Wednesday, August 4, 2021

Books Write-Up: Obadiah, Jonah and Micah; Letters for the Church; the Paradox of Sonship

I will be catching up on book reviews in this post. IVP Academic sent me complimentary copies of these books. My reviews are honest!

A. Daniel C. Timmer. Obadiah, Jonah and Micah. IVP Academic, 2021. Go here to purchase the book.

Daniel C. Timmer teaches biblical studies at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary and also in Montreal, Quebec at the Faculte de theologie evangelique. As the title indicates, this book is a commentary on the biblical books of Obadiah, Jonah, and Micah.

Some items:

—-The sections on Jonah and Micah are more interesting than the one on Obadiah. The Obadiah section still engages some intriguing scholarly views, such as one that the ancient Judahites hated the Edomites because the Judahites feared that the Edomites had replaced them as God’s people. Not surprisingly, Timmer rejects this view, but what is amazing is the ideas that scholars put out there in an attempt to be fresh and original.

—-The Jonah section is noteworthy because it treats the Book of Jonah as historically accurate and as pre-exilic. That contrasts with the picture I long got about the book in my reading of scholarship: that it is some post-exilic fable promoting inclusivism towards Gentiles when there was controversy about inclusivism and exclusivism within the post-exilic Jewish community. Timmer’s commitment to Jonah’s historicity is manifest in three areas. First, Timmer contends that the language of Jonah reflects pre-exilic Hebrew and defends the idea that the Hebrew is authentically archaic as opposed to being post-exilic archaizing. Second, Timmer notes the deterioration of the Assyrian empire in the ninth century, which would have made the Ninevites receptive to Jonah’s prophecy of doom. Third, Timmer harmonizes the text of Jonah with history. Jonah 3:6-9 mentions a king of Nineveh and, because Nineveh was not Assyria’s capital city prior to 705, Timmer concludes that this “king” is not a king of all Assyria but rather a magnate over one of the fragments of the Assyrian empire.

—-Timmer offers intriguing possibilities and engages scholarly speculation. He speculates that Jonah himself may have commissioned the ship that took him to Tarshish, meaning Jonah was more than a mere passenger. And, contrary to those who maintain that Jonah’s message to the Ninevites is solely one of doom, Timmer notes possible indications that Jonah preached repentance to the Ninevites.

—-In the section on Micah, Timmer attributes the false prophecies of the false prophets to demons. I am hesitant to accept Timmer’s conclusion here because I think that it projects later demonology onto a pre-exilic book. Plus, it brings to mind annoying tendencies of my religious background, which attributed anything supernatural outside of a rigid religious construct to demons. Still, Timmer’s conclusion does raise profound questions. First, to what did the Hebrew Bible attribute false prophecy? Were the false prophets lying? Did they receive their visions from a supernatural source other than God? There are places in the Hebrew Bible that appear to engage this question. Jeremiah 23:16 asserts that false prophets are speaking their own ideas, not the words of God; here, they are deluded or lying. I Kings 22:21-23, however, depicts God himself sending a lying spirit to the mouths of the false prophets. On a similar note, Deuteronomy 13:1-3 asserts that a false prophet may be part of God’s testing of the Israelites’ faithfulness, implying, perhaps, that God sent the false prophet to test the Israelites. Second, while I doubt that pre-exilic ancient Israelites conceived of an arch-enemy of God, Satan, having a retinue of demons seeking to undermine God’s plan, that does not mean that they lacked a demonology altogether, and they may have seen at least some demons as more than pesky spirits, which is how some scholars tend to portray the ancient conception of demons. Deuteronomy 32:17 states that the false gods to whom Israelites sacrificed were demons (shedim); these were more than pesky spirits but were able to impersonate deity.

—-Since I became aware of the historical-critical method, I have wondered how to approach the eschatological passages of the Old Testament prophets. Micah forecasts the dramatic, supernatural restoration of Israel and the Davidic king in reference to the nations of his time, such as Assyria. Micah 5, which Matthew 2:6 applies to Jesus’s birth in Bethlehem, depicts seven princes defeating Assyria, a power in Micah’s own time that had largely vanished from the scene by the time of Jesus. Is Micah 5 Micah’s view about what would happen in his own day, within his own geo-political context, as opposed to being a prophecy about the distant future? Timmer engages this question, treating the references to Assyria in Micah 5 as paradigmatic and typological for Israel’s foes in general. Timmer states on page 181 that “this typological understanding of these two empires fits well with Micah’s use of Nimrod for Babylon (cf. Gen. 10:8-10).” As Nimrod in the Book of Genesis could foreshadow later Babylon, so could Assyria be a type for Israel’s eschatological enemies.

