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.”

https://www.commondreams.org/news/2021/07/09/biden-applauded-executive-order-targeting-insidious-anti-worker-practices

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.

https://greenwald.substack.com/p/questions-about-the-fbis-role-in

“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.

"The New War on Terror"

 https://counter-currents.com/2021/06/new-war-on-terror/

Saturday, June 5, 2021

“The Tulsa Libel”

Controversial site, but a different take on what happened in Tulsa, 1921.

“The Tulsa Libel”

UPDATE: Here is another article, from another controversial site:

“The Tulsa Myth”

 

Saturday, May 15, 2021

Book Write-Up: Jeremiah, by Derek Kidner

 Derek Kidner. Jeremiah. IVP Academic, 1987, 2021. Go here to purchase the book.

Derek Kidner was Warden at the Tyndale House theological library in Cambridge, England. This book is a reprint of his 1987 book, The Message of Jeremiah. It is largely homiletical yet quasi-scholarly in that it discusses historical background and context.

I decided to read this book because I wanted to see how Kidner, as a Christian scholar, would address questions I have had about Jeremiah that have perplexed me as a Christian. (Nowadays, I have largely put these questions on the shelf and not worried about them so much, but I am still curious as to how Christians address them, and if there is a way to account for them while credibly accepting a robust model of the divine inspiration of Scripture.)

Examples:

—-What is a Christian to do with Jeremiah’s prophecies that were not fulfilled, according to historians? Jeremiah predicted that Babylon would conquer Egypt in a devastating fashion, negatively impacting the Jews who unwisely fled to Egypt, and that Babylon itself would be conquered in like fashion. Neither took place, according to historians. Moreover, Jeremiah predicted that the Jews would be in exile for seventy years, but their exile was shorter than that: about fifty years. And, while Jeremiah forecast a glorious spiritual, national, even eschatological restoration for Israel after seventy years, her actual restoration was not that glamorous.

—-Jeremiah 33:14-26 predicts, not only that God would restore the Davidic dynasty and that it would be permanent, but also that God would do the same for the Levitical priesthood. Does that contradict the Christian view, exemplified in Hebrews, that the Old Testament priesthood is null and void because Christ is now the high priest of the new covenant?

Kidner, to his credit, attempts to address these questions. The conditionality of prophecy on human repentance (Jeremiah 18:7-8) plays a significant role in his attempt, as when he says that God shortened the exile and lessened God’s punishment of Babylon out of mercy. In the case of Babylon, Kidner speculates that God may have reduced the severity of her punishment due to Nebuchadnezzar’s repentance in Daniel 4. Kidner also states that the destruction of Babylon recurs in the Book of Revelation, meaning that an eschatological fulfillment may yet occur.

In some cases, Kidner seeks to maintain that the prophecy, as stated, actually came to pass. Nebuchadnezzar may not have decimated Egypt but he did manage to replace her Pharaoh with someone more pliable. Moreover, Nebuchadnezzar weakened Egypt, setting the stage for Persia to further decimate her decades later. And, while Nebuchadnezzar himself did not wipe out the Jewish refugees in Egypt, the Elephantine papyri indicate that Jews in Egypt suffered persecution, and a fragment from 400 B.C.E. anticipates the destruction of the Jewish community.

Regarding Jeremiah’s prediction of a permanent Levitical priesthood and whether that jibes with Christian belief in Jesus as high priest, Kidner raises various considerations: the existence of priestly converts to Christianity in the early church (Acts 4:36; 6:7), Isaiah 66:21’s extension of the priesthood to Gentiles, and the fulfillment of the priestly role by Christ and believers. Kidner also holds that Jeremiah 30:21 presents a Davidic king who would also serve as priest, which is what Jesus is: a priest-king.

On the glorious and eschatological dimension of Jeremiah’s prophecies of restoration, Kidner states that Jeremiah’s vision outstrips what happened in Judah’s historical restoration, as Jeremiah seeks to focus the readers’ attention on the Jerusalem above, not merely the earthly Jerusalem.

