Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Church Write-Up: Faith, Fulfilling the Law

At church last Sunday, the pastor continued his series through the Apostle’s Creed. The part that he talked about was “…who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried…”

Here are some items:

A. In the children’s part of the service, the pastor was explaining faith. He said that faith is trusting that something is so, even if we do not see it immediately. Why do many children trust their parents and grandparents? Because they know that their parents and grandparents love them, and that what their parents and grandparents have said has come true in the past. The pastor told the little girl that he had a treat for her in a bag. He pulled out scissors, then a stapler, which obviously are not treats. Then he pulled out a piece of candy and gave it to her. She had trusted that he would give her a treat. The scissors and the stapler represent the disappointing, sad, or confusing things we experience in life. The treat, presumably, represents the good things God ultimately has in store for us.

B. In the sermon, the pastor talked about a road trip that he took to Colorado. He saw a lot of beautiful scenery—-mountains and streams. But then he drove through deserts and, on the surface, those look boring or even harsh. Yet, if one looks closely enough, one can see that even the deserts are beautiful, with their texture and the different colors of sand. Similarly, we can look at the cross of Christ and wonder where the beauty is there, but it is present, for it displays God’s love.

The law, the pastor continued, is beautiful, yet we cannot keep it because it always demands something more of us. There is always one more thing to do, or one more person to help. Jesus Christ kept the law for us. And a positive result of that is that the things of this world—-being cut off in traffic, whoever is in power at the time—are only temporary.

The pastor’s depiction of the law raised a question in my mind. Actually, I have had this question before. The way he was presenting it, the law is a bottomless pit. There is always one more thing to do, one more person to help, more depth in which one can go. How, then, did Jesus fulfill it as a human being? The way the pastor presented it, no finite human being—-even with a good nature—-would be able to fulfill the law, for the law is a bottomless pit. Jesus, of course, helped everyone who came to him. But there were people he did not help.

Monday, July 29, 2019

Book Write-Up: Seasoned Speech, by James E. Beitler III

James E. Beitler III. Seasoned Speech: Rhetoric in the Life of the Church. IVP Academic, 2019. See here to purchase the book.

James E. Beitler III teaches English at Wheaton College. This book, Seasoned Speech, is about Christian rhetoric. Beitler looks at five Christian personages as case studies: C.S. Lewis, Dorothy Sayers, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Desmond Tutu, and Marilynne Robinson.

Here are some observations and thoughts about the book:

A. Beitler engages the question of whether the Bible permits Christians to use rhetoric. Did not Jesus instruct his disciples not to worry about what they would say before authorities, for the Spirit would speak through them (Matthew 10:17-20)? Did not Paul deny that he spoke to the Corinthians with eloquence and human wisdom (I Corinthians 2:1-5)? Beitler gives an answer to this question in a paragraph, so quickly that I almost missed it. His answer made some sense, though.

B. A significant component of the book is very abstract. It uses such technical rhetorical terms as ethos and heteroglossia. Beitler discusses the five personages in light of the academic study of rhetoric. That was difficult for me to read. That is not to suggest that Beitler should not have done that. It does influence my own response to the book, though. Perhaps Beitler could have integrated the academic aspects more smoothly into the anecdotal element to bring the academic aspects more down to earth.

C. The chapter on Desmond Tutu piled the white guilt on a little thick, and with hyper-dramatic academic language. Or at least Beitler was extensively quoting someone who did that. This is not to deny that there were whites in South Africa who did horrible things. The chapter also raised important considerations, such as how people are in life together and impact one another, as well as the desire for reconciliation. The way some white liberals phrase issues, though, can be rather annoying.

D. There were some interesting, down-to-earth details. Dietrich Bonhoeffer came from a wealthy German family and initially embraced a Germanic warrior sort of Christianity, but then he came to the United States and witnessed the African-American struggle for racial justice. C.S. Lewis was somewhat jealous of evangelists like Billy Graham who were able to appeal to the emotions of the populace, whereas Lewis’s approach was more intellectual. Lewis thought that was one reason that Jesus sent the disciples out two-by-two: their talents could complement each other. In addition, I had not heard of Marilynne Robinson before reading this book, and I would probably understand what Beitler said better had I read her writings. Still, Beitler raised interesting observations about her work, such as the pastor in the story becoming a universalist.

