Saturday, February 25, 2017

Book Write-Up: Bread of Angels, by Tessa Afshar

Tessa Afshar.  Bread of Angels.  Tyndale House Publishers, 2017.  See here to purchase the book.

Bread of Angels concerns the events of Acts 16.  In Acts 16, we meet Lydia, who sold purple.  Lydia was a worshiper of God, probably a Gentile.  Every Sabbath, she gathered by the river for prayer with other women.  God opens her heart to receive the Gospel message that Paul preaches.  Other events occur in Acts 16, as well.  Paul casts a demon out of a woman, whose divination abilities had been exploited for the profit of certain men.  These men become upset at Paul, and Paul and Silas are thrown into prison.  There, Paul and Silas sing praises to God, and an earthquake opens the prison doors and the chains on the prisoners’ wrists are broken.  Fearing that the prisoners have escaped, the jail-keeper is about to kill himself, but Paul reassures him that the prisoners are all there.  The jail-keeper asks what he must do to be saved, and Paul tells him that salvation for him and his household comes through believing in the Lord Jesus Christ.

The protagonist of Bread of Angels is Lydia.  Lydia in the book suffers a profound incident of injustice and betrayal, which shames her and her family.  Recovering from loss and her emotional scars, Lydia departs from her hometown and meets Rebekah, a Jewish woman who herself has suffered trials and economic deprivation.  The two find a common purpose in life, to be there for one another, and Lydia becomes a worshiper of the Jewish God.  In the course of time, Lydia becomes a prosperous seller of purple as well as a Roman citizen.  She has an adversary, however: Antiochus, another seller of purple.  Antiochus will be a thorn in Lydia’s side.  Lydia eventually meets Paul, and the events of Acts 16 unfold.  Lydia becomes a Christian, but she still has to deal with the perils of real life, particularly Antiochus’ sinister tricks.

Here are some of my thoughts about the book:

A.  The first part of the book, which was about the injustice and betrayal, was especially compelling.  It made me mad and sad!  The second part of the book, which was about Lydia’s rise to prominence and riches and her endurance of Antiochus, was rather confusing in places, perhaps because there was a lot going on.  Still, there were profound spiritual discussions in this part of the book.  The third part of the book, which concerned Lydia’s conversion to Christianity in response to Paul’s preaching, conveyed spiritual wisdom, especially about the topic of interpersonal forgiveness.

B.  Paul had a peaceful, Zen-like quality.  The book seemed to ignore Acts 16:37, in which Paul is quite upset after being released from prison!

C.  Lydia has a spiritual discussion with Agnodice, a physician who has become disillusioned with the god Asclepius, since Asclepius failed to heal people.  Agnodice is through with gods and is trusting her herbs instead.  Lydia asks Agnodice: “Will your herbs comfort you when you have no peace?  Will they counsel you when you struggle through the quagmires of life?  Will they be your companion when you are alone and afraid?”

This is a good discussion because it highlights why people choose to believe in a personal God.  And yet, Agnodice’s disillusionment with Asclepius does not sit right with me.  I know that Tessa Afshar is promoting a monotheistic worldview that regards the God of the Bible as effective, and other gods as ineffective.  Still, there are ancient testimonies of people who claimed to be healed by Asclepius.  What would the book have been like had it acknowledged this, while still arguing that Christianity is true?  That would have made the book more interesting, as interesting as it is already.

D.  Rebekah, who is quite pious, talks to Lydia about loneliness: “I have you, sister and friend, but I long for something else.  It is as if there is a hole in my heart that nothing can ever fill.  Not even the Lord.  It is as if I miss some great piece of myself.”  Lydia responds, “I think the whole world could say the same.”

This struck me as unusual, in an evangelical book.  Many evangelical books say that we all have a hole in our heart that only God can fill.  Here, Rebekah and Lydia talk about a hole that not even God can fill!  This is a refreshingly honest observation.

E.  Many Calvinists appeal to Acts 16:14 to argue that God needs to open a person’s heart for that person to believe, since that is what God did for Lydia.  In light of that, it was interesting to see how Afshar addressed this verse.  Rebekah is skeptical when she hears Paul preach, whereas Lydia believes immediately.  Rebekah takes a leap of faith, though.  There was something within Lydia that assured her that what Paul said was true, whereas Lydia became a believer after taking a leap of faith.  Yet, both became Christians: it was not as if God elected Lydia to salvation but not Rebekah.  Afshar’s interpretation of Acts 16:14 does not sound particularly Calvinist; perhaps her position is that people arrive at faith in a variety of ways.

F.  Paul in the book discusses the inadequacy of animal sacrifices, in explaining why Jesus’ sacrifice was necessary to atone for people’s sins:

“…how long after offering each sacrifice do we remain pure?  Clean of every moral offense?  We would have to traipse over to the Temple by the hour with an unblemished sacrifice to keep up with our transgressions.  The whole population of cattle, pigeons, and turtledoves would soon dwindle and disappear from the earth.”

This is a thought-provoking statement.  Perhaps such a sentiment underlies the Epistle to the Hebrews’ contrast between animal sacrifices and the sacrifice of Christ.  And yet, there is a part of me that is skeptical of its assumptions.  Did Jews seriously believe that they lacked God’s forgiveness if they failed to offer animal sacrifices regularly?  Many Jews did not even live near the Temple, so their visits to the Temple were rare!  Did they think that God rejected them throughout the year because they could not go to the Temple regularly to atone for their sins?