Is this convincing? I am not inclined to dump on it. A person who seeks to read Jeremiah from a faithful conservative Christian perspective, while accounting for critical challenges, may find Kidner helpful. Personally, in terms of whatever Christian perspective I hold these days, I am open to there being some grain of truth, somewhere, in what Kidner says. Indeed, Old Testament prophecies may have been fulfilled in a spiritual or non-literal fashion, and hopes manifest in Old Testament prophets, such as Gentiles coming to know the God of Israel, have been realized in the Christian church.

Doubts still linger, however. What Kidner says about the seventy years ignores the biblical assertion that the Jews indeed were in exile for seventy years (see II Chronicles 36:21; Zechariah 1:12; 7:5), whatever history says to the contrary. Jeremiah seems to say that Nebuchadnezzar would decimate Egypt, not that Egypt would be decimated decades later by someone else. Conditionality may be a factor in why prophecies were not historically fulfilled as written, but when does that answer become an ad hoc rationalization?

Some of Kidner’s solutions were predictable, while others raised considerations that were new to me. Overall, the book has a dreamy and homiletical tone, and much of what Kidner says was forgettable to me. But, where he went out on a limb and addressed critical challenges, he did rather well. 

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

Sunday, May 9, 2021

Book Write-Up: Does God Exist?, by W. David Beck

W. David Beck. Does God Exist? A History of Answers to the Question. IVP Academic, 2021. Go here to purchase the book.

W. David Beck has a doctorate from Boston University and is emeritus professor of philosophy at Liberty University.

This book is about the classical arguments for the existence of God: the cosmological, teleological, moral, and ontological arguments.

Gary Habermas’s endorsement of the book is essentially my impression as well: “Finally! A single volume that contains as a historical narrative a compendium of arguments pertaining to God’s existence—-pro-con, and from most religious perspectives—-all under one cover. Fantastic!”

Indeed, this book summarizes the various versions of each argument for God’s existence, as well as critiques of those versions. The chapter about the cosmological argument even includes a Hindu version from the Upanishads!

IVP’s web site places this book in the “intermediate” category, and that is probably where it belongs. There were places in which the book was over my head, yet, as someone who has read introductory philosophy, I often had a general idea about what the chapters were about. A fuller appreciation of this book may entail concentration on the part of the reader and, even then, a novice or even one at an intermediate level may get lost, at times.

Overall, Beck agrees with the classical arguments for the existence of God. What is noteworthy is that he still does so, after summarizing and critiquing the critiques of those arguments. Those who blithely dismiss the classical arguments as obsolete and antiquated would do well at least to give Beck’s book a reading.

To my recollection, some of Beck’s conclusions were not too profound. He defends the cosmological argument by differentiating between conceptual infinity (as exists in mathematics) and actual infinity, the latter of which is impossible for the cosmos, explaining why it needed a beginning and, thus, a creator. That makes sense. The chapter on the teleological argument dismisses the relevance of alternate universes by saying that there is no evidence for them but also that, even if they do exist, they fail to undermine the teleological argument. The chances of everything coming together for human existence even in one universe are small, explaining the need for a creator. There, I am not as convinced. I sympathize with a critic of the teleological argument whom Beck quotes, who essentially says that, the more universes there are, the greater the chance that at least one of those universes can have life and order, without needing a divine explanation.

But, of course, there may be nuances that I am missing here.

Some elliptical parts of the book that stand out to me:

—-Beck summarizes the debate between Jesuit philosopher Frederick Copleston, author of the legendary series of books A History of Philosophy, and Bertrand Russell, who wrote the bluntly titled Why I Am Not a Christian. Russell, in disputing the cosmological argument, expresses problems with such concepts as contingent and necessary being and sufficient reason. Beck seems to think that Russell is being evasive and pedantic, but, were I to understand what Russell is saying, would I see merit in his points?

—-Perhaps a gaping hole in my understanding concerns Beck’s treatment of the ontological argument. A common objection to the ontological argument is that concept does not mean reality: just because the greatest being one can conceive must exist to be the greatest being, that does not mean that this greatest being exists. Beck says, and shows, that this objection is attacking a strawperson, that Anselm never suggested that concept means reality. What, then, is the ontological argument?