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

Tuesday, July 23, 2019

Church Write-Up: “…in Jesus Christ, His Only Son, Our Lord…”

At church last Sunday, we continued our journey through the Apostle’s Creed. The theme was the part that says “in Jesus Christ, His Only Son, Our Lord.” Here are some items:

A. The youth pastor asked what the son of a cat is. A cat. How about the son of a chicken? A rooster. His poin was that the son of someone is of the same kind as that someone. Jesus, as Son of God, is therefore God. That is a formidable point. Does it entirely work, though? Israel is God’s firstborn (Exodus 4:22), and the Davidic king is God’s son (II Samuel 7:14), yet they are not God. Luke 3:38 calls Adam the son of God, yet Adam was not God. In the New Testament, believers are called children of God (i.e., John 1:12; Romans 8:14-17). Armstrongites maintain that believers will become divine beings as part of the God-family, as God’s goal is to reproduce God-self after God’s own kind, but most Christians do not believe that. What does it mean to be God’s child? One could say that calling someone God’s child says more about God than the nature of the child, as it conveys that God is a father who creates and nurtures people. In a sense, though, to be God’s child is to be like God. Israel was to be holy, as God is holy (Leviticus 11:44-45; 19:2; 20:7, 26). The Davidic king ruled on God’s behalf, exercising justice and judgment, as God does, and he possessed the divine ability to distinguish good from evil (II Samuel 14:17; cp. Genesis 3:5). Adam ruled on God’s behalf and was created in God’s image (Genesis 1:27-28). Believers, like God, possess immortality. The youth pastor’s point may work more with the Johannine Christology, which refers to Jesus as God’s only begotten Son (i.e., John 3:16). Jesus is God’s son in a way that others are not. In a similar vein, Hebrews 1:3 refers to Jesus as the radiance of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s nature.

B. Both the youth pastor and the pastor were unraveling the meaning of calling Jesus “Lord.” The youth pastor said that Jesus is Lord in the sense that he is master of creation, since Jesus is the one who created all things. The pastor was saying that Jesus is the boss over the lives of believers. Believers are to obey Jesus’s marching orders: to love God and neighbor, and to witness to others. Affirming Jesus as Lord also challenges the prevalent worldviews of today. It repudiates the notion that there are many ways to heaven, or that there is no God at all. It rejects materialism, the idea that whoever dies with the most toys wins. The pastor even said that it contradicts liberalism, and he referred to James Dobson’s criticism of Jesse Jackson for leaving behind his pro-life stance in order to achieve a place of influence in the Democratic Party; to add balance, the pastor remarked that the G.O.P., too, has items one must accept to attain influence in its ranks. The pastor also showed a picture of Jesus’s hand with a washrag on the world, as Jesus cleans up the world. A lot of this made me feel uncomfortable when I was hearing it, since I struggle with Christian exclusivity and also to obey what Christians define as God’s commands: to love others, to try to convince others with a straight face to believe a certain way, etc. Writing out this item, though, the concept of Jesus’s lordship is more edifying to me: Jesus’s lordship means that Jesus’s way will be the norm, notwithstanding the immorality and selfishness that exists in the world today.

C. The pastor told stories about Martin Luther that tied into Luther’s understanding of the Gospel. Luther had a stern father. When Luther officiated his first communion as a monk and botched things up because he was afraid of the holy elements, his father did not offer him reassurance or encouragement, like “You’ll do better next time.” Rather, his father berated Martin, telling him that he made a mess and chose the wrong profession! Luther may have projected that sort of image on God, before his awakening to the Gospel of grace. In Luther’s time, the pastor also noted, a person could be kidnapped, and the prince would ransom him and set him free. Luther himself was kidnapped at some point. Luther’s context may have enhanced his appreciation for Christ’s ransoming of him from the penalty of sin. After the service, someone was talking with me about his own difficulty getting enthusiastic about his faith. He compares himself with the born-again types he knows, who are excited about their faith. He, by contrast, has been a Lutheran for his entire life. He is a good person, a kind person, a faithful person, one who actively serves the church whenever there is a need. But he has  difficulty feeling the same level of excitement that born again types have about their own faith. Some of their excitement may be due to the newness of their faith for them. Some of it may be because the life they are leaving behind, one of aimlessness and immorality, is still fresh for them in their minds and they relish the contrast that their newfound Christian walk provides. Perhaps, also, they feel that they have a real, intimate relationship with God, and that gives them joy. I have my own ways to stay interested or engaged with whatever faith I have, and that includes reading, listening to sermons and podcasts, and writing. I have to admit, though, that my faith lacks intense feelings about God’s love or being ransomed.