I have heard various answers to such questions: that Jews believed repentance alone was necessary to atone for sins, or that animal sacrifices were for unintentional sins or ritual transgressions, not so much for intentional moral sins.  I have mainly encountered such views in reading Jewish counter-missionary literature, which attempts to refute the Christian argument that a blood sacrifice is essential for atonement.  And yet, I have also come across the view in Judaism that blood atones for moral sins.  My understanding of this issue is rather limited, but I am just highlighting that what “Paul” said about sacrifices in Afshar’s book resonates with me partly, but not entirely.

G.  Paul makes an intriguing statement in encouraging Lydia to forgive someone who wronged her:

“Have you ever studied a great oak?  One branch will bend to the east while another bends to the west.  They grow in opposite directions, never touching.  Never uniting.  And yet they are warmed by the same sun.  Fed by the same roots.  Sometimes God’s people are like those branches.  They are separated from one another for reasons only the heart comprehends.  And yet the light of the sun illuminates both; his presence feeds both.”

Paul goes on to say that Lydia should forgive the person who wronged her, but that the choice of whether to trust this person is hers.  Is Paul saying that two Christians can be estranged from each other, and yet forgiving?  Would Paul say that?  On the one hand, Paul in his epistles emphasized unity and brotherly affection, so that may lean in the “no” direction.  On the other hand, Paul was estranged from Mark in the Book of Acts.

H.  Marcus is a Christian character in the book, and he likens his own emotional scars to tree rings: both leave a lasting effect!  Marcus says that he learned to move on, that he could choose what kind of person he would be.  This was a good discussion about dealing with a bitter past.  And, by the way, Afshar in the Epilogue discusses the historical probability of a first century person like Marcus knowing about tree rings!

Whatever my reservations and questions, I found this to be an enjoyable book, with profound spiritual discussions.

I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher through Edelweiss.  My review is honest!

Friday, February 24, 2017

Book Write-Up: Clash of Kingdoms, by Charles Dyer and Mark Tobey

Charles Dyer and Mark Tobey.  Clash of Kingdoms: What the Bible Says About Russia, Isis, Iran, and the End Times.  Nashville: Nelson Books, 2017.  See here to purchase the book.

Charles Dyer is an associate pastor and a Bible professor at Moody Bible Institute, and he has a Ph.D. from Dallas Theological Seminary.  Mark Tobey is a pastor, and he has a B.A. from Moody and a Th.M. from Dallas Theological Seminary.  Clash of Kingdoms speculates about how current events could lead to the end-time scenarios described in the Bible.

Here are some of my thoughts about the book.

A.  As far as end-time scenarios go, the scenario presented in this book is roughly the same as that of Hal Lindsey and Tim Lahaye.  Russia, with Iran and other nations, attempts to attack Israel, only to suffer a devastating defeat at the hands of God.  The Antichrist, as head of the European Union, fosters a peace agreement between Israel and the Arab nations, only to betray and persecute Israel.  This is the overall model in the book, and what is irrelevant to this model is somewhat marginalized.  ISIS, for example, is irrelevant to this model, and Dyer and Tobey seem to forecast that Russia and others (i.e., Syria) will defeat ISIS early on.  Dyer and Tobey do not appeal to Bible verses or passages to support that piece of speculation, as they do for their overall scenario; rather, their assumption seems to be that, because ISIS is irrelevant to their overall prophetic scenario, it will be destroyed early in the game.

There are some differences, though, between this book and what I have read in Lahaye’s books or Hal Lindsey’s works.  For one, for Dyer and Tobey, Russia and Iran’s defeat entails much more than Russian planes being destroyed in the sky, as is depicted in the first Left Behind movie. Drawing from Ezekiel 38-39, Dyer and Tobey argue that earthquakes, pestilence, and fiery hail from the sky will play a significant role in the defeat of Russia, and that God will attack the country of Russia itself (see Ezekiel 29:6).  According to Dyer and Tobey, Russia and Iran will be destroyed as nations, with profound economic and geo-political consequences.  Second, China is notably absent from this book, whereas Hal Lindsey presented China as the Kings of the East of Revelation 16:12.  Dyer and Tobey may still regard China as the Kings of the East, but their book does not discuss that matter.

B.  If I were to attach a political label to this book, it would probably be “neoconservative,” with some reservation.  Dyer and Tobey believe that Russia has imperial or expansionist objectives, that the Iran nuclear agreement has severe limitations and negative consequences, and that the UN is unfair to condemn Israel repeatedly, while being sparse in its condemnation of nations with worse records.  Such a perspective coincides with neo-conservatism, or at least the perspective of the interventionist wing of the Republican Party.  My reservations about applying this label occur because Dyer and Tobey in this book never advocate an interventionist or belligerent stance on the part of the United States; in one place, they actually say that U.S. intervention can result in drawbacks.  Their stance may be to let God work things out.