The last chapter briefly summarizes and suggests resources about other arguments for the existence of God. Beck does not go into the “ins” and “outs” of these arguments, but he likely does not intend to do so, at least not here. Some of what he suggests piques my interest, as his reference to scholarly sources that address the question of what religious experiences are authoritative and which are not. Another question in my mind concerns the universal argument for God’s existence: surely philosophers and scholars who support this argument realize that there are religions in the world that lack a concept of a supreme deity. How do they account for that?

The book is excellent for reference precisely because it is comprehensive, which is why I will keep it rather than donating it to the Goodwill.

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

Sunday, April 25, 2021

Book Write-Up: The Great Deformation, by David A. Stockman

David A. Stockman. The Great Deformation: The Corruption of Capitalism in America. PublicAffairs, 2013. See here to purchase the book.

David Stockman has served as a congressman, President Ronald Reagan’s budget director, and a private equity investor.

While people with a solid grounding in economics are the ones who will understand this book, Stockman is pretty clear about what he supports and what he opposes. He favors a sound and tight currency (i.e., gold standard) rather than the Federal Reserve printing out lots of money. He is critical of debt, both government debt but also people borrowing lots of money (due to low interest rates) that they will not pay back. He is against deficits, so he favors cuts in government spending and is critical of tax cuts; he favors a VAT. His belief in fiscal responsibility encompasses both domestic programs and also the military. He wants federal welfare programs to be stricter and more means-tested, and he opposes regime-changing wars. He is highly critical of crony capitalism and favors rigorous campaign finance reform. He supports a stronger Glass-Steagall. While he supports free markets, he is not anti-regulation; he does, however, want to abolish the minimum wage.

On the issue of trade, his position is unclear. He does not seem to like jobs going overseas, and he laments that the U.S. has increases in health care and education jobs but not in jobs in the productive sphere. Yet, he argues that high tariffs contributed to the Great Depression and appears critical of the U.S. ceasing its reliance on cheap imported oil to focus on domestic energy.

The book is particularly interesting and informative in its revisionist history, on a number of fronts. Some examples:

—-The U.S. economy was gradually improving until Franklin Roosevelt became President, so the New Deal did not get the U.S. out of the Depression.

—-The severe economic downturn in 1936-1937 was not due to the government cutting its spending and raising taxes. Rather, it was due to people not spending money after their stimulus cash ran out.

—-World War II does not demonstrate the success of Keynesianism, uplifting the economy through intense deficit spending. The U.S. actually fought World War II in a fiscally responsible, pay-as-you-go manner.

—-The energy crisis of the 1970’s was not due to anything OPEC did, for what OPEC did was brief. Rather, it was part of the general inflation of the period, due to increasing government spending (Great Society, Vietnam), tax cuts, and the undermining of the gold standard.

—-Ronald Reagan’s tax cuts did not improve the economy. The Reagan prosperity was fueled by debt and assisted by Paul Volker’s drastic squeezing out of inflation. Statistics indicate that supply and production did not boom during the Reagan years but only increased slightly. The increase in government revenue that eventually occurred under Reagan was due to his tax increases.

—-Reagan’s defense buildup was unnecessary and largely relied on conventional warfare, when, for Stockman, nuclear weapons were a cheaper way to deter the Soviets.

—-The Wall Street bailout in the late 2000’s was unnecessary to save Main Street, for Main Street largely did not use those Wall Street banks.

While Stockman does not cite many sources in the course of the book, he gives his sources in the appendix. His economics numbers are largely based on Federal Reserve statistics. He also prefers many sources prior to the 1950’s, since they are not as Keynesian and do not blame tight money for the bank panics in the nineteenth-early twentieth centuries.

The book has its heroes, villains, and those in between. Franklin Roosevelt, Richard Nixon, and Milton Friedman get criticism for undermining the gold standard. Ronald Reagan is criticized for federal deficits and debt. Dwight Eisenhower, however, receives praise for supporting balanced budgets, and Gerald Ford, at least in the early stage of his Presidency, for being a deficit hawk.

This book is advanced and often went over my head, but the prose is still breezy. Stockman also intersperses his narrative with pop culture analogies, such as Lucy taking away the football from Charlie Brown.

I checked this book out from the library. My review is honest.

Book Write-Up: In the Footsteps of Faith, by John F. MacArthur

John F. MacArthur. In the Footsteps of Faith: Lessons from the Lives of Great Men and Women of the Bible. Crossway, 1998. See here to buy the book.

