy beings, and declared that worshiping these beings was incompatible with devotion to the one true God (1 Cor 10:14-22).

This early Christian “cultic exclusivity” was, of course, inherited from the Jewish matrix in which the Jesus-movement emerged. But, generally it seems, pagans regarded the Jewish abstaining from worshiping the pagan gods simply as a particularly singular and annoying feature of Jewish ethnicity. So far as most pagans were concerned, every nation had its own peculiarities, and Jews more so! But Jewish “cultic exclusivity” was, in the main, tolerated. Jews did not typically denounce the gods, and did not try to encourage their cultic exclusivity among pagans.

The early Christian movement, however, quickly became trans-ethnic, increasingly recruiting adherents from the larger pagan population. So, upon their conversion to Christian faith, individuals who had formerly taken part readily in the worship of the deities of their families, cities, and nation suddenly refused to continue to do so. But in the eyes of their society, these former pagans had no right to act in this manner. Their shift in religious practice represented what many took to be a worrying break with their previous social ties. And if the welfare of families and cities depended on keeping the gods happy (especially with sacrifices), the secession of Christian converts from their former religious practices could even be perceived as endangering their wider social circles.

We also have to recognize the ubiquitous place of the gods in the Roman era. In addition to daily reverence of one’s household deities, there were gods acknowledged in practically any significant social setting. City council meetings opened with acknowledging the tutelary deity/deities. Guilds and associations typically had patron deities. Dinners were held in honor of this or that deity, functioning also as social occasions.

So, conscientious Christians in that setting had to consider how to negotiate a wide range of social activities and settings. We see this in Paul’s extended, and somewhat intricate directions to his pagan converts in Corinth (1 Cor 8—10). But a consistent abstention from joining in worshiping the pagan gods could not avoid readily the criticism that it amounted to impiety, and even atheism (as reflected in Martyrdom of Polycarp 9.2).

I emphasize that, among the various new religious movements of the time, such as the so-called mystery cults, early Christianity was unique in this “cultic exclusivity.” One could be a devotee of Isis or Mithras without it having any effect on one’s obligations to the various other gods of your family, city, or nation. But to be a conscientious Christian required a radical break with one’s previous religious activities. In our modern “secular” cultures, it will require an effort to grasp adequately the extent of the consequences for early Christians of the demand that they abstain from “idolatry.” And we may take it for granted, today, that there is only one “God” to believe in or to doubt, but that only reflects how much our assumptions have been shaped by the influence of Christianity.

A New “Religious Identity”

I propose also that this early Christian stance amounted to a novel kind of “religious identity.” Typically, in the Roman world one’s gods were conferred at birth and were part and parcel of one’s ties to family, city, and nation. In our terms, one’s “religious identity” was connected to one’s social and ethnic identity. As a particular reflection of the link between gods and ethnicity, pagans who became Jewish proselytes were expected to depart from their families and join themselves to the Jewish people, taking on a new ethnicity along with their adopted religious stance and exclusive commitment to the Jewish deity.

But pagan converts to early Christianity were not required to sever their ties to families and their people. They remained Greeks, or Egyptians, or Phrygians, or Galatians, for example. But they were to desist from their traditional gods, confining their religious commitment to the one God proclaimed in the Christian gospel, and they were to identify themselves as devotees of this deity exclusively. This, I contend, amounted to a novel distinction between ethnicity and religious identity.

In modern societies, there are periodic censuses of the population, in which we may be asked to indicate in one question our ethnic identity, and in another question our religious affiliation. This reflects the notion that one’s religious identity is distinguishable from one’s ethnicity. We take this now for granted, but in the ancient Roman world it was a rather novel notion. And it appears that in early Christianity we see the first appearance of this notion.

Social and Political Consequences

The distinctiveness of early Christianity in that ancient Roman setting meant that there could be serious social and political consequences of being a Christian then. (I discussed these matters initially in my book, How on Earth Did Jesus Become a God? Historical Questions about Earliest Devotion to Jesus [Eerdmans, 2005], 56-82: “To Live and Die for Jesus: Social and Political Consequences of Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity.”) These could include tension, harassment and even ostracism from family and friends, and similar difficulties in wider social and vocational ties. Moreover, in some cases, Christians were denounced to local authorities, and this could result in serious judicial consequences.

In an oft-cited letter to the Emperor Trajan written ca. 110 CE, the newly appointed governor of Bithynia and Pontus, Pliny “the Younger,” relates his handling of Christians denounced to him (English translation with brief notes in A New Eusebius: Documents Illustrative of the History of the Church to A.D. 337, ed. J. Stevenson [SPCK, 1974], 13-15; and Trajan’s reply, 16). If they denied being Christians and were willing to comply with his demands that they reverence the traditional gods and, particularly noteworthy, if they were willing to curse Christ, Pliny let them go. As to those who refused, if they were Roman citizens, he sent them off to Rome for disposition. Those of lower social levels, he executed.