—-Timmer states on page 228: “‘Zion’ will no longer be limited in terms of space and geography, so will be able to welcome many nations (4:1-4) from across the globe (7:11-12). Her newly arrived citizens, particularly those of non-Israelite ethnicity, will radically expand her population (it is important that Daughter Zion identifies herself as Abraham’s offspring, rather than extending that title to all ethnic Israelites).” Timmer essentially sees continuity between Micah’s eschatology and the New Testament’s inclusion of Gentiles into the people of God. How convincing this is, is a worthwhile question. Timmer, of course, has to deal with Micah 4:5’s declaration that the nations may walk in the name of their own gods, whereas Israel will walk in the name of the LORD. Does this envision a time of eschatological tolerance and pluralism, when Gentiles will worship their own gods rather than becoming part of the people of Israel and worshiping the LORD alone? Timmer’s solution appears to be that Israel recognizes she had better be faithful because that would be what would attract the nations to the God of Israel; otherwise, the nations will continue to worship their own gods. There is also the focus on ethnic Israel throughout Micah and all of the Old Testament prophets, for that matter, which makes me question whether Micah is downplaying ethnic Israel in favor of a spiritual community that includes Gentiles. Moreover, one may wonder if the nations in the “inclusivist” passages of the Old Testament prophets are necessarily joining the people of God or rather are becoming subordinate to the Israelites, meaning that their honor for God is an aspect of their political subordination to Israel. If so, such prophecies may concern Israel’s political prestige in the eschaton more than the nations becoming closer to God.

B. Darian R. Lockett. Letters for the Church: Reading James, 1-2 Peter, 1-3 John, and Jude as Canon. IVP Academic, 2021. Go here to purchase the book.

Darian R. Lockett (Ph.D., St. Andrews) teaches New Testament at Biola University. This book goes through the Catholic epistles—-James, 1-2 Peter, 1-3 John, and Jude—-while noting themes that unite them.

A few items:

—-Lockett largely accepts the traditional views of authorship, as he engages scholarly skepticism about said authorship. Some of his solutions are predictable, in light of conservative scholarship: attribute stylistic features to a secretary, patristic support, etc. In his discussion of II Peter, though, he refers to elements of II Peter that appear to regard the letter as a sequel to a previous letter, meaning one person may have written I-II Peter.

—-Where Lockett may stray, somewhat, from conservatism is in his treatment of Jude’s quotation of I Enoch. He surveys conservative scholarly denials that Jude regards I Enoch as divinely-authoritative and simply does not find them convincing. If Jude does regard I Enoch as divinely-authoritative, then that has profound implications, including Christians having another book in their canon.

—-Love is a theme that recurs in the book. This troubles me, as a shy introvert with grudges and social anxiety who cannot bring himself to love people and questions whether Christians manifest the unconditional love they judge me for lacking. That rant aside, Lockett, in some cases, shows how love fits into the argument of the Catholic epistles: James opposes favoritism for the rich over the poor, and James’s stance, of course, is consistent with love. In some cases, Lockett perhaps could have more effectively showed where love fits into the equation. In II Peter 2:21, for example, the author criticizes those who turned away from the sacred command, and Lockett interprets that sacred command as the command to love. Yet, Lockett also regards the context for that passage as pertinent to apostasy: leaving the faith and returning to pagan sensualism and hedonism. How does rejecting love fit into that apostasy?

—-In Jude 9, Jude refers to Michael’s dispute with Satan over the bones of Moses. The interpretation that I usually heard of that incident is that Satan wanted to make Moses’s bones an object of worship. Lockett, however, offers a different interpretation: that Satan was saying that Moses did not deserve proper burial because Moses had killed an Egyptian. Whether there is a basis for this interpretation is a good question, especially since, as Lockett states, the story “most likely comes from the lost ending of the Testament of Moses” (199).

—-Lockett is especially effective in painting the perspective against which II Peter contends, one that draws together different elements of the book. Why does II Peter focus on the inspiration of Scripture and divine judgment? Because people were saying that the prophets were merely conveying their own ideas, not divine revelation, and they were denying that divine judgment was something to fear, since things have continued the same way for millennia.

C. R.B. Jamieson. The Paradox of Sonship: Christology in the Epistle to the Hebrews. IVP Academic, 2021. Go here to purchase the book.

R.B. Jamieson (Ph.D., University of Cambridge) is associate pastor of Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, D.C.

When the Epistle to the Hebrews refers to Jesus as God’s “son,” what does it mean? On the one hand, Hebrews appears to manifest a high Christology: Jesus is Son of God in that Jesus is God. Through the Son, God made the worlds (Hebrews 1:2). The Son’s word sustains all things, and the Son is the brightness of God’s glory and the image of God’s person (Hebrews 1:3). The Son is called God in Hebrews 1:8, and the Son is superior to Moses because Moses was a servant in the house, whereas the Son built the house, and the ultimate builder is God (Hebrews 3:1-6). The Son also, like God, lacks beginning of days and end of life (Hebrews 7:3).