In this book, John MacArthur talks about fourteen biblical figures. They include Noah, Abraham, Moses, Rahab, Hannah, Jonah, Mary, John the Baptist, Peter, Paul, Lydia, Timothy, Epaphroditus, and Jesus Christ.

Here are some thoughts and observations:

A. MacArthur never explicitly says this, but his approach to Scripture in this book can be called a “moral exemplar” approach. The “moral exemplar” approach treats biblical figures as moral and spiritual examples of how people are to behave. Such an approach has been criticized, particularly in Lutheran circles, but also in evangelical circles. The reason for their criticism is that they believe that Scripture’s purpose is not to offer us moral examples, for many of the biblical characters fall short morally; rather, the purpose of Scripture is to show us that we are sinners so that we see our need for forgiveness and go to Christ for salvation. The focus here is on Christ as savior, not morality. MacArthur does acknowledge the need to focus on Christ, for he refers to Hebrews 12:2’s exhortation that Christians look to Jesus, the author and finisher of their faith. But he largely treats the biblical characters he profiles as moral and spiritual examples: Noah, Abraham, and Rahab have faith, Mary humbly and enthusiastically exalts God’s and God’s purposes, John the Baptist is unflinching in preaching God’s word, and Epaphroditus sincerely cares about the Philippian church and wants it to know he is all right. What do I think about the “moral exemplar” approach? I think that a Scriptural case can be made for it, for Hebrews 11 showcases heroes of the faith to encourage the demoralized Hebrew believers to persevere in their faith. Moreover, the “moral exemplar” approach can be interesting because it focuses on the biblical text and its distinct dimensions rather than subordinating all of it to a doctrine of penal substitution. But what if I fall short of the morality of these exemplars? What if I cannot muster up genuine, enthusiastic, God-focused worship, or sincere concern for other people? Can these things even be commanded? The way that I read and enjoy MacArthur without going crazy is that I embrace a Lutheran law/Gospel approach: the law is good and edifying, but it breaks us because we do not keep it, and that is why we need Christ as savior. Reading MacArthur is a way for me to feed on the banquet of God’s beautiful and orderly standards, but I cannot stop there, for I would be discouraged by how much I fall short. What may have made MacArthur’s book better is if he had focused more on God, not just the humility and the morality of the biblical characters. What is it about God that inspires the biblical characters to act this way? More acknowledgment of biblical characters’ flaws may have enhanced the book, too.

B. I did not like this book as much as other MacArthur books that I have read. It did not have as much depth or meat as his other books. MacArthur, to his credit, did address puzzles or questions, but I was unsatisfied by many of his answers. For instance, Jesus said that the least in the Kingdom of Heaven is greater than John the Baptist (Matthew 11:11). MacArthur interprets this to mean that, while John the Baptist is the greatest in the earthly realm, he is equal to all believers in the spiritual realm. But the text does not say that John the Baptist is equal to believers, but rather that the least in the Kingdom of Heaven is greater than he. MacArthur has a problem with Rahab lying to protect the Israelite spies in Jericho, but how else could she have hidden them? MacArthur thinks she should have just told the truth, and God would have protected the spies somehow. MacArthur tries to harmonize I Samuel 1’s apparent statement that Elkanah and his family went to the central sanctuary every year, with the prescription in the Torah that the Israelites appear before God three times each year (Exodus 34:23; Deuteronomy 16:16); his explanation was a bit of a stretch, for why would I Samuel 1 focus on years, if Elkanah went multiple times a year? In some cases, MacArthur engages questions rather adeptly, yet his engagement is very terse and could have used more meat. This was evident, to me, in his attempts to explain how Abraham’s apparent wavering in the faith in Genesis is consistent with Romans 4:20’s statement that Abraham never wavered in the faith, and his various explanations for how Moses in Hebrews 11:26 suffered for the sake of Christ. At times, MacArthur explains verses I have wondered about, as when he explains Luke 3:5’s statement that John the Baptist will lift up valleys and bring down mountains. What does that mean? MacArthur argues that it means that John’s ministry will encourage people to live moral, rather than crooked, lives. That makes some sense, but there may be other possibilities: John the Baptist brings down the religious and civil rulers while uplifting the lowly and downcast by bringing them God, or John clears the way for Jesus to come by spiritually preparing people with a message of repentance and eschatological anticipation. Occasionally, MacArthur refers to an interesting historical detail, as when he states that Lydia’s name may not have been “Lydia” but rather referred to her home city being in the Roman province of Lydia. At one point, MacArthur, echoing James Montgomery Boice, reads Reformed soteriology into Scripture, as when he contends that Noah’s finding grace in the eyes of the LORD in Genesis 6:8 was the prerequisite for Noah’s righteousness, blamelessness, and walk of faith in v. 9. That could be, but another way to read the passage is that Noah was favored by God because he was more righteous than others in his corrupt generation. There were times when MacArthur illustrated the story, as when he narrates that the Israelite spies had to cross the Jordan to get to Jericho, but the book could have used more of that. It also could have used more explanations of specific texts: why do Hannah and Mary, for instance, say that God will bring down the mighty and lift up the lowly? In what sense do they believe God does this? How does their situation relate to that?