C.  Dyer and Tobey highlight and discuss the divisions and agendas within the Muslim world.  Sunnis are against Shiites, Saudi Arabia is against Iran, Iran supports Syria rather than ISIS, and the Kurds have their own agenda.  Dyer and Tobey do not lump all Muslims together but recognize complexity and nuance.  While Dyer and Tobey believe that ISIS is seeking to recover some past Islamic glory, they acknowledge that Al-Qaeda was upset at the U.S. for placing troops in Saudi Arabia, a point that non-interventionist Republican Ron Paul makes in discussing blowback.  Dyer and Tobey’s description and analysis of current events were insightful and informative.

D.  Dyer and Tobey are trying to argue that current events are setting the stage for the end-times, and yet the information that they present is sometimes at variance with that.  The Antichrist will rule over a United States of Europe, yet Dyer and Tobey acknowledge that the European Union today is rather fragmented.  Dyer and Tobey believe that the Arab world will unite after the fall of Iran, but, as I noted in (C.), they realize that such union is non-existent today.  Dyer and Tobey maintain that Russia will attack Israel, but they observe that, nowadays, Putin is forming a friendly relationship with Netanyahu.  Dyer and Tobey’s end-time scenarios sometimes look plausible, in light of current events, and sometimes they do not.

E.  Regarding biblical interpretation, the book had hits and misses.  Let’s start with the positives.  Dyer and Tobey believe that the eighth-seventh century B.C.E. figure Gyges of Lydia is relevant to the identity of Gog in Ezekiel 38-39, that Ezekiel is saying someone like Gog will come on the scene in the last days (as some Christians may call the Antichrist another Hitler).  Dyer and Tobey do well to bridge a historical-critical reading of the Bible (one that interprets Ezekiel 38-39 in light of people and events close to its own time) with a prophetic and eschatological interpretation (one that sees Ezekiel 38-39 as a prophecy about the future, beyond Ezekiel’s time).  Dyer and Tobey also mount an effective biblical defense for their position that the city of Babylon will be rebuilt in the last days, contra the view that Babylon will never be rebuilt, a la Isaiah 13:17-20 and similar passages.  And they do well to pay attention to the details of Ezekiel 38-39 about how God will defeat Magog.

As far as negatives are concerned, there are three.  First of all, Dyer and Tobey are dogmatic in identifying Magog as Russia, for Gyges was Gyges of Lydia, which is in what is modern-day Turkey.  (Note: Dyer and Tobey see Gog as a person of Magog, rather than treating Gog and Magog as two separate countries.)  Dyer and Tobey should have justified their identification of Magog as Russia, as some modern Christian end-times books do.  Second, while Dyer and Tobey’s interpretation of Ezekiel 38-39 is literal, in many cases, they do not deal with aspects of the chapters in which a literal interpretation would be awkward.  Ezekiel 39:9 states: “Then those who live in the towns of Israel will go out and make fires of the weapons and burn them–bucklers and shields, bows and arrows, handpikes and spears– and they will make fires of them for seven years” (KJV).  People will still be using shields, spears, and bows and arrows in the last days?  How would Dyer and Tobey account for that?  Third, while Dyer and Tobey did well to incorporate some historical-criticism into their interpretation of Gog in Ezekiel 38-39, they should have done the same with Daniel 11.  Instead, they treat elements of Daniel 11 as a prophecy about the end-times, without mentioning or interacting with the historical Ptolemaic and Seleucid conflicts that are the subject of at least parts of the chapter.

I am giving this book five stars, however, because it was an informative and engaging read.

I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher through BookLook Bloggers.  My review is honest!

Current Events Write-Up: Trade, Milo, Media, Health Care, DeVos, Alan Colmes, the Progressive Pro-Lifers, and More

Time for my weekly Current Events Write-Up, in which I link to news and opinion pieces and comment on them.

Dallas News: The first casualties of Trump’s trade wars are Texas cattle ranchers, by Richard Parker. 

“Free trade” has its positives and negatives for Americans.  On the one hand, it allows U.S. businesses and exporters to expand the market for their products.  On the other hand, there are the problems of outsourcing and trade deficits.

Real Time with Bill Maher: Maher’s Interview of Milo Yiannopoulos.

We witnessed the rise and fall of Milo this week!  What interested me about Bill’s interview of Milo is Milo’s remark that humor and satire bring people together.  Maybe he has a point, though some would understandably say that there should be boundaries.  But, if we are to embrace humor and satire as something that brings people together, why should Donald Trump be so agitated and offended by the Saturday Night Live skits about him and his cabinet?

ABC This Week: Jonathan Karl on Trump’s Criticisms of the Media.

Karl was trying to argue that Trump has taken attacks of the media to a new level.  But Karl made good points about how previous Presidents have criticized the media, and how Trump as a candidate made himself available to the media, more than other candidates.  See his comments at the end of the transcript.  Maybe Trump made himself available to the media because he wanted to have his say, rather than allowing others to put words in his mouth (from his perspective).  His making himself available to the media may have coincided with a distrust of the press, in short.

Townhall: Fixing Health Care, by Bruce Biatosky. 