On the other hand, Hebrews seems rather adoptionistic, in some places, meaning that the man Jesus became God’s Son rather than always possessing that status by virtue of inherent divinity. Hebrews 1:5 appears to suggest that God begot Jesus as Son on a specific day, which differs from God the Son being eternally begotten. Hebrews 2:10 affirms that Jesus was made perfect through sufferings. Does that imply that he was not perfect before? Is not God eternally perfect?

Jamieson’s solution is that there are two types of Sonship in Hebrews. First, Jesus has always been God’s Son in the sense that he himself is divine: he is, and always has been, God. Here, Jamieson rejects the conventional scholarly tendency to divorce the New Testament from Nicaea and Chalcedon, as if the latter cannot be used to understand the former. The latter, for Jamieson, is what makes sense of the former. To quote Jamieson on page 146, “Hebrews is not merely a significant step along the way to Nicaea but is, in a crucial sense, already there.”

But, second, being the Son of God also means being the Messiah, God’s chosen ruler. The Davidic king was considered the son of God (II Samuel 7:14), ruling on the throne of God (I Chronicles 29:23). The king became God’s son at his coronation (Psalm 2). Jesus, likewise, became God’s Son, the ruler of the cosmos, at his resurrection. Jesus attained a rulership and Messianic status that he lacked before. What, then, does Hebrews 2:10 mean when it says that the Son became perfect? Jamieson interprets that to mean that the Son, through suffering, qualified to become the high priest of humanity. By becoming human and suffering as a human, Jesus atoned for sin and became better able to understand Christians who struggle with sin (Hebrews 2:17-18; 4:15).

Some items:

—-Jamieson elucidates how Melchizedek fits into Hebrews’s argument. When Hebrews 7:3 affirms that Melchizedek lacked beginning of days and end of life, what does it mean? Was Melchizedek eternal? Was Melchizedek Jesus? Jamieson, of course, replies that Hebrews 7:3 is noting that Melchizedek lacks a genealogy: his mother and father are unmentioned in the Old Testament. How, though, does that fit into Hebrews’s argument? Jamieson’s response is that, according to Hebrews, Melchizedek is a type of Christ. What is true of Melchizedek merely on paper is true of Christ in reality.

—-Ordinarily, Jamieson is judicious and detailed in his argumentation. One aspect of his interpretation of Romans 1:3, however, is a stretch. Jamieson, echoing other scholars, argues that Jesus was Messiah due to his descent from Mary, who was a descendant of David. That was how Jesus was of the seed of David according to the flesh. Here, he is trying to reconcile Romans 1:3 with the virgin birth. If Jesus were not the seed of David through Joseph, since Joseph was not his biological father, then Jesus had to be the seed of David through Mary. But questions need to be addressed. Can Messianic status pass through the mother rather than the father? If Luke 3’s genealogy is indeed Jesus’s genealogy through Mary, does that not disqualify him from being the Davidic king, since the Davidic dynasty was through David’s son Solomon (II Samuel 7:14), not Nathan, the son of David mentioned in Luke 3? And is there any evidence that Mary had Davidic descent?

—-Jamieson at one point seems to deny that Hebrews envisions Christians reigning with Christ, as it focuses on Christ as king. That could be: from a historical-critical standpoint, one should focus on what the text says rather than importing what it does not say. But does not Jesus in Hebrews bring many sons to glory (Hebrews 2:10)?

—-Where I am unclear, and this may be rectified through a rereading of the book, is where Jesus’s divinity fits into Jesus’s Messiahship. On some level, Jamieson appears to go an Anselmian route: only God could atone for the sins of all of humanity. Jamieson also seems to think that, according to Hebrews, Jesus’s divinity is part of his qualification to rule, and that it even elevates the concept of Messiahship beyond that of a mere Davidic king.

Sunday, July 11, 2021

Common Dreams: Biden Applauded for Executive Order Targeting ‘Insidious’ Anti-Worker Practices

“‘The measures encouraged by this EO represent a wish list progressives and other pro-competition advocates have been promoting for years, and in some cases decades,’ David Segal, director of the Demand Progress Education Fund, said in a statement.

“‘From a ban on non-compete agreements that suppress wages and keep employees tied to jobs they would rather leave, to pushing for importation of cheaper prescription drugs from Canada—and from helping people switch between banks to addressing anti-competitive behavior in online marketplaces, these initiatives would improve the wellbeing of workers, small and mid-sized businesses, and consumers across essentially all major sectors of the American economy,’ Segal added.”