D. The pastor asked if we would be able to tell that God is love from nature or from life. He referred to a person in a congregation he pastored who had leukemia and was so weak that he had to crawl to his car to get his medication. The pastor’s point was that Jesus’s death on the cross for our sins is the ultimate revelation of God’s love, for it shows the depths that God went for us. Life offers no such assurance, though we may find ourselves wrongly concluding that God is punishing us when things are going badly, or is smiling on us when things are going well. What provides assurance is what Jesus did on the cross. A lot can be said here. Nature, I agree, is not a perfect revelation of God’s heart, but it does convey things about God, such as God’s benevolence and love for beauty. God in the Bible does give people good things and bad things, and they can be contingent on people’s obedience to God or lack thereof; one cannot be overly dogmatic about God’s heart in good times or bad times, though, because Job’s friends thought Job was being punished for being a sinner, when that was not the case.

E. In Matthew 16:13-14, Jesus asks his disciples who people say the Son of Man is. They reply with John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah, or one of the prophets. What do these people have in common? One thing they have in common is that they are dead, and the people apparently thought that Jesus was one of these figures raised from the dead. The pastor said there may be some foreshadowing here of Jesus’s resurrection. I wondered about Jewish conceptions back then about the possibility of a prophet coming back from the dead. I found D.A. Hagner’s comments in the Word Biblical Commentary to be helpful:
The disciples report that the people hold a variety of opinions about Jesus. Common to the three names and the more general “one of the prophets” is the idea of one who appears in connection with the coming of the end times, but as a precursor or attendant figure rather than the promised one himself. John the Baptist seemed clearly to be such a figure, who indeed portrayed his ministry as one of preparation for an imminent end and just for this reason caused such a sensation. Some apparently were of the opinion that Jesus was the martyred John resurrected to life (see especially 14:2 for the articulation of this view by Herod). Others thought of Jesus as Elijah, a prophet who in the OT was assigned the preparatory role of forerunner to the Messiah (cf. Mal 3:1; 4:5–6) and who for just this reason became identified with the work of John the Baptist (by Jesus already in 11:9–10, 14; cf. 17:12–13). Matthew’s addition of the name Jeremiah (which in the NT occurs only in Matthew; cf. also 2:17; 27:9) suggests that Jeremiah was thought by some to be a key OT figure who would play a role in the coming of the eschaton (on Jeremiah in the intertestamental period, see 2 Macc 15:13–16 and esp. 2 Esdr 2:18, which refers to an eschatological appearance of Jeremiah with Isaiah [but the date of this reference is debatable]). There are, furthermore, a number of obvious parallels between Jesus and Jeremiah, such as the preaching of judgment against the people and the temple, and especially in suffering and martyrdom (see Menken). The general phrase ἢ ἕνα τῶν προφητῶν, “or one of the prophets,” points to the widespread view that the greatest figures of the OT would return in a preparatory role just before the end of this age (cf. the importance of Enoch in the intertestamental literature and Melchizedek at Qumran). We have no evidence of Jeremiah being named explicitly in such a connection, and it may be that Jeremiah is named as representative of the prophetic corpus (Jeremiah appears first in a rabbinic list of prophets; cf. the baraita in b.& B. Bat. 14b). Special OT men who had not died, e.g., Enoch and Elijah, were ideal candidates for returning in the time just prior to the eschatological era. There is no record of the death of Jeremiah in the Bible. On the other hand, others, such as the prophets, could well be raised from the dead in order to participate in the events of the end (cf. Luke 9:19). The crowds also identify Jesus as a “prophet” in 21:11. Exalted as these evaluations of Jesus are, placing him as an important figure connected with the coming of the eschatological age, they are inadequate, although partially true.

Monday, July 22, 2019

Book Write-Up: Old Testament Ethics, by John Goldingay

John Goldingay. Old Testament Ethics: A Guided Tour. IVP Academic, 2019. See here to purchase the book.

John Goldingay is professor of Old Testament at Fuller Theological Seminary.

As the title indicates, this book is about Old Testament ethics. It has forty-three chapters, along with a postscript about the Canaanites, and I do not want to list each individual chapter. I will list the parts, though, as well as a few examples of topics under each part. The “parts”  include qualities (i.e., compassion, anger), aspects of life (i.e., wealth, violence, work, Sabbath, justice), relationships (i.e., neighbors, women, sex, cities), texts (Genesis 1-2, the laws on war in Deuteronomy 20), and people (i.e., Abraham, Joseph, David, Nehemiah).