I agree with some of these ideas and disagree with others.  On areas of disagreement, I think that there need to be people who pay into the health insurance system, so that the health insurance can pay for people’s treatments, and also to spread the cost of the insurance around.  I don’t know how we can accomplish this without a health insurance mandate.  I also am skeptical that Health Savings Accounts, by themselves, would be adequate to cover the costs of certain medical treatments.  On areas of agreement, I support reducing the prices of prescription drugs, informing patients of costs, streamlining visits of doctors through usage of modern technology, and high-risk pools, provided that sufficient funds are provided for those pools.

Yahoo Finance: Ivanka Trump visits center for minority-owned businesses, by Catherine Lucey.

“‘I feel like Ivanka listened very intently and asked some very intelligent questions,’ [National Urban League President Marc] Morial said, noting that she wanted to understand which programs worked and could be implemented on a larger scale.”

I applaud Ivanka Trump for doing this.

Slate: Report: DeVos Wanted to Keep Trans School Protections, Was Overruled By Sessions and Trump, by Mark Joseph Stern. 

I am intrigued when someone does the unexpected in politics.  In this case, I was pleasantly surprised.  Betsy DeVos is a conservative Christian, but a conservative Christian who has compassion for transgender students.  And yet, this is not a great surprise to me, for I have read comments by people who know her, and they say she is a good person, one who sincerely wants to help others.  This is not to imply that those who oppose President Obama’s bathroom policies are bad people.  What interested me is that progressives online were praising DeVos for this, and then the next day they resumed attacking her.

London Review of Books: A Short History of the Trump Family, by Sidney Blumenthal.

I read this article over several days, since it is a lengthy article.  It is a damning portrait of Donald Trump.  This is especially the case when it discusses Trump’s alleged treatment of his brother Fred, Jr.’s family and of his mentor, Roy Cohn.  This article brings to my mind Elizabeth Warren’s question: “What kind of man does this?”  And yet, how much of this is unique to Trump?  John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon supposedly had ties to the mafia, which Blumenthal says was the case with Trump.  Blumenthal says that Donald Trump’s father, Fred Trump, Sr., ran a racist campaign, and yet what about the allegation that Blumenthal tried to help Hillary in 2008 by searching for Kenyan connections to Barack Obama (see here for a discussion of whether that happened)?  I am all for exposes, but I have to ask why I am expected to recoil in horror at Trump after reading about his dirty laundry, but not at the “respectable” politicians who likewise have dirty laundry.  Blumenthal’s article was a good read, though: I especially enjoyed his literary references.

Wall Street Journal: Bernie Sanders Loyalists Are Taking Over the Democratic Party One County Office at a Time: In fight to define party in age of Donald Trump, Sanders followers want to transform it from the bottom up by taking control of low-level state and county posts, by Reid J. Epstein and Janet Hook.

This reminds me of a post that I wrote in May 2016: Can Bernie Sanders Supporters Replicate the Success of the Christian Coalition?  I doubt that Sanders supporters got the idea from me.  They are simply doing what is politically astute: getting involved at the local level and in Democratic Party politics.

Yahoo News: I’m a Silicon Valley liberal, and I traveled across the country to interview 100 Trump supporters — here’s what I learned, by Sam Altman. 

Altman interviewed Trump supporters, who were diverse.  Many of them expressed reservations about Trump.  All of the comments are worth reading, as they challenge liberal condescension and intolerance while expressing feelings of powerlessness.  The most poignant statement was this one: “He’s crazy, but it’s a tactic to get other nations not to mess with us.”

Yahoo: Fox News Veteran Alan Colmes Dies at 66, by Cynthia Littleton.

On the one hand, the partisan nature of the TV show “Hannity and Colmes” got on my nerves.  Hannity would make a big deal about a Democratic politician doing or saying something bad, then Colmes would provide examples to Republican politicians doing or saying something similar.  Or vice versa.  Here’s a newsflash: Republicans and Democrats are people, with strengths and weaknesses!  No political party has a monopoly on virtuous or wicked people.  On the other hand, I had to respect Colmes.  When he was on a local right-wing talk-show in 2004, the host was saying that John Kerry wanted to raise taxes, and Colmes articulately responded with a more nuanced presentation of Kerry’s position.  Colmes also kept a sense of humor, even when he was criticized.  I remember when Hannity had the audience applaud for him, then he asked Colmes supporters to applaud Colmes.  Nobody applauded for Colmes!  Colmes replied, “I think I heard a vibrator back there!”

World Net Daily: Doesn’t Romans 14 Say Sabbath Is Optional?, by Joseph Farah.

The right-wing site, World Net Daily, has an article defending the observance of the seventh-day Sabbath.  This is of interest to me, since I grew up as a seventh-day Sabbatarian.

Townhall: An Echo of Trump in the Last of the Whigs, by Jeff Jacoby.

I read this on President’s Day.  Millard Fillmore was a nativist and was a bit lukewarm in opposing slavery.  That was a factor in the decline of the Whig Party, which was replaced by the anti-slavery Republican Party.  Whether or not the comparison to Trump is merited, the article was an interesting read.

Crux: How pro-life movement was born as a liberal cause, and more, by Charles C. Camosy.

Camosy interviews historian Daniel Williams, who argues against the idea that the pro-life movement was a right-wing reaction against Roe vs. Wade.  Actually, it existed before then, and it had a lot of progressives!