Wednesday, June 30, 2021

Book Write-Up: The Path of Faith, by Brandon D. Crowe

Brandon D. Crowe. The Path of Faith: A Biblical Theology of Covenant and Law. IVP Academic, 2021. Go here to purchase the book.

Brandon D. Crowe has a Ph.D. from Edinburgh and teaches New Testament at Westminster Theological Seminary. This book, The Path of Faith, is part of IVP’s Essential Studies in Biblical Theology series. This particular book traces the concept of God’s law and the importance of obeying it through the Old and New Testaments.

My post here will not be a comprehensive summary and analysis of the book but rather will identify points that stood out to me and intersected with what I have been thinking about lately.

A. Crowe talks about the Reformed concept of the “covenant of works.” Adam and Eve were under a “covenant of works” in the Garden of Eden: obey God and they will live, disobey God and they will die. Well, they disobeyed God and, under the “covenant of works,” they deserved death. That is why God inaugurated another covenant, one of grace, which would allow Adam and Eve to live and have a relationship with God, even though they had sinned. When I first looked up this concept, it somewhat baffled me, as it appeared to limit a significant concept, a covenant of works, to Adam and Eve, and that covenant did not even last that long, at that. But Crowe highlights that the “covenant of works” has continued relevance. Those who are saved are under the covenant of grace, whereas the unsaved are under the covenant of works: as with Adam and Eve, God judges the unsaved according to their obedience and, of course, they fail, which is why they need a savior.

B. But Crowe says more about the covenant of works, as he addresses Christian critiques of the concept. Crowe rejects the idea that, under the “covenant of works,” Adam and Eve needed to earn eternal life in the Garden. Rather, they, too, were the recipients of God’s freely imparted gifts in the Garden. In my daily devotions, I read Scripture and ask what the passage I am reading says about God’s love, grace, sovereignty, presence, and hope (by which I mean eschatology and New Testament application of Old Testament passages). Often, it is difficult to identify how a passage relates to God’s grace because it appears to reflect God’s law: God judges a sinner for sin or God stresses the importance of obedience. But a thought occurred to me: God’s grace is still present even in passages about law. God established the covenant with people by grace: God took the initiative, and they did not qualify for it through any merit on their part. They may have had to obey rules under the covenant, and consistent violation of those rules could bring peril, but their relationship with God existed because God chose to establish it, before they had done anything good or bad. Moreover, God’s law was itself a gift of grace, something that God freely gave people and that they did not earn. Crowe makes similar points in his book. Where this idea gets thorny is that Paul in Romans and Galatians seems to distinguish grace from law.

C. Crowe engages the question of what exactly makes the new covenant new. That is a question that I have long had. Christians make a big deal about how Jesus gave people access to God and brought them divine forgiveness, but people, particularly Israelites, had that under the Old Covenant, too. I can think of ways that the New Covenant is an advancement on the Old Covenant. Under the Old Covenant, God related primarily to Israel; under the New Covenant, God relates to Gentiles as well, through Christ and the church. In the Old Testament, God’s Spirit empowered people for great works in specific circumstances: kings, judges, prophets. In the New Testament, that is the case, too, as occurs in Acts and in the spiritual gifts given to believers, but the Spirit also plays a role in the spiritual regeneration and practical sanctification of Christians. The New Covenant also lacks many rituals of the Old Covenant, as the New Covenant is a more spiritual covenant. Moreover, while people under the Old Covenant had a relationship with God, in which they could pray to God and receive divine forgiveness, Jesus eventually had to come and do his work for those things to exist in both the Old Covenant (in that case, retroactively) and the New Covenant. The access that people had to God under the Old Covenant, in short, was due to Jesus. Those are the results of my grappling with the question, which nevertheless lingers. How does Crowe address the question of what the New Covenant brought that was new? Essentially, he says that the New Covenant brings people a greater level of access to God and experience of the Holy Spirit than existed under the Old Covenant. I will need a separate item to address the topic of access to God. On the topic of the Holy Spirit, what is interesting is that Crowe believes that spiritual regeneration existed under the Old Covenant. Many Old Testament Israelites were unregenerate, according to him, but some were regenerate.

D. Before I get into the topic of access to God, I want to say that Crowe’s chapter on Hebrews is very good. It is largely in that chapter that Crowe addresses the question of what makes the New Covenant new. Crowe focuses on the text of Hebrews to identify where the author believed the Gospel was present under the Old Covenant, and what the New Covenant brought that was new. Crowe in that chapter also engages Hebrews interaction (8:10; 10:16) with Jeremiah 31:33, where God promises a new covenant in which God will write God’s laws on the hearts and minds of the Israelites. Crowe quotes someone who looks at Hebrews itself and concludes that this does not mean the author expected Christians to observe the entire Torah literally. Some laws, primarily moral ones, are still binding, whereas ritual ones centered on the sanctuary are null and void, as far as God is concerned.