Two comments on the back cover exemplify my own impressions of the book. M. Daniel Carroll says that the book is “Textually comprehensive, wonderfully conversational, immensely practical, and sensibly direct.” Athena E. Gorospe states that it “Recognizes the complexities of daily life, relationships, and challenges in our less-than-ideal world.”

Indeed, the book is winsome and conversational. It reminds me of Madeleine L’Engle’s non-fictional spiritual works, only it goes more deeply into the Bible. The book consists of thoughtful meanderings about various aspects of Old Testament ethics. Goldingay comes across as one taking us on a journey, yet meeting people where they are. Goldingay also tells relatable personal anecdotes, such as the story he tells in the chapter on contentment about how he did not find his big-screen TV to be all that fulfilling after buying it.

Gorospe’s comment about complexity also resonates with me. In the chapter on anger, for instance, Goldingay points to examples of righteous anger in the Bible, but also warnings about one’s own anger and the anger of others.

Goldingay situates Old Testament ethics within the historical setting of ancient Israel. For example, what does “love your neighbor as yourself” mean within the context of ancient Israelite clans, where people had neighbors? Goldingay is sensitive to the changes in settings, however, as when he states that the Book of Deuteronomy reflects an urban context.

Occasionally, Goldingay offers a solution to a biblical puzzle. When Genesis 18:20 refers to the outcry against Sodom, who is making the outcry? Is it oppressed people within Sodom? If so, did God solve the problem by destroying the entire city, including the oppressed? Goldingay proposes that the oppressed people are the outlying rural areas to Sodom, which Sodom exploits for their resources.

The book offers helpful thoughts on controversial issues, with positions that range from conservative to liberal. Goldingay cites New Testament passages that appear to speak positively about the biblical Conquest. He doubts that Genesis 1-2 is historical but thinks it was written to inform Israelites about their place in the world, whereas a literal description of how God created the universe would be incomprehensible to them. On homosexuality, Goldingay acknowledges that many moderns may have problems with the Old Testament’s prohibition of homosexual sex, but he asks readers at least to try to understand it. Some may fault Goldingay here for failing to weigh in on whether the biblical prohibition on homosexual sex is still authoritative, but I happen to like his approach. He asks what values ancient biblical laws taught, without being condemnatory.

Goldingay leaves some questions unresolved. In response to Paul’s question of whether God cares about oxen in I Corinthians 9:9, Goldingay answers “yes,” sharing biblical passages about God’s concern for animals. But Goldingay fails to address why Paul asked if God cares for oxen: is Paul implying that God does not care for them?

Goldingay says more than once that certain Old Testament laws were not actually enforced, for there is no record of their being enforced, plus they are rather impractical. Rather, their goal was to teach principles. That, perhaps, is one way to respond to advocates of the Documentary Hypothesis, who contend that Old Testament narratives after the Torah contradict or seem unaware of the Torah’s laws because the Torah’s laws had not been written yet. I have a slightly difficult time getting my mind around laws that were not intended to be enforced, especially with all of the emphasis in the Old Testament on obeying the law. But there were laws in antiquity that were not intended to be literally enforced, such as the Code of Hammurapi. And John Walton has a book on this topic, The Lost World of the Torah, which I will read.

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

Saturday, July 20, 2019

Grace, Then Justice

I watched God’s Not Dead 3: A Light in the Darkness last night. Whereas the first two movies of the series had a cultural war, us vs. them, “boldly stand up for truth against its detractors” emphasis, the third movie had more of a “love your enemies,” “turn the other cheek,” forgiveness theme. The third movie also encouraged Christians to meet skeptics where they are in their doubts. That includes listening and offering authentic wisdom, but it may also include the sorts of apologetics highlighted in the first two movies.

There was one scene in the third movie that especially stood out to me. To set the stage for the scene, Pastor Dave is suing a public university because it is using eminent domain to remove his church from the school’s property. He enlists his estranged brother Pearce, a social justice attorney who is skeptical about religion. Pastor Dave and Pearce are talking with Josh Wheaton, the hero of the first movie who defended the existence of God before the atheist philosophy professor, Jeffrey Radisson. Since the first movie, Josh went to law school but left that to serve at Pastor Dave’s church.

Pearce is quizzing Josh about the type of law he had wanted to go into. Josh responded that, like Pearce, he wanted to go into social justice law. Pearce then says, “Really? You don’t strike me as a liberal.” Josh replies that Jesus was the ultimate social justice warrior, since Jesus championed the dignity of those who were un-valued in society.

Now for the part of the movie that stood out to me. Josh said that the order of priorities should be grace, then justice. Both are important, but what Josh is saying is that people should pursue justice with an attitude of grace. Otherwise, he said, all we have is people fighting with each other.