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Book Write-Up: Angels----God's Supernatural Agents, by Ed Rocha

Ed Rocha.  Angels—God’s Supernatural Agents: Biblical Insights and True Stories of Angelic Encounters.  Minneapolis: Chosen, 2017.  See here to purchase the book.


The “About the Author” section on Amazon states:”Ed Rocha has a theology degree from International Bible Institute of London and is currently pursuing his M.A. in theology. His healing ministry takes him all over the world to speak and teach. Ed and his wife, Dani, have a daughter and split their time between the U.S. and Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, where they are planting a church with the Global Awakening network.”

The book is entitled Angels—God’s Supernatural Agents: Biblical Insights and True Stories of Angelic Encounters.  That is essentially what the book is: a collection of anecdotes about encounters with angels, combined with appeals to Scripture to answer questions about angels.

The anecdotes include experiences of the author and people he knows.  They include angels finding people’s lost items and retrieving them, healing people, fixing people’s cars, replacing people’s mercury fillings with gold fillings, leaving feathers and golden dust in churches, and healing a person of addiction in response to someone else’s prayer.  Perhaps realizing that some of this sounds rather carnivalesque, Rocha attempts to explain why angels would do such things.  Rocha refers to Hebrews 1:14, which calls angels ministering spirits to those who will inherit salvation.  In light of that, he wonders, why wouldn’t angels help Christians find their missing items?  Rocha also believes that angels do such things as signs to people, as Jesus did miracles to demonstrate to people who he was.  And benevolence is also a factor, for Rocha: Why wouldn’t angels replace people’s toxic fillings with sturdy golden fillings?  (I read that part of the book the day before I got a filling, by the way!)

On whether or not I find Rocha’s stories to be believable, I don’t know.  If there are angels, maybe they do things like that.  Of course, there are problem-of-evil questions: Why don’t angels do these things all of the time?  Why do Christians endure tragedies or even die from them, if angels intervene to help people?  And can I truly expect God to send angels to turn my fillings into gold?  Rocha does not really engage such questions.  The closest he gets is when he talks about a charismatic pastor who has a deformed face, and a renowned preacher in the Azusa Street revival who was blind in one of his eyes.  God was physically healing people around these preachers, but not them, and they actually viewed that as an asset to their ministry.  Rocha also explores the question of how people can come to have angelic encounters: for Rocha, it is not a matter of being moral, for God used imperfect people in the Bible.  Rather, it is a matter of having a thirst for God.  Rocha raises considerations that may be relevant to problem-of-evil questions, but he does not directly engage such questions.

I should add that Rocha links to a video in which an angel swoops down from heaven in a mall and picks something up: see https://vimeo.com/147844409.  Is that real, or special effects?  Draw your own conclusions there!  I guess that, if I have a policy, it is to ask God for what I want, and the ball is in God’s court: If God wants to send me an angel, fine, but, if not, then God must have a reason.

As far as Rocha’s biblical interpretation is concerned, it was good, overall.  Rocha addresses such questions as when God created angels, whether angels have wings, and what angels do.  Rocha’s methodology is not historical-critical, so he does not interpret the Bible in light of ancient Near Eastern stories about gods’ retinues.  His overall approach is to ask a question and to cite biblical passages that are relevant to that question.  Occasionally, he does more.  In addressing the question of when God created angels, for example, Rocha’s methodology is rather rabbinic, as he brings together different biblical passages and draws his conclusions.  That may be controversial to historical critics of the Bible, particularly those who believe that the Bible contains different creation stories and thus would be reluctant, say, to interpret Genesis 1 in light of Job 38:7.  Still, Rocha does cite relevant biblical passages in addressing questions about angels, showing that he cares about what the Bible says, not just religious experience.

Rocha’s sensitivity to nuances in Scripture is evident in his interesting observation that Jesus himself could not summon angels, for Jesus in Matthew 26:53 says that he could ask the Father to send angels.  While one may think that a book such as this wrongly focuses on angels more that God, my conclusion after reading it is different: Rocha focuses on God, and he depicts angels as beings who are God’s servants.

Rocha says that God sits on a literal throne, in a literal heaven, and that may be controversial.  To his credit, though, Rocha demonstrates awareness as to why such a proposition may be controversial, and he says that God, in sitting on a throne, condescends to our level of understanding.  There were areas, like here, in which Rocha was willing to get into unconventional territory, but there were also areas in which I wished that he would wrestle with difficult issues.  For example, on the basis of Matthew 22:30, he states that angels are “asexual.”  What about the sons of God who have sex with the daughters of men in Genesis 6?  Rocha does not address that.

In terms of areas of disagreement, Rocha discusses angelic hierarchies, drawing from the fifth century Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite and St. Thomas Aquinas, who based their angelic hierarchies on Ephesians 1:21 and Colossians 1:16.  In the second sphere are dominions or lordships and powers or authorities, and in the third sphere are principalities or rulers.  My quibble is not so much with what Rocha says, as it is with what he does not say.  There are places in the New Testament in which the principalities and powers are depicted negatively (Ephesians 6:12; Colossians 2:15; perhaps I Corinthians 2:7-8).  Are these angels?  Renegade angels?  Are there different kinds of principalities and rulers—-good and evil?  The book would have been better had Rocha explored such questions.