E. Now to the topic of access to God. My struggle with this topic is twofold. First, what did the Tabernacle in the Old Testament bring that the Israelites did not already have? Israelites could already pray to God and receive answers to prayer, right? Abraham’s servant in Genesis 24 did so. What access to God, therefore, did the Tabernacle provide that the Israelites lacked? Second, what access to God did the new covenant bring that was lacking under the Old Covenant? Evangelicals sing the song “Take me into the Holy of Holies, take me in by the blood of the Lamb,” assuming that Christians have the kind of access to God that Old Testament priests had. Do Christians have that kind of access, or is their access—-the right to pray to God and receive answers to prayer—-something that all Israelites, not only priests, had under the Old Covenant? Something that the Tabernacle brought, of course, was God’s actual presence in the midst of the Israelite community, and that is why the ritual system and the restrictions were set up: to protect the Israelites from a pure and holy God, and to encourage the pure and holy God to continue to live in the midst of the Israelites and bring them physical blessings (i.e., agricultural abundance) rather than departing from them in response to their moral or ritual defilement. Does a similar concept exist under the New Covenant? Well, one can make a case that God is actually and physically present with people under the New Covenant: I Corinthians 6:19 affirms that the Christian’s body is the temple of the Holy Spirit, and more than one passage treats the church itself as a temple of God (e.g., I Corinthians 3:16-17; II Corinthians 6:16; Ephesians 2:19-22; I Peter 2:5). One can even argue that, in light of God’s presence with believers individually and communally, believers should seek purity, as the Old Testament Israelites were to purify themselves so that God’s presence would stay with them and would not destroy them. Paul in II Corinthians 7:1 exhorts Christians to purify themselves in body and spirit, and Paul also speaks of the inappropriateness of joining Christ’s body with a prostitute (I Corinthians 6:15). Death can even result from failure to treat God’s presence with respect, for Paul in I Corinthians 11 speaks about people who ate the Lord’s supper in an unworthy manner and became sick, died, and perhaps even brought on themselves damnation. I guess my problem here is this: it does not feel as if the situation today is similar to the Israelites’ experience of God’s presence in the Old Testament. God’s presence does not necessarily bring material blessings under the New Covenant, as it did under the Old, but, what is more, carnal Christians are not dead at higher rates due to their spiritual and moral impurity. Does Christ’s blood protect them from that?

F. Crowe highlights how God under the Torah was establishing a holy and righteous order, in which God was worshiped and honored and people respected their neighbors enough to avoid harming them and to give to them in time of need. A question occurred to me recently: was it really that difficult for Israelites to obey the Torah? Was God seriously asking that much of them? Many Christians would answer “Yes, it was difficult, even impossible, and that is why God sent Jesus to be the savior.” But how difficult was it for Israelites simply to participate in the righteous system that God established: to bring their sacrifices when they were supposed to bring them, to leave the corners of their field for the poor, to refrain from retaliatory vengeance? If God was requiring utter spiritual and moral perfection from them, that would be a different story, but what God required of them under the Torah seemed manageable and doable. Yet, the Israelites did not do it, and here Christians maintain that this was because their human nature was sinful.

G. Crowe in one place emphasizes the importance of finishing strongly. He contrasts David and Solomon, who started well but ended poorly, with Paul’s statements about running the race and persevering until the end (I Corinthians 9:23-25; Philippians 3:12-4:1). Two things come to mind. First, there is the Reformed concept of the perseverance of the saints: true saints will persevere in the faith until the very end. Yet, we have Solomon, who may not have. John MacArthur’s response to that is that Solomon may very well have persevered, however, for Ecclesiastes was probably written near the end of Solomon’s life, as Solomon reflected on the futility of his earlier years and recognized the importance of revering God. On a related note, some Christians present spiritual growth as inevitable for the true believer. Is it, though, if spiritual giants like David and Solomon regressed? Second, it is easy for Christians to lose the simplicity of their faith as they are battered by life, with its suffering, temptations, and betrayals. They can become jaded and their faith and love for God and others may weaken.

H. Crowe states on page 162 that “The cubic dimensions of the new Jerusalem (Rev 21:16) recall the dimensions of the holy of holies and Ezekiel’s temple (Ezek 40-48): the whole city is a temple where God will dwell with his people.” This interested me because I have been curious as to how the New Testament engages Old Testament eschatological expectations, which largely focus on Israel and assume Old Covenant institutions (i.e., temple, sacrifices, priesthood). According to Crowe, the New Testament embraces some of those expectations, while modifying them.

This book does not answer every question I have to my satisfaction, but it was refreshing to read someone at least asking those questions and trying to engage them.