That is a transformative insight, for me.

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Church Write-Up: "…in God the Father Almighty, Maker of Heaven and Earth..."

Last Sunday, the pastor continued his series on the Apostles’ Creed. Here are some items.

A. The pastor has recently been to Alaska, and he talked about his experience seeing a moose. There are aspects of creation that intrigue and inspire us. But there is also a fearsome side to creation, which includes earthquakes, floods, and hurricanes. The pastor was likening this to Moses seeing God in Exodus 33. Moses wanted to see God, but God replied that no one can see God’s face and live. God then revealed himself to Moses in terms of his mercy and compassion. Similarly, people since Christ’s coming see the face of God in Jesus Christ (see John 1:18; 14:9; II Corinthians 4:6). From Jesus, we see that God is merciful, loving, and compassionate.

Actually, this item engenders sub-items:

—-The pastor seemed to be suggesting that God causes natural disasters. In past teachings and sermons, he has somewhat wavered on that. In a past sermon, he said that natural disasters are God’s judgment of the cosmos after the Fall; that does not necessarily mean that God directly causes each and every natural disaster that occurs, but rather that natural disasters are part of God’s general judgment of creation due to the Fall of Adam and Eve. In a past Bible study class, he said that God does not cause natural disasters but can use them for his glory, as God did in the story of Joseph. I asked him in that class about Genesis 41:25, 28, and 32, which appear to suggest that God indeed did cause the famine. Here in this post, I will not try to tackle the question of whether God causes each and every natural disaster. Such a concept has troubling theological implications. Still, can we learn something about God from natural disasters? God often in the Bible says that he will shake the earth (see here), and, in Psalm 29, a thunderstorm is a theophany of God. Through natural disasters, we can be reminded of God’s power and fearsome aspects, not to mention how small human beings are. I hope I (or my loved ones) do not experience a natural disaster, though.

—-Do people see the face of God in Jesus Christ? Looking at those passages above, they do not seem to suggest that. Rather, they say that we see God’s glory in Jesus. The principle that no one can see God’s face and live continues through the New Testament. In the eschaton, however, believers will see God’s face (I Corinthians 13:12; Revelation 22:4). Could the New Testament still be playing, in some manner, with the Old Testament idea that no one can see God’s face and live? John 1:18, after all, says that no one has seen God, but Jesus has made him known. We do not see God physically, in terms of the vastness of his spiritual presence, but, in Jesus, we see more of what God is like than we saw before.

—-The Gospel of John regards Jesus as the revelation of God. But what exactly does John think that Jesus is revealing about God? Many Christians will say that Jesus reveals that the Father is merciful and compassionate. But does John explicitly teach that? This question came to my mind after I read Bart Ehrman’s Jesus Before the Gospels. Ehrman argues that the synoptic Gospels treat Jesus’s miracles as acts of compassion, whereas John regards them as signs of who Jesus is: Jesus in John’s Gospel authenticates his status through doing miracles. That said, John, on some level, still depicts Jesus as sensitive and compassionate. John 3:16 says God sent Jesus because God so loved the world. Jesus wept when his friend Lazarus was dead (John 11:35). Jesus teaches the disciples service by washing their feet (John 13). Jesus’s act of healing a lame man on the Sabbath is like the work that God does (John 5:17).

B. The pastor told a story about when he and his brother were children and got to walk to school by themselves for the first time. Unknown to them, their mother had an entire network of people watching them and making sure they were safe: the crossing guard, the teachers, etc. The pastor likened that to how God is the creator, but God has used people to help us. Many people are involved in the production and distribution of food. People have developed cures or amelioration for diseases.

C. The pastor said that the Old Testament regards God as the Father in the sense that God is the creator, whereas the New Testament takes God’s Fatherhood further, to a more intimate level, treating God as the Father of believers. Actually, God is a father, or is like a father, in a variety of ways in the Old Testament. God is the father of Israel and the Davidic king, and his fatherhood in those cases entails more than being the maker but includes parenting and discipline (Deuteronomy 8:5; II Samuel 7:14). God is also like a father to those who fear him and towards orphans (Psalms 68:5; 103:13). Still, does the New Testament take the fatherhood of God to a higher, more intimate, and more glorified level? I think so, which is why the New Testament makes such a big deal about God being the father of believers.  Believers relate to God as a father, not just as creator and suzerain.