C. MacArthur presents the Christian life as one of agony, self-discipline, and perseverance. He referred to a race that he ran when he was young, in which he was exhausted at the end! MacArthur offers biblical texts in favor of his view, and perhaps I am wrong to see salvation as a passive process in which I rest and let God transform me. But is the Christian life supposed to be one of unending, uphill toil, until death? What about Jesus’s statement that his burden is light (Matthew 11:28-30), or peace and joy being parts of the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22)?

Tuesday, April 13, 2021

Defiant Tucker Defends His Discussion Of Demographic Change, Exposes ADL Hypocrisy

 “Tucker’s bravest moment of the segment was challenging the Anti-Defamation League. The ADL called for his firing for criticizing demographic replacement. The Fox News host read on air an ADL post that criticized demographic replacement… in Israel. ‘It is unrealistic and unacceptable to expect the state of Israel to voluntarily subvert its own sovereign existence and nationalist identity and become a vulnerable minority within what was once its own territory,’ the blog stated.”

https://vdare.com/posts/defiant-tucker-defends-his-discussion-of-demographic-change-exposes-adl-hypocrisy

Sunday, April 11, 2021

Book Write-Up: The Problem of the Old Testament, by Duane A. Garrett

Duane A. Garrett. The Problem of the Old Testament: Hermeneutical, Schematic and Theological Approaches. IVP Academic, 2020. Go here to purchase the book.

Duane A. Garrett is professor of Old Testament interpretation and biblical theology at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

Garrett observes that the Old Testament poses a problem for Christians. Garrett describes the problem with three propositions: the Old Testament is hard to define, to read, and to reconcile with the New.

Isaiah 7:14 plays a key role in this book. Matthew 1:23 applies the text to the virgin birth of Jesus, but, within its immediate context, the passage appears to relate to Isaiah’s own time. Was Matthew misinterpreting the verse? A similar problem occurs with Hosea 11:1: Matthew 2:15 relates it to Jesus coming out of Egypt when he was a child, when the passage obviously speaks about Israel’s exodus from Egypt.

Garrett addresses other problems as well. What are Christians to do with Old Testament laws? Which ones should they obey, and which are they under no obligation to obey? Since the Old Testament was for Jews, how exactly does it pertain to Gentiles? Garrett also discusses the scholarly attempts, many of them unsatisfying, to seek some common religious or theological theme that pervades the books of the Old Testament. Things are not that neat, as Garrett observes.

Garrett dismantles attempts by Christians, ancient and modern, to resolve these issues. Alexandrian allegorism, Antiochian literalism, sensus plenior, dispensationalism, covenant theology, reader response, Sailhamer, canonical criticism—-none of them receives Garrett’s mercy! Garrett proceeds, with some trepidation, to offer his own model. He admits that not everyone will find his model satisfactory, and he acknowledges in a few places that this book may need a few sequels.