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

Sunday, June 27, 2021

Glenn Greenwald: Questions About the FBI’s Role in 1/6 Are Mocked Because the FBI Shapes Liberal Corporate Media

Glenn Greenwald’s take on Tucker’s claim that FBI infiltrators instigated the January 6 capitol invasion. Two passages in particular stood out to me.

“This reaction is particularly confounding given how often the FBI did exactly this during the first War on Terror, and how commonplace discussions of this tactic were in mainstream liberal circles. Over the last decade, I reported on countless cases for The Guardian and The Intercept where the FBI targeted some young American Muslims they viewed as easily manipulated — due to financial distress, emotional problems, or both — and then deployed informants and undercover agents to dupe them into agreeing to join terrorist plots that had been created, designed and funded by the FBI itself, only to then congratulate themselves for breaking up the plot which they themselves initiated. As I asked in one headline about a particularly egregious entrapment case: ‘Why Does the FBI Have to Manufacture its Own Plots if Terrorism and ISIS Are Such Grave Threats?'”

“If the FBI had advanced knowledge of what was being plotted yet did nothing to stop the attack, it raises numerous possibilities about why that is. It could be that they just had yet another “intelligence failure” of the kind that they claimed caused them to miss the 9/11 attack and therefore need massive new surveillance authorities, budget increases, and new Patriot-Act-type laws to fix it. It could be that they allowed the riot to happen because they did not take it seriously enough or because some of them supported the cause behind it, or because they realized that there would be benefits to the security state if it happened. Or it could be that they were using those operatives under their control to plot with, direct, and drive the attack — as they have done so many times in the past — and allowed it to happen out of either negligence or intent.”

Wednesday, June 23, 2021

Books Write-Up: Worshiping with the Reformers; Understanding Gender Dysphoria

Here are some new book reviews. I received complimentary copies of these books from the publisher. My reviews are honest.

A. Karin Maag. Worshiping with the Reformers. IVP Academic, 2021. Go here to purchase the book.

Karin Maag has a Ph.D. from the University of St. Andrews and teaches Calvin Studies at Calvin University. This book is one, among other, companions to IVP’s excellent Reformation Commentary on Scripture series. As the title indicates, the book discusses and describes how the Protestant Reformers, including Anglicans and the Puritans, worshiped in church assembly. Among the topics addressed are preaching, prayer, baptism, communion, the visual arts and music, and worship outside of the church (i.e., pilgrimages, family devotion).

Many of its details are not salient in my mind right now, but here are some prominent things that I got out of this book:

—-Church attendance was mandatory throughout Europe. The rationale was that God would bless the region if people there attended church and possibly curse it if they did not. An Old Testamenty concept, for sure. Church affiliation was by region, so you could see, say, a Catholic attending a Protestant service, performing his Catholic rituals during them. The Reformers considered this to be a problem.

—-There were different views among the Reformers about whether Jesus Christ was physically present in the communion elements. Many already know this, but Maag’s description of a prominent Calvinist view stood out to me. Calvinists largely rejected the “real presence,” on the one hand, and treating communion primarily as a memorial, on the other. For Calvinists, the Holy Spirit was present at communion, so it was a spiritual experience, not a mere memorial of the past.

—-People wanted to be buried underneath the church. A question that occurs in my mind is whether the Reformers sought to reconcile this practice with the Levitical desire to strictly separate the holy from death. Reading this book in conjunction with the P-parts of the Torah generates those types of questions.

—-Protestant sermons could last an hour-and-a-half.

The book has an engaging prose and draws on primary sources.

B. Mark A. Yarhouse. Understanding Gender Dysphoria: Navigating Transgender Issues in a Changing Culture. IVP Academic, 2015. Go here to purchase the book.

Mark A. Yarhouse has a PsyD from Wheaton and teaches psychology and mental health practice at Regent University in Virginia Beach, Virginia. Gender Dysphoria is a clinical term for people who feel alienated from their biological gender and identify more with the opposite gender, or who feel alienated from the gender spectrum, period.

Some thoughts and observations:

—-Yarhouse does not believe that transgender people choose to have the feelings that they have. He goes into various scientific attempts to root Gender Dysphoria in biology. Yarhouse promotes a compassionate approach on the part of the church and believes that, unfortunately, conservative churches have fallen dramatically short of this.

—-According to Yarhouse, there is diversity among people with Gender Dysphoria. Some may identify with the opposite gender, in areas, yet choose not to undergo surgery in an attempt to change their gender. Others have issues with the idea of gender distinctions, gravitating towards gender fluidity.

—-Another topic that Yarhouse engages is how people categorize Gender Dysphoria. He relates a case study about a transgender person whose sister sees the Gender Dysphoria as a disability deserving compassion, whereas the transgender person embraces a “diversity” and “identity” model that treats the Gender Dysphoria as part of the rich diversity of life.