Rocha is a compelling storyteller, and his tone is conversational and winsome.  I especially liked his discussions of the charismatic pastor he knows: Rocha respects this pastor, yet disagrees with him, in areas.

I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher through Cross Focused Reviews and Netgalley.  My review is honest!

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Church Write-Up: Was Melchizedek Jesus?

For church last Sunday, I watched John MacArthur’s service on the Internet, then I watched the service of the church that I normally attend.  It was supposed to rain last Sunday morning, so I stayed home.  But it turned out that it didn’t rain, and I could have walked to church after all!  Oh well.  Maybe I’ll go to church next Sunday!

In this Church Write-Up, I want to focus on something that the speaker at MacArthur’s church said.  The speaker last Sunday was not MacArthur himself, but rather the person who is usually the master-of-ceremonies at the morning service at MacArthur’s church: the person who delivers the welcome, tells visitors where they can go after the service for snacks and conversation, and introduces the tithe and offering part of the service.  Since he was giving the sermon, someone else was the master-of-ceremonies.

The speaker briefly commented on Hebrews 7:3.  In this post, I will quote that passage, discuss some of my past interaction with the passage, say how the speaker interpreted it, then comment on whether the speaker’s interpretation makes sense to me.

Hebrews 7:3 states regarding the priest Melchizedek of Genesis 14 that he was “Without father, without mother, without descent, having neither beginning of days, nor end of life; but made like unto the Son of God; abideth a priest continually” (KJV).

Melchizedek was without father or mother, lacked beginning of days and end of life, and was a priest continually.

When I was growing up in Armstrongism, the interpretation that I heard was that Melchizedek was God the Son, the being who would become Jesus Christ.  After all, Hebrews 7:3 presents Melchizedek as eternal, it seems, and Jesus Christ was eternal.  Who else could Melchizedek be?

Someone I know, who also has an Armstrongite background, was questioning this interpretation.  His conclusion was that Melchizedek was Shem, the son of Noah.  That interpretation was not new to me, for I went through Martin Luther’s lectures on Genesis back when I was in college, and Luther, too, believed that Melchizedek was Shem.  But how would that interpretation accord with Hebrews 7:3?  Shem was not eternal, right?  Shem had a father, Noah.  How could Shem be Melchizedek?

A relative of mine, appealing to E.W. Bullinger’s Companion Bible (which is popular in Armstrongite circles), said that Bullinger’s note said that Hebrews 7:3 is not suggesting that Melchizedek was immortal or eternal, but rather that Melchizedek lacked a recorded genealogy.  Melchizedek’s parents are not explicitly named in the Bible, in short.  Okay, but that raises questions in my mind: Why does the author of Hebrews make the point that Melchizedek lacked a recorded genealogy?  How does that fit into Hebrews’ larger argument?

To my shame, I admit that I never studied these questions, so they just lingered in the back of my mind.  That sermon that I watched last Sunday, however, engaged this topic.

The speaker was saying that the point of Hebrews 7:3 is that Melchizedek lacked a priestly genealogy.  Ordinarily in ancient Israel, priests were priests because they were part of a priestly line.  The priests in ancient Israel, according to P in the Torah, were descended from Aaron the Levite; in Deuteronomy, they were descended from Levi.  Melchizedek, by contrast, lacked this priestly pedigree, yet he was still a priest of God.

That made sense to me when I first heard it, for it seemed to be consistent with themes in the Epistle to the Hebrews.  The author of Hebrews argues in Hebrews 7 that Jesus was a high priest, even though Jesus descended from the non-priestly tribe of Judah rather than the priestly tribe of Levi.  How could Jesus be a high priest, when Jesus did not descend from Aaron or Levi?  According to the Epistle to the Hebrews, Jesus was a priest after the order of Melchizedek, who himself lacked an Aaronide or Levitical pedigree.

This speaker’s interpretation of Hebrews 7:3 is commonplace, as is the view that Hebrews 7:3 presents Melchizedek as an eternal being, maybe even Jesus Christ himself.  As I look at Hebrews 7:3 again, the speaker’s interpretation makes less sense to me.  The passage seems to suggest that Melchizedek lacked a beginning and an end, which arguably implies eternity.  Moreover, it says that Melchizedek continues to be a priest.  An eternal being would continue to be a priest, whereas that would not be the case for a temporal being who merely lacks a recorded genealogy.

Looking at Bullinger’s actual note on Hebrews 7:3 in the Companion Bible, I see that Bullinger goes with the “pedigree” interpretation, yet he also embraces a typological interpretation that seeks to account for Melchizedek lacking a beginning or an end and continuing to abide as a priest:

“Melchisedec is presented to us without reference to any human qualifications for office.  His genealogy is not recorded, so essential in the case of Aaron’s sons (Neh 7 64).  Ordinary priests began their service at thirty, and ended at fifty, years of age (Num 4 47).  The high priest succeeded on the day of his predecessor’s decease.  Melchisedec has no such dates recorded; he had neither beginning of days nor end of life.  We only know that he lived, and thus he is a fitting type of One Who lives continually.”