What are some of Garrett’s solutions? Let’s start with the Old Testament law. Garrett finds wanting the Reformed distinction among moral, ceremonial, and civil laws, with the moral laws alone being obligatory for Christians. The New Testament knows nothing of such distinctions, Garrett argues, and the Old Testament itself does not divide them up neatly. Garrett also struggles, somewhat, with the question of who is under the Old Testament law: Paul seems to think only Israel was, yet his model of salvation appears to presume that everyone is subject to the law’s authority and condemnation. Rather than distinguishing among the laws, Garrett proposes identifying different functions of the law.

Another point that Garrett makes is that the Old Testament leaves some threads unresolved, whereas the New Testament resolves them. God promises Abram that all nations shall be blessed through Abram’s seed (Genesis 12:3; 22:18), but the Old Testament fails to specify how. The New does so by identifying the seed as Christ, who brings spiritual blessing to the Gentiles.

According to Garrett, the Old Testament law lacks provision for divine forgiveness. The sin and guilt offerings relate to ceremonial impurity and to unintentional transgressions, not intentional ones. God could still show mercy in the Old Testament, but that was unrelated to the law. Ultimately, forgiveness of sins comes through Christ.

Analogy and recapitulation are prominent in Garrett’s attempt to explain the New Testament’s usage of Old Testament passages. When I Peter 2:10 relates Hosea 1:10 to Gentile Christians, the author of I Peter is not suggesting that Hosea had the Gentile Christians in mind. Rather, I Peter 2:10 is drawing an analogy: just as God made the paganistic, immoral Israelites his people, so God did for the paganistic, immoral Gentiles who became believers.

Regarding recapitulation, Garrett contends that Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew recapitulates Old Testament Israel. Like Israel, Jesus in Matthew comes out of Egypt, is tempted in the wilderness, and enters the Jordan. Matthew’s application of Hosea 11:1 to Jesus fits this. What is more, Hosea himself vacillates between the people and the king of Israel, so Matthew continues that trajectory.

In discussing Joel, Garrett maintains that the “day of the LORD” in Joel can have multiple applications. It relates to Joel’s time, as the term “day of the LORD” throughout the Old Testament prophets pertains to a number of historical manifestations of God’s judgment, yet it also has eschatological significance. The notion that history can repeat itself occurs in the prophets, as they apply events of Israel’s history to new situations.

Another problem Garrett addresses is how Christians should interpret Old Testament eschatological expectations of Israel’s exaltation and paradise. His conclusion is that the Old Testament prophets portray “the new earth using terms an ancient Israelite could identify with, giving a vivid but not a literal portrayal of a real future” (page 165).

Garrett also identifies allusions within the Old Testament, as well as allusions that the New Testament makes to the Old. Within the Old Testament, Jacob’s headstone recurs, as does the Sinai theophany. Garrett’s point here may be that the Old Testament is not a collection of disconnected writings but presents a larger and coherent narrative. Regarding the New Testament, Garrett argues that the transfiguration, and Peter’s proposal to build booths, relates to Jonah’s dwelling in a booth as he awaited God’s judgment on Nineveh.

This book certainly is informative, especially as Garrett surveys the historic Christian attempts to argue that Isaiah 7:14 was actually a prophecy about Jesus, even in its original context. Garrett’s exegetical moves are also interesting, as when he distinguishes the worm that shall not die in Isaiah 66:24 from Jesus’s teaching on hell.

Garrett’s treatment of the law is helpful, as it addresses questions that I and other Christians and scholars (especially of the New Perspective) have: how can Paul treat the Torah as the opposite of grace and forgiveness, when the Torah itself has pathways to divine forgiveness? And what did Jesus bring that was not already present in the Torah? Garrett’s answer, as noted above, is that the Torah lacks pathways to divine forgiveness. There may be something to that, but I have some nagging reservations. Garrett says that the sacrifices only forgave unintentional sins, not intentional ones, whereas Jesus brings forgiveness for intentional ones. The Epistle to the Hebrews, however, seems to draw an analogy between Jesus and the sin offering and to assert that Jesus died for unintentional sins, whereas the ultimate intentional sin (leaving the faith) receives no forgiveness.

On some occasions, I thought that Garrett, with all his knowledge, should know better. He says that Mesopotamian courts may have used the Code of Hammurabi, when it has been argued that there is no indication in their records that they did so.