I will stop here, though. I will leave the comments open. I will not publish abusive comments that accuse me of being nitpicky. I will leave the comments open in case anyone wants to add an insight.

Monday, July 15, 2019

Book Write-Up: All Things New, by Brian J. Tabb

Brian J. Tabb. All Things New: Revelation as Canonical Scripture. Apollos/IVP Academic, 2019. See here to purchase the book.

Brian J. Tabb teaches biblical studies at Bethlehem College and Seminary and edits the online journal Themelios. As the title indicates, this book is about the biblical Book of Revelation.

Here are some thoughts:

A. Where the book is especially strong is that it shows how Revelation echoes or alludes to the Old Testament, in order to make its own point. For instance, the Book of Revelation alludes to themes in the Book of Exodus, and Revelation, like Exodus, is about the deliverance of God’s people from an oppressive despot. Others have done this, as Tabb himself acknowledges. But Tabb further solidifies this argument by demonstrating verbal parallels between the Book of Revelation and the Septuagint. The book also has helpful information about Revelation’s possible allusions to pagan motifs of its time.

B. Like other books in the NSBT series that I have read, the conclusions are not mind-blowing or earth-shakingly new, but they are safe. In evaluating the idealist, preterist, and futurist approaches to the Book of Revelation, for example, Tabb states that they are all true. Overall, Tabb contends that Revelation is about the supremacy of God over all other powers. That is a rather obvious conclusion.

C. As another example of (B.), Tabb in a couple of instances attempts to interpret the phrase “testimony of Jesus” in the Book of Revelation. This phrase has loomed large in my own religious background, since I attended Seventh-Day Adventist churches for some time. In light of Revelation 19:10, an SDA pastor interpreted the “testimony of Jesus” as the “spirit of prophecy,” which he said was God’s provision of prophets, particularly the prophetess Ellen G. White. I doubted this interpretation in my mind, for I thought other explanations were plausible. Maybe the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy in that the message about Jesus’s work and supremacy is the point of Old Testament prophecy, I thought. Tabb surveys scholarly interpretations of the “testimony of Jesus,” and he concludes that the testimony of Jesus is the Book of Revelation itself. In addition, he effectively disputes the idea that “spirit” means “point.” Tabb’s argument is convincing, for he looks at the occurrences of the Greek word for “testify” and “testimony” throughout Revelation. The conclusion itself was rather lackluster, though. This is not to suggest that Tabb should have tried to be sensationalist or gone with the more intriguing view rather than the view that he thinks is correct, based on the evidence. It’s just that, when I am determining whether I “love” or “like” a book, whether the conclusions are interesting to me factors into my own subjective judgment, rightly or wrongly.

D. One especially helpful point was Tabb’s interpretation of Jesus’s statement in Revelation 2:5 that he will remove the lampstand of the church of Ephesus, if she does not repent. Does this imply a loss of salvation? Tabb argues that Jesus is saying that the church of Ephesus will no longer be a light to others, if she fails to repent. In this scenario, it does not necessarily relate to a loss of salvation.

E. In reading other NSBT books, I often think that the arguments that the authors critique and dismiss are more interesting and intriguing than the arguments of the authors themselves. In reading this book by Tabb, my response to some of the arguments that Tabb critiques was, “How can anyone possibly believe that?” On page 17, for example, Tabb states: “Royalty provocatively charges that ‘Revelation swallows the biblical subtext’ and ‘subversively reinscribes the Hebrew Scriptures to effectively eliminate the prophets as authoritative texts’ in order to control John’s readers and condemn his opponents.” Tabb interprets R.M. Royalty to be saying that John was claiming to replace the Old Testament prophecies with the Book of Revelation, and Tabb’s response to that is that John still deems the Old Testament prophecies to be authoritative.

F. Related to (E.), I initially thought that Royalty’s conclusion looked bizarre and eccentric, and I wondered why Tabb even felt a need to address it. On second thought, though, I am curious as to whether Royalty’s argument can inform my own struggles with the Book of Revelation. In Old Testament prophecies, the focus is on God’s restoration of national Israel, and there often seems to be an implication that this dramatic, eschatological restoration would occur soon after the prophets’ own time. The Book of Revelation, however, does not obviously speak to the restoration of national Israel. In that case, was John faithful to the Old Testament prophecies? Did he see himself as faithful to them, and, if so, how? One proposed solution is that John regards Christians as the new Israel, but could another possible solution be that John believed Revelation was God’s final eschatological plan that supercedes previous eschatological plans, even if it resembles them, in areas? Royalty may not engage those questions explicitly, but I wonder if his analysis could shed light on them.