The key question, of course, is why Pliny took such firm measures. Part of the answer may be given in his references to the decline in attendance and offerings in the pagan temples, and his assurance to Trajan that his handling of the Christians will rectify this. That is, in at least this case, Christian disengagement with the pagan gods (and perhaps also their denunciation of “idols”) appears to have generated serious anger that led to Christians being denounced to the governor. In short, these early Christians were perceived to be a social and an economic threat.

A fascinating early Christian text that particularly reflects a concern to avoid social tensions while, nevertheless, maintaining Christian distinctiveness, is The Epistle to Diognetus (Michael W. Holmes, The Apostolic Fathers: Greek Texts and English Translations, 3rd ed. [Baker Academic, 2007], 686-719). The author insists that Christians eat the same food, wear the same clothing, and in many respects live as others, and so, in so far as possible, seek to avoid social tension with pagan neighbors. But, equally firmly, the author declares the particularities of Christian faith in the one God and in Christ, and some of the behavioral requirements of Christians as well, that set them off against their prior pagan history. From a slightly earlier time, 1 Peter likewise counsels early Christian readers how to behave in circumstances where they may be harassed or even brought before authorities on account of their Christian faith.

Given that Christian faith uniquely generated such social and political consequences, we might well ask why people became adherents. They could become followers of Isis or any of the other voluntary religious movements of the time without suffering such consequences. Only early Christian faith required converts to absent themselves from worshiping the gods. In another recent book, I have posed directly the question of why people chose to become Christians in that setting (Why on Earth Did Anyone Become a Christian in the First Three Centuries? [Marquette University Press, 2016]). Scholars have often noted the spread and growth of early Christianity, but it is only when we take adequate account of the negative consequences of becoming a Christian then that we can perceive more clearly how remarkable that growth was.

We must presume that there were factors in early Christianity that made it sufficiently attractive and meaningful that individuals judged it worth the negative consequences attending to becoming an adherent. I am not sure myself that we scholars have done justice to this topic. It is clear that there were similarities of early Christianity to other voluntary associations of the Roman world, but the social and political consequences of being a Christian were not shared by adherents of other religious movements. So, there must have been positive, distinctive features of early Christianity that drew converts and that compensated for the social and political costs of being a Christian.

These distinctive features likely included emphases in early Christian beliefs and behavioral teachings. For example, the emphasis on the Christian deity as motivated by love for humans seems to have been novel, and was likely meaningful for many (and ridiculous in the eyes of some others). In sum, despite the considerable body of scholarly work on early Christianity, I think that there is more to be done to appreciate adequately what becoming a Christian in the first three centuries involved, and how Christian faith then was a very different and distinctive phenomenon.

Laodicea — Menorah and Cross

In 1979 two seminary friends and I self-organized a tour of the seven churches of Rev. 1-3. We sort of had to ‘wing it’ in Turkey since English was hardly used in the western part. An archaeologist working at the ancient site at Sardis told us that: “it gets a bit wilder the further east you go” when we told him about being surrounded by a mob who harassed us previously. We survived, however, I got a serious bout of dysentery during our return to Greece and had to spend an extra day or two on the island of Samos for the infection to pass. We were able to go to six of the “churches” or the ruins thereof but the Laodicea area was deemed too far afield for our time frame. It was fortuitous also that we didn’t venture to ancient Laodicea since only shortly after the decision, the dysentery struck. Thankfully we made it back to Greece. So much for the personal travails, here is information about ancient Laodicea:


Laodicea is the last of the seven churches addressed in the book of Revelation (1:11; 3:14–22). In the letter there may be a number of allusions to the local setting of Laodicea: the lukewarm water…

Source: Laodicea — Menorah and Cross

John 10.8: Thieves and Robbers

All who came before me were thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not listen to them. (Jn. 10.8)

Just recently I was reading a learned scholar who struggled with the meaning of Jesus’ statement about the thieves and robbers prior to Jesus. The scholar thought Jesus might have been somehow referring to biblical writers before the time of Christ. This is not the case. If we remove the reference numbers from our versions and observe the discourse as a whole, we can see our Lord is addressing the Pharisees (see 9.40) in a parable .

The following is a reproduction of Mt. 13.10-15 (NET) and shows the rationale for the parables, namely to hide spiritual truth from the superficial and hypocrites.

Then the disciples came to him and said, “Why do you speak to them in parables?” He replied, “You have been given the opportunity to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but they have not.  For whoever has will be given more, and will have an abundance. But whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him. For this reason I speak to them in parables: Although they see they do not see, and although they hear they do not hear nor do they understand.  And concerning them the prophecy of Isaiah is fulfilled that says:

‘You will listen carefully yet will never understand,

you will look closely yet will never comprehend.

For the heart of this people has become dull;

they are hard of hearing,

and they have shut their eyes,

so that they would not see with their eyes

and hear with their ears

and understand with their hearts

and turn, and I would heal them.

In the very next verse (Mt. 13.16) Jesus says “but your eyes are blessed, for they see” (speaking to the disciples). So Jesus knows His disciples and rejects these punctiliously observant religious leaders who were not His. Further in Matthew’s Gospel (ch.23), Jesus calls them snakes and offspring (seed) of vipers. This expression hearkens back to Gen. 3.15 where it indicates the two groups of people now inhabiting the world: the seed of the serpent and the Seed of the woman (who is Christ and they who belong to Him).