Whether or not one finds Garrett’s solutions to be satisfying, they are a serious attempt to grapple with the problem of the Old Testament. Garrett is honest about what he finds unconvincing in other approaches. He wrestles with problems, even if some of his solutions fail to resolve all of their loose ends. And he attempts to support his positions with the biblical text.

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

Asia Times: Life After Death for the Neoconservatives

 https://asiatimes.com/2021/03/life-after-death-for-the-neoconservatives/

Sunday, March 28, 2021

‘Diversity Training’ Doesn’t Work. This Might.

“One need not, for instance, internalize left-progressive views on inequality and identity issues in order to effectively collaborate with a colleague on a project (not the least because colleagues who are minorities or immigrants often won’t subscribe to such views themselves). Insofar as training seeks to push controversial moral and political ideologies onto participants in addition to (or at the expense of) providing them with practical knowledge or skills, this often lowers employee morale and generates blowback against colleagues who are women, people of color, LGBTQ, etc.”

https://heterodoxacademy.org/blog/diversity-training-doesnt-work-this-might/

Sunday, March 21, 2021

Book Write-Up: Julian of Eclanum’s Commentaries on Job, Hosea, Joel, and Amos

Julian of Eclanum. Ancient Christian Texts: Commentaries on Job, Hosea, Joel, and Amos. Translated and edited by Thomas P. Scheck. IVP, 2021. Go here to purchase the book.

Julian of Eclanum was the bishop of Eclanum in Italy. He lived from 386-455 C.E. Julian was a leader of the Pelagians, and Pelagianism was opposed by Augustine and eventually became marginal within Christianity. As the title indicates, this book is a new translation of Julian’s commentaries on the biblical books of Job, Hosea, Joel, and Amos.

The back cover of the book states that “Julian’s Pelagianism does not fundamentally affect the commentaries presented in this volume[.]” Overall, that is a fair assessment. The book of Job, however, does coincide with Julian’s Pelagianism, as the editor’s scholarly introduction to this book acknowledges. In the Book of Job, God affirms that Job is righteous in his behavior, whereas Job’s friends, who claim that humans are morally and spiritually rotten to the core, turn out to be wrong. Job sounds like Pelagius, whereas Augustine sounds like Job’s friends!

Another topic of interest is Julian’s approach to prophecy, specifically the question of how the prophets were addressing their own times while also speaking about Christ, who would come centuries later, as well as eschatology. Julian addresses this issue most explicitly and systematically in his discussion of Joel 2:28-32, where God promises to pour his spirit on all flesh, and the moon will be turned to blood. Peter in Acts 2 asserts that this found some fulfillment at the day of Pentecost, yet the moon was not turning to blood at that time. Julian wrestles with this.

Julian’s interpretation of the biblical books is literal, moralistic, and focused on minutiae, in areas. The book was edifying to read while I was reading it but, with the exception of Julian’s comments on Joel 2:28-32, Julian’s discussions do not stand out in my mind. The editor’s introduction to the book is strong, though, as Thomas Scheck addresses the Pelagian controversy, what Augustine may have gotten right and wrong about Pelagian beliefs, and how Julian believed the Hebrew prophets spoke to their own time while also predicting the far-off future.

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

 

Sunday, February 7, 2021

Colossians Conundra, Jesus as God of the OT, Paul’s “Works of the Law” in the Perspective of Second-Century Reception

Some items from church this morning, followed by a book write-up. I will also include elements of the past two Sundays at church in this post.

A. The Sunday school class is continuing its way through Colossians. Here are three conundra, if you will:

—-The church when Colossians was being written was new and was thus experiencing growing pains, making it especially vulnerable to confusion and cultural trends. As a result, the Colossian church was absorbing Gnostic and Greco-Roman ideas that detracted from the Gospel. Judaism, by contrast, had by this time arrived at a securer self-understanding. It had already wrestled with Hellenism over a century before, and its centers were in Jerusalem and Galilee. With the early Christians, however, Christianity was so new, and outsiders could come to the church claiming to be from the apostles when they actually were not. How would the Colossian church know?

On the other hand, last week, in speaking about Paul’s statement in Colossians 2:6 that the Colossians had received Christ as Lord, the pastor said that this was more than making a decision for Christ or accepting Jesus into their hearts. It was receiving and being trained in a body of Christian doctrine, much like Lutherans are educated in the faith when undergoing confirmation. This seems to imply that the church had already arrived at a firm sense of what it believed.