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

Tuesday, July 9, 2019

Church Write-Up: “I Believe”

At church last Sunday, the pastor began a series on the Apostles’ Creed. The topic in his sermon was “I believe.”

Here are some items, drawn from his sermon:

A. The creed was developed so that Christians throughout the world would be affirming the same thing. The Greek word for “confess” is homologeo and means saying the same thing.

B. The youth pastor said that, when we speak the creed aloud, we strengthen our own belief in it. The pastor in his sermon explored another dimension of confessing the creed. When we speak the creed, we bring it from our hearts to the outside world, which is what Christians are supposed to do with their Christianity, in general. The pastor contrasted this with people’s tendency to compartmentalize, having a church box, a job box, a relationship box, etc. Christians in antiquity brought their faith into the outside world, even though they were considered odd, when they established hospitals and treated lepers.

C. Believing is about more than ethics or embracing a set of facts, contrary to how the Enlightenment influences people to see faith. It is trust, making the truth one’s own. That occurs through the Holy Spirit. God did not simply give us a list of facts but came to us where we are in Jesus Christ. In so doing, Jesus revealed the Father.

Monday, July 8, 2019

Book Write-Up: The Canon of Scripture, by F.F. Bruce

F.F. Bruce. The Canon of Scripture. IVP Academic, 1988. See here to purchase the book.

F.F. Bruce was a renowned evangelical biblical scholar. As the title indicates, this book, originally published in 1988, is about the canon of Scripture: which religious books Judaism and Christianity treat as canonical, and which ones they reject.

Here are some thoughts:

A. In 2004, I attended a debate between Protestant James White and Catholic Gary Michuta about the canon of Scripture, specifically the question of whether the deuterocanonical writings are divinely-inspired and authoritative. White, of course, said “no” and Michuta said “yes.” White argued that the New Testament largely agrees with the Palestinian Jewish canon that eventually emerged out of Jamnia, which excludes the deuterocanonical books. The early church fathers, by and large, treated the deuterocanonical books as non-canonical: as useful for edification, but not as authoritative for Christians. It was the Catholic Council of Trent in the sixteenth century that declared that the deuterocanonical writings were canonical. Michuta, however, presented a different historical scenario. In his scenario, the deuterocanonical books were accepted by the early Christians, and the New Testament even alludes to some of them. It was the Jewish Council of Jamnia that later excluded the deuterocanonical books from the canon. The Council of Trent affirmed what Christians have long believed. To which of these scenarios is Bruce closer? Probably the White model, at least overall. But Bruce acknowledges some messiness, as when church fathers treat non-canonical books as authoritative.

B. Bruce lays out the conventional historical data that are relevant to canonization, making this book an effective primer on the topic. The book is rather lacking, however, in laying out the canons of different Christian communities, preferring instead to focus on Catholics and Protestants. There were interesting details that I learned from this book. For example, many students in introductory New Testament courses learn about Tatian, a second century Christian who combined the four Gospels into a single narrative, a harmony of the Gospels, if you will. Students are usually taught that the New Testament is not like this, for it preserves the distinct accounts of four Gospels. Bruce provides more information about Tatian, saying that Tatian believed in vegetarianism and showing how that belief impacted Tatian’s harmony of the Gospels. Bruce also highlights when church fathers changed their minds about the inspiration of certain books.

C. The book includes a presentation by Bruce on the “Secret Gospel of Mark.” This must have been delivered before scholars concluded that the “Secret Gospel” was a forgery concocted by biblical scholar Morton Smith. Bruce evaluates its authenticity and concludes that the author of Mark’s Gospel did not write it. He is not aware, though, that Morton Smith created it, for he thinks that it was something that Clement gullibly accepted as authentic, just as Clement gullibly accepted other sources as authentic.

D. There is not a whole lot of theology in this book. For example, Bruce argues that Daniel 11 depicts the fall of Antiochus Epiphanes in light of the fall of the Assyrian in Isaiah 14 and 31 as well as the destruction of Gog in Ezekiel 39. This is an important detail, but Christians may then wonder, in this scenario, how all three biblical writings are true: is Daniel relating what Isaiah and Ezekiel are saying to a situation that is outside of their frame of reference, when they may have been relaying what they thought would occur in their own times? The dearth of theology, at the same time, allows Bruce to be honest with the sources. For instance, Bruce says that Justin Martyr’s belief that it was Christ who appeared to Moses at the burning bush contradicts the view of Jesus, who thought God the Father appeared to Moses.