I have mentioned the pedigree interpretation of Hebrews 7:3 and the “Melchizedek is Jesus” interpretation, but Bullinger offers a third interpretation, which is also prominent: that Melchizedek was not actually Jesus but was a type of Jesus, a foreshadowing of Jesus.  According to this interpretation, Melchizedek had parents and lived a human life-span, but they are not recorded, and the fact that they are not recorded allows Melchizedek to foreshadow Jesus, a priest who actually was eternal.

There were different views of Melchizedek in Second Temple Judaism, which could have been part of the historical repertoire of the Epistle to the Hebrews.  Josephus in Antiquities 1.180 depicted Melchizedek as a human king.  11QMelch in the Dead Sea Scrolls, by contrast, appears to have a cosmic, heavenly conceptualization of Melchizedek, perhaps presenting him as an angel.  If one were to look at Hebrews’ historical context to determine whether Hebrews sees Melchizedek as merely a human or as a heavenly being, one would see that both options may have been available to the author, as part of the author’s cultural repertoire.

I have questions and doubts about all three interpretations of Hebrews 7:3.  In response to the view that Melchizedek was merely a human priest in Hebrews 7:3, I, again, note features of the verse that appear to suggest that Melchizedek was more than that: that Melchizedek lacked beginning and ending and continues to be a priest.

In response to the view that Melchizedek was the pre-incarnate Jesus Christ, I have questions.  Why does Hebrews 7:3 state that Melchizedek was like the Son of God, rather than saying that Melchizedek was the Son of God?  Moreover, I believe that, in Genesis 14 itself, Melchizedek was merely a man.  Melchizedek was the king of Salem, which sounds like Jerusalem.  A later king of Jerusalem was Adonizedek (Joshua 10:1-3).  Kings of Jerusalem, prior to King David, appear to have had the suffix “zedek” in their names.  That seems to undermine the notion that Melchizedek in Genesis 14 was some anomalous figure, or a celestial being who temporarily came to earth to visit Abraham.  Rather, he was a king of Jerusalem with “zedek” at the end of his name, like later kings of Jerusalem with “zedek” in their names.  This does not necessarily have any bearing on whether the author of Hebrews saw Melchizedek as a human king or as Christ, for the author of Hebrews may have had a different ideology from that of the author of Genesis; interpretations of biblical texts are not always consistent with the biblical texts’ original meaning.  For those who see the Bible as a consistent, divinely-inspired document, however, Genesis 14 would probably be relevant to how one should interpret Hebrews 7:3.

In response to the view that Melchizedek in Hebrews 7:3 was seen as a type of Christ, but not as Christ himself, I note that Hebrews 7:3 states that Melchizedek abides as a priest.  If Melchizedek abides as a priest but is not Christ, are there two eternal priesthoods: that of Melchizedek and that of Christ?  Perhaps I am taking Hebrews 7:3 too literally, though.

Of the three views, the third one makes the most sense to me, yet it is not entirely satisfactory.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Book Write-Up: Original Blessing, by Danielle Shroyer

Danielle Shroyer.  Original Blessing: Putting Sin In Its Rightful Place.  Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2016.  See here to purchase the book.

The “About the Author” page on Amazon says: “Danielle Shroyer is a sought-after speaker, respected pastor, and a founding member of the emerging church movement. She holds a BA from Baylor University and an MDiv from Princeton Theological Seminary, and is the author of Original Blessing: Putting Sin in its Rightful Place, Where Jesus Prayed, and The Boundary-Breaking God.”

Original Blessing: Putting Sin In Its Rightful Place challenges the Christian concept of original sin and instead defends a concept of original blessing (a term coined by Matthew Fox, as Shroyer acknowledges).  Original sin states that the guilt of the sin of Adam and Eve was passed on to their descendants, along with a sinful human nature, a propensity to sin.  By “original blessing,” Shroyer seems to mean God’s unconditional love for and faithfulness towards human beings.

Here are some thoughts:

A.  Shroyer does not argue that human beings are morally flawless.  She likens human beings to Adam and Eve in the Garden: they were not weighed down by a sinful human nature, but they were still capable of making mistakes.  She also draws from the rabbinic contrast between the good and evil inclinations: the evil inclination is not “evil,” per se, but is egoistic and must be controlled.  Genesis 4:7, in which God tells Cain that he must master sin, features in her discussion.

B.  Shroyer’s treatment of Genesis 3 was well-informed, as she explored scholarly interpretations of the chapter, including the identity of the serpent.  Her conclusion was rather nebulous.  On the one hand, she seems to maintain that Adam and Eve were wrong to disobey God.  On the other hand, she holds that their disobedience was an essential aspect of their maturation.  Shroyer also makes the interesting observation that the Garden of Eden did not go away after Adam and Eve’s act of disobedience.  She disagrees with the narrative that Adam and Eve ruined everything through their sin.  Shroyer also observes God’s faithfulness to Adam and Eve after their sin, which coincides with her view of original blessing.

C.  Shroyer contends that Cain should have rested in God’s love for him rather than becoming upset after God had rejected his sacrifice.  She states that God rejected Cain’s sacrifice, not Cain himself.  She does not interact with Genesis 4:5’s statement that God was not pleased with both Cain and Cain’s sacrifice, however.  Yet, her observation that God was faithful to Cain after Cain’s act of murder is a good argument for original blessing.