I suppose this conundrum is not impossible to resolve. The apostles may have arrived at a firm sense of what they believed and attempted to pass that down to others, but Christianity was still new to those who received it, and they may have lacked the means to deal with the religions and philosophy of their day in light of their newfound faith. The Christian creed also may have been a bare-bones summary in need of development, so its adherents perhaps supplemented it with other ideas without recognizing that those other ideas compromised and detracted from the Gospel.

—-Colossians 2:16-17 states: “Let no man therefore judge you in meat, or in drink, or in respect of an holyday, or of the new moon, or of the sabbath days: Which are a shadow of things to come; but the body is of Christ” (KJV).

The pastor, like a lot of Christians, interprets this to mean that Paul was exhorting the Colossians to resist the Judaizers, those who held that Christians needed to observe Jewish rituals of the Torah to be righteous before and to find acceptance by God. The Old Testament rituals had their place in God’s plan, as they guided Israel and foreshadowed Christ. But, now that Christ has come, Christ has replaced them, so people need not observe them.

Where the pastor struggled was that Judaism was not particularly strong in Colossae, so how could the Colossian Christians have been dealing with Judaizers? He landed on suggesting that at least Colossae had some Jewish presence, which was challenging the faith of the Colossian Christians.

—-Colossians 3:1-2 states: “If ye then be risen with Christ, seek those things which are above, where Christ sitteth on the right hand of God. Set your affection on things above, not on things on the earth” (KJV).

Here, Paul exhorts the Colossian Christians to seek what is above, not what is on earth. The pastor’s struggle here was that Paul had just spent lines seeking to refute Gnosticism, which had an otherworldly focus that marginalized the material world. Is Paul contradicting himself and telling Christians to repudiate the material in favor of the heavenly?

The pastor’s solution was to interpret the “things that are above” as things upward. Paul in Philippians 3:10-14 describes Paul’s upward journey, his high calling. This entails the Christian battling his old, ruined, sinful self and being raised daily in Christ. God brings us upward to him on this progressive journey. The part in Colossians 3:1 about Christ sitting on God’s right hand refers, not to pie in the sky, but to Christ as ruler holding creation in his hands. Colossians 3:1, therefore, is not opposed to the material creation but affirms Christ as ruler of the material creation.

There are valuable insights here. Personally, I find little problem with Paul telling Christians to seek what is in heaven. Paul probably differed with the Gnostics on how to do this: Gnostics believed in saying the right password and going through intermediary deities to arrive at the pure God, whereas Paul held that one only needed to know Christ to arrive at God; moreover, Paul is not opposed to the material creation, for he maintains in Colossians 1 that Christ created it. Still, Paul wanted Christians to look to God above rather than to be sidetracked by the temptations, corruptions, and persecutions in the world around them.

B. A few weeks ago, in talking about Colossians 1, the pastor said that everything we know about God is on account of his Son, Jesus, for Christ is the image of the invisible God, the way that we know the invisible. Even knowing the Holy Spirit occurs through the Son. But even the theophanies in the Old Testament were actually Christophanies: Christ was the one who appeared to the Old Testament figures as God. The “angel of the LORD” in the Old Testament, the spokesperson for God, was the pre-incarnate Jesus Christ.

I was raised in the belief that Jesus Christ was the God of the Old Testament. This belief, within Armstrongism, served to dispel the notion that Jesus was nicer than the Old Testament God: that the Old Testament God was a God of wrath and violence who commanded people to obey a bunch of rules, whereas Jesus showed love and grace. When God in the Old Testament commanded the Israelites to slaughter every Canaanite man, woman, and child, therefore, that was Jesus making the command.

John’s Gospel may very well maintain that the Word who became Jesus Christ was the God of the Old Testament. Through the Word was all things made, according to John 1. John 5:37 affirms that no one has seen the Father or heard his voice. How, then, do we account for the times in the Old Testament when people did see God or hear his voice? That must have been God the Son whom they saw and heard. John 12:41 appears to go this route in interpreting the theophany in Isaiah 6