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

Monday, July 1, 2019

Book Write-Up: The Old Testament in Seven Sentences, by Christopher J.H. Wright

Christopher J.H. Wright. The Old Testament in Seven Sentences. IVP Academic, 2019. See here to buy the book.

Christopher J.H. Wright has a Ph.D. from Cambridge and is the international ministries director of the Langham Partnership.

Tremper Longman III astutely comments that this book “gives readers an essential and impressive orientation to the life-giving message of the Old Testament.” Beth Stovell of Ambrose University states that it is “A tour de force, capturing the heart of the Old Testament, its epic drama, and God’s passion for his people with clarity and depth.” I would not say that the book is particularly deep, but it is an orientation to the Old Testament, a book that presents what Wright believes is the Old Testament’s essence.

Wright bases each chapter on a Scriptural citation. The topics include creation, Abraham, the Exodus, David, the prophets, Gospel, and Psalms and wisdom. “Gospel,” of course, primarily refers to Jesus’s saving work, but Wright also discusses it in terms of the good news that the prophet in Isaiah 52:7 brought concerning Israel’s restoration from Babylonian exile. Wright’s discussions do comment on the biblical verses, but Wright does not feel bound by the verses; instead, he uses the verses as a launchpad for a more extensive discussion of the topics.

There were a few things that I learned from this book. For example, in commenting on Amos’s statement that the poor are righteous, Wright says that does not necessarily mean that the poor were morally upright but rather that they were “in the right” in God’s justice against their rich oppressors; in their case, as it existed before God, they were the right party, whereas the rich oppressors were the wrong party, so God decided in favor of the wronged poor. Wright also offers an interesting thought on the authorship of Second Isaiah (Isaiah 40-55). I read a commentary a while back that said that Isaiah of Jerusalem could not have written Second Isaiah, for its message about the Jews’ restoration from Babylonian exile would have been utterly irrelevant to Isaiah’s contemporaries. Wright says, however, that Isaiah’s disciples could have preserved Isaiah’s message in Isaiah 40-55 until it became relevant. Wright is not committed to Isaian authorship of Second Isaiah, but he does engage it as a possibility.

Overall, though, I cannot say that I learned much from this book. I found that to be true about another book by Wright that I read, Old Testament Ethics for the People of God. I do have degrees in religious studies and have read academic books about the Bible, so some things that I know may not be as familiar to readers without an academic background. For instance, Wright states that Cyrus not only let the Jews return to their land but let other peoples return to their countries of origin as well. Those who think that Isaiah predicted Jesus, and that’s it, may be surprised to read that Isaiah’s prophecies that are later applied to Jesus also related to Isaiah’s own time. But, overall, I doubt that laypeople who have read the Bible cover to cover, or who have a basic familiarity with its storyline, will find much that is earthshakingly new or unfamiliar to them in this book. Wright’s conclusions may even strike them as obvious (i.e., God is the creator, God is concerned about earthly politics, etc.). This does not have to be the case with an introductory book about the Old Testament, for there are introductory works, particularly by John Goldingay, that intersperse fresh insights, such as examples, scholarly debates, or interesting biblical trivia (not “trivia” in the sense that it is unimportant but in the sense that it is a detail that people may not readily know).

In a few cases, Wright makes an interesting point but does not develop it. On page 171, he says that meditation on Scripture in the Bible is not thinking about it but rather is reciting it over and over. He calls this an “active engagement with the text, chewing it over, as we might say.” How is repeating a text over and over an “active engagement” or “chewing it over”? Should meditation not include thinking about the text’s meaning and implications, to qualify as such?

This book is still winsome and edifying, though. It lays out how the Old Testament displays the righteous character of God, and how that character plays out in God’s interaction with humans. God, in Wright’s telling, established a political order that would instruct Israel and make her distinct from the nations. Wright allows the reader to chew on that and he marinates it, as he sets forth different facets of it. I have eaten pizza before and know what it tastes like, but it is still enjoyable to appreciate its distinct flavors. Wright’s book is like pizza, in that respect.

Overall, at least in this book, Wright does not treat the Old Testament primarily as a foil for the New Testament, viewing the law as an opportunity for Israel to screw up and see how much she needs Jesus. Jesus is prominent in this book, though, and Wright affirms Jesus’s salvific work, but he seems to see Jesus as building on the institutions and principles of the Old Testament rather than correcting them or tearing them down. Such an approach may differ from how Paul treats the law in Galatians 3, but it is consistent with parts of the New Testament that present Jesus as the culmination of Israel’s story.

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

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