ASIDE: The One and the Many 

In biblical thought “seed” refers to a singular as well as a collective. Without going into the how or why this conception operates in this manner, perhaps it is best illustrated from an instance in scripture. There are several times this occurs in the O.T. but Paul’s explanation in Gal. 3.15-29 presents the idea the fullest. In Gal. 3.16, Paul says the seed is referencing a singular: Christ. Yet all who belong to Christ are Abraham’s seed (vs. 29). The same term is used in vss. 16 and 29 to refer to  the singular and the collective. For a full explication of the idea, please see John Sailhamer: The Meaning of the Pentateuch.

Now back to the thieves and robbers in John 10: notice that Jesus identifies these as “climbing up some other way” besides the door as the thieves and robbers in verse 1. This cannot refer to biblical writers since they were showing the true way in counter distinction to the false the prophets in their days. So in our verse 8, these same thieves and robbers appeared before Jesus was on the scene. The verb tense is present (not “were” but “are”), so the translation: “all who came before are thieves and robbers.” This use of the present tense at least identifies those living are the referents since the now departed false prophets in previous times are not now thieving and robbing. The prime candidates for the moniker would be the Pharisees before Him but it may also refer to the Herods and Herodians (who were closely connected to the Pharisees). The messianic pretensions of the Herods however is for another post.

Cautions in Translating the Bible

Here is a list of things to watch out for as we try to determine meanings. Knowing more than one language helps to see the differences folks use in expressing the same idea across cultures.


From Evangel University professor Bill Griffin:

Here’s are some tell-tale signs that people who claim to have “special insight about Hebrew secrets” have no idea what they are talking about:

1. They treat Hebrew as a code to be deciphered, rather than as a language.

Ancient Hebrew was a _language_. People did not wonder about the mystical meanings of various letters when they were engaging in ordinary speech, making contracts, arguing, or trading with other people.

The Old Testament was written in Hebrew, not because the language is inherently holy, but because that’s what the people spoke! It is basically the language of Canaan, and anyone who knew Hebrew could talk with their Moabite neighbors who basically spoke a variant of the language (the difference between “Hebrew” and “Moabite” is the difference between how people speak in Iowa and Arkansas). When Moabite King Mesha had an inscription written, in which he brags about defeating Israel, he is not talking about Jesus when he exalts Chemosh over Yahweh and uses the aleph-tav in his inscription.

2. They cite Strong’s Concordance as an authoritative Hebrew resource.

Strong’s Concordance has a “dictionary” in the back which can give a little extra information about Hebrew and Greek words to the English speaker. However, it is not designed for someone who knows Hebrew, and it lacks the precision of a “real” Hebrew lexicon (that’s a fancy word for “dictionary”)–a precision which only someone trained in Hebrew can use.

3. They show you an interlinear and claim that certain words are not translated and therefore have a special meaning.

An “interlinear” is a text which has Hebrew or Greek words with English equivalents written below. Many people who use interlinears are unaware of the word order differences between Hebrew and English, and they also do not know or understand Hebrew _syntax_. (Syntax is the relationship between various words and the meanings which combinations have which might not be the same as what one would expect from individual words–context is quite important.)

Humans convey meaning by combinations of words, rather than by arbitrary definitions of individual words, and a context is needed to figure out what someone means.

For example, take the English words “put” and “up” or “down”. “Put” implies placing something somewhere, and “up” is a direction which is the opposite of down. But “put up” can mean “tolerate” or “place somewhere above”, depending upon other words. Thus “He put up with John’s speech” means he tolerated John’s speech, while “He put up a painting on a wall” means he hung a painting on a wall. “He put his cup down on the floor” (placed it on a low place) is different from “He gave John a put-down” (insulted John).

4. They assign mystical meanings to Hebrew letters.

The Hebrew alphabet is based on the Phonecian alphabet, and those letters are basically pictographs of ordinary objects. There is no spiritual significance to a house, door, throwing stick, camel, ox, or water.

5. They convert Hebrew letters to numbers and make mystical claims.

During Old Testament times, letters were not used to represent numbers. Instead, they wrote out words to represent numbers, just like we use “three”, “two thousand”, or “seventy”. The practice of (think in terms of English) having A=1, B=2, C=3 (but w/Hebrew letters) did not begin until after the Old Testament was completed.

6. They cherry-pick Hebrew words (such as names) and string them together to make an English sentence which is supposed to have spiritual significance.

Even if it was legitimate to pick a word here or there and put it together (and it is not), Hebrew word order is quite different than English word order. If you have studied _any_ human language other than English, you are aware of the differences between the order of one language and another. Biblical Hebrew likes to put verbs at the beginning of sentences, before the “whodunnit” (subject). We put the whodunnit before a verb. When people extract a bunch of Hebrew words, put them together in an English order, and then claim that God intended a particular meaning in the original Hebrew, the level of irrationality in which they are engaging and which they are promoting is difficult to quantify.

William P. Griffin, Ph.D.