D.  The book wrestled with some Scriptures that have been associated with original sin but not others.  She does attempt to address Romans 5:12-21, which has been prominent in discussions of original sin.  She did not, however, address Paul’s depiction of the flesh as corrupt and sinful, which is a glaring challenge to her arguments against original sin.

E.  The description of the book on Amazon states: “In this book, Danielle Shroyer takes readers through an overview of the historical development of the doctrine, pointing out important missteps and overcalculations, and providing alternative ways to approach often-used Scriptures.”  In my opinion, the book was rather thin in describing the historical development of the doctrine.  History did feature in her discussion, on such topics as the dearth of the concept of original sin in early Christian writings, the negative attitude towards sexuality within ancient Christianity that resulted from the doctrine of original sin, the contrast between Eastern Christianity and Western Christianity on the problem Jesus came to solve (death or sin, respectively), and the eighteenth century debate about infant damnation between Jonathan Edwards and Jeremy Taylor.  But, as far as I can recall, she did not really discuss how and why the doctrine of original sin developed.

F.  Shroyer addresses a question that a priest asked her: If original sin is untrue, then why did Jesus come?  She does well to argue that there are valuable things that Jesus said and did, apart from addressing the Fall.  I would add that there are few explicit references to the Fall throughout the Bible, which is odd, considering the emphasis on it within Christianity.  While one could conceivably tie everything that Jesus said and did to the Fall and its effects (e.g., Jesus healed people, which ameliorates disease, a consequence of the Fall), perhaps we should not be reductionistic, since the biblical authors may not have emphasized the Fall to the extent that later Christians did.

G.  Shroyer also did well to discuss the effects of sin-focused conceptions of the Gospel.  She said that many Christians hear the Gospel and say “whew!” because they have been delivered from God’s wrath, rather than “wow!” at what God has done.  One can respond that Christians can do both: that they can rejoice that God has delivered them from wrath and hell while also being awed by God’s acts of new creation.  They would have a point.  At the same time, speaking for myself personally, sin-focused Gospels often draw from me the “whew!” reaction.

H.  While Shroyer rejects original sin, she still seems to believe that Jesus came to solve some problem, some brokenness.  She also states that humans can resist sin with God’s help.  In a few places, however, she appears to suggest that Jesus came to improve what is already within humans, to add to the goodness or the potential that is already in God’s creation.

I.  This book is not exactly a rigorous Scriptural refutation of original sin.  It is more informal and anecdotal, though Shroyer does seem to know what she is talking about when she draws from church history.  While this book was not entirely what I expected, I am still giving it five stars because it did have good insights.  For example, Shroyer says that, instead of telling people that they are gifted at something, we should commend them for doing the right thing: for studying, for working to improve, etc.  That makes sense.  The book’s winsome quality also enhanced it and made what Shroyer said relatable.

I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher through Edelweiss.  My review is honest!

Monday, February 20, 2017

Book Write-Up: Treasures in Dark Places, by Leanna Cinquanta

Leanna Cinquanta.  Treasures in Dark Places: One Woman, A Supernatural Mission and a Mission to the Toughest Part of India.  Minneapolis: Chosen Books, 2017.  See here to purchase the book.

Treasures in Dark Places is Leanna Cinquanta’s story of how she came to faith and became a missionary to India.  Cinquanta also tells about the Indian people who became involved in the mission, and she closes the book with two different stories: one Indian girl receives an education, and another Indian girl is tricked into becoming a sex slave.  This closing part of the book is a call to action.

The writing style of the book was rather dramatic and flamboyant, but sometimes that enhanced the book.  For example, Cinquanta tells the story of how she came close to becoming a Christian when she was trapped in snow while skiing, but, once she returned safely back to the ski lodge, she forgot all about her vulnerability and need for God.  She likened that to Pharaoh in the Book of Exodus, who submitted to God during the plagues but hardened his heart once the plagues had passed!

Her description of the Holy Spirit’s presence inside of her after she became a Christian was a compelling and vivid picture.  While her story about how she became a missionary was initially grandiose, as if God called her to convert India to Christianity single-handedly, that was counter-balanced throughout the course of the book.  Cinquanta did not always get what she wanted, for God placed her in an office job, while the work on the front-lines was to be done by Indian Christians themselves.  Cinquanta also tells the stories of how God chose certain people over others for specific tasks, and how their specific backgrounds equipped them.  In the course of the book, Cinquanta became one character among others, not the main star.  The main star was God.

The book is not exactly comprehensive in describing Indian culture and religion, but there are occasions in which Cinquanta provides glimpses into Indian religion: the disappointment of some Indians with Hinduism, and Hindu beliefs on heaven and hell.  Occasionally, reincarnation was a part of her picture of Hinduism.  Cinquanta’s view of Hinduism in this book was not particularly charitable, for she depicted Hindu gods as demons.  I tend to prefer Bradley Malkovsky’s more charitable Christian view of Hinduism in his excellent 2013 book, God’s Other Children: Personal Encounters with Faith, Love, and Holiness in Sacred India.  Still, Cinquanta speaks from her own experiences, and her stories provide a window into why some Indians forsake Hinduism for Christianity, as well as the uphill struggles they endure as a consequence.

I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher through Cross Focused Reviews and Netgalley.  My review is honest!

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