—-Reading and listening to right-wing media (e.g., David Limbaugh, Ben Shapiro, etc.), one gets the impression that psychological and educational professionals rush to change a child’s gender at even a hint of gender confusion. They tell anecdotes and maybe this happens—-I do not know. Yarhouse denies, however, that “we”—-by which he probably means psychological professionals—-rush to do so. (UPDATE: This book was released in 2015, so the situation may have changed since then.) In terms of dealing with Gender Dysphoria, as far as Yarhouse is concerned, there is a spectrum between surgically changing one’s gender, on the one hand, and leaving the person with Gender Dysphoria to suffer in silence, on the other.

—-Some conservatives, or professionals conservatives interview, point out health risks that come from changing one’s gender. Yarhouse weighs in on this in an endnote, saying that taking the medication poses little risk but provides space and time for people to make a decision.

—-Yarhouse attempts to relate to the Bible with subtlety and nuance. He is hesitant, for example, to relate the “effeminate” in I Corinthians 6:9 to transgender people. At the same time, he also appears hesitant to render the Bible irrelevant to contemporary Gender Dysphoria. In discussing the Torah’s prohibition on cross-dressing, he acknowledges that the author may be criticizing pagan practices, yet says that the author may also find cross-dressing to be an insult to God’s created order.

—-Something that I wondered about in reading this book, and I do not know if I got this from Yarhouse or it was swimming in my mind in response to what Yarhouse was saying: there is talk about giving estrogen to biological boys who want to be girls, and testosterone to biological girls who want to be boys. Could not one use a similar approach to treating the Gender Dysphoria: give the testosterone to the boy who wants to be a girl, for example, and that may enhance his masculinity? On a side note, Yarouse, overall, appears optimistic that Gender Dysphoria can be treated.

—-In terms of where Yarhouse lands, he wants churches to welcome people with Gender Dysphoria while still upholding what he considers to be biblical standards on gender, and he distinguishes biblical standards from cultural standards. He is not overly specific about what this would look like. Presumably, the effectiveness of such a model would depend on how receptive the person with Gender Dysphoria is to conservative Christianity: does the person with Gender Dysphoria see it as a disability to be rejected or as an aspect of diversity to be embraced? If the latter is the case, then the person may not find conservative Christians’ “acceptance” (i.e., we accept you, but you must repent before you truly are part of us) to be that accepting. If the person is an adult, then that person can simply choose not to attend a conservative Christian church. If the person is a child with conservative Christian parents, or even an adult with long-standing conservative Christian connections, then the person will probably have more of a struggle.

—-In one of the anecdotes, Yarhouse refers to a conservative Christian who told a transgendered person that the person may find God in an unconventional way, and that encouraged the transgender person, who previously thought that the only option was to choose between transgenderism and God. This caught my eye. One may ask how the conservative Christian roots that view in conservative Christianity, however.

The book is informative, particularly about the scientific attempts to root Gender Dysphoria in biology. Yarhouse vacillates, somewhat, between being open and embracing a conservative Christian rejection of transgenderism.

Sunday, June 6, 2021

Book Write-Up: Postmortem Opportunity, by James Beilby

James Beilby. Postmortem Opportunity: A Biblical and Theological Assessment of Salvation After Death. IVP Academic, 2021. Go here to purchase the book.

James Beilby is professor of systematic and philosophical theology at Bethel University in St. Paul, Minnesota. He was written books and articles about Christian apologetics, epistemology, philosophy, and theology.

This book addresses the question of whether God will provide people with an opportunity to be saved after they die, particularly if in this life they failed to hear the Gospel, lacked the mental capacity to respond to the Gospel, or heard it in a distorted fashion. Those who heard the Gospel in a distorted fashion includes African-American slaves who heard a Gospel that promoted their oppression or people raised in abusive religious environments. Will God offer them a postmortem opportunity to hear the Gospel and be saved or simply damn them to hell because they failed to believe in the Gospel in this life?

Beilby affirms that, yes, God will provide people with a postmortem opportunity to be saved. He contends that God in Scripture loves all people and desires their salvation. Within the New Testament and ancient Jewish and Christian tradition is a concept of postmortem opportunity; in the case of Christianity, Jesus went to the realm of the dead between his death and resurrection and preached the Gospel, and ancient Christians sought to account for people who lived in pre-Christian times who failed to explicitly hear the Gospel.

Beilby engages questions about postmortem opportunity. If God will save people in the afterlife, why preach the Gospel in this life? After all, God will do it better than we possibly can, since we will present the Gospel in a flawed manner! And, if God offers people an opportunity to be saved in the afterlife, will not everyone be saved? If God presents them with such an opportunity, they will know that God exists and that Christianity is true and, naturally, they would rather not go to hell. Does postmortem opportunity render our decisions in this life and the warnings in Scripture irrelevant?

Beilby, in part, responds to these questions by restricting the range of postmortem opportunity, treating it as an exception to the rule: God will offer it only to people who failed to receive a sufficient chance at salvation in this life. Beilby still believes in missionary work because God commands it and it allows believers to be part of God’s work in redeeming people and saving them from the power of the devil. Beilby is still open to inclusivism: the idea that God can save people in other cultures who may lack explicit knowledge of the Gospel but recognize their need for grace or respond in faith to whatever light of divine revelation that they have. What Beilby rejects is universalism and annihilationism as defined as God killing sinners in the afterlife. For Beilby, sinners in hell exist but with their humanity destroyed.

Regarding the question of whether anyone would say “no” if God offered them a postmortem opportunity to be saved, Beilby replies that, just because people will know God is real in the afterlife, that does not automatically mean that they will reject sin and self and embrace God, especially if they have been hardened in this life from a lifetime of sinful decisions. Beilby rejects the idea that beholding the “beatific vision” of God will result in the salvation of those offered a postmortem opportunity. Beholding God did not help Satan when he rebelled in heaven, plus Beilby disputes that what people see of God at the judgment is the full “beatific vision.”

Reading this book brought to my mind discussions I have had with people about this topic, from those in favor and those opposed. There are people in my family who take a belief in postmortem opportunity in almost universalist directions, asserting that no one can be lost in this life because they lack a genuine opportunity to be saved here and now. One argument they make is that God in the New Testament attested to the truth of the Gospel with miracles, but God does not do so today, so Christianity looks merely like one philosophy among many. Why would God damn them on the basis of that? The response I hear to that from restrictivist Christians, of course, is “Why, then, does this life matter? Why preach the Gospel to others? Where is the sense of urgency to accept the Gospel or to live it out?” Then I recall a conversation I had with a Calvinist about the topic. For him, the issue of “those who never heard” is a moot point, since, if God chose people not to be saved, what does it matter if they heard or not? This is the conclusion at which Beilby essentially arrives when he discusses whether postmortem opportunity is more compatible with monergism or synergism.

This book is a careful and judicious examination of the topic of postmortem opportunity. It is informative when it comes to ancient Christian conceptions of this, as Beilby discusses voices in favor and against. Beilby’s discussion of the beatific vision and eternal torment is enlightening as well. Regarding eternal torment, Beilby questions that God would torment people in hell, seeing the eternal torment as flowing from people’s postmortem sin and rebellion against God. As Beilby astutely asks, even if God were justified to torment sinners, why would God choose to do so?

The book falls short, in my opinion, in its treatment of Romans 1:18-20, where Paul states that God wrath is on the Gentiles because they have rejected the light of God’s general revelation. Does that not imply that all people, even those who have not heard the Gospel, are guilty before God and deserving of hell because they have rejected whatever light they have been given? Perhaps a way to get around this is to say that, even if God would be just to damn them, God in God’s mercy might offer them a postmortem opportunity to be saved.

In addition, I think that a lot of emphasis has been placed in these discussions on “those who never heard.” There are plenty of people who are familiar with the teachings and doctrines of Christianity, yet they reject them, while still living rather moral lives. Why should they be damned? I can somewhat sympathize with my quasi-universalist family members who assert that God in Scripture often confirmed God’s message with a visible demonstration of its truth before holding people responsible for accepting it. At the same time, I find problematic a notion of Christianity that renders this life, or this day and age, irrelevant. One way a family member gets around this is to suggest that this life is “ground preparation”: God, in this life, can be preparing all people to learn lessons that can make them more receptive to God in the next life. That makes some sense, and yet the continual warnings in Scripture give me the impression that the decisions we make in this life, for or against God, matter in terms of the last judgment and eternity.

Beilby’s synergism and belief in libertarian free will somewhat troubles me, since I have become rather jaded and hardened over the course of my life to conservative Christianity, towards God, and towards my neighbor. I find myself saying in response to the biblical God and his commands (as I conceive them): “Even if that God is real, why would I want anything to do with him? There are a lot of assholes who are real: them being real does not make me accept them!” I still have enough faith to continue reading my Bible, but I would hope that God would soften my heart in the afterlife. Unfortunately, the way Beilby presents the matter, me in my hardened state can easily say “no” to God in the afterlife, and that would be that!

The topic of evangelism was in my mind this week. A fellow employee asked me, “Why are you so positive?” Of course, Christians are trained to see that as an opportunity to evangelize, and perhaps the employee, who knows I have degrees in religion, hoped for something substantive and spiritual. But I chose to answer honestly: “because this is a positive place to work.” Believe me, I have had the opposite, and I was not so positive in those situations!

Beilby may have added to my repertoire on these issues, and, for that, the book was worth the read.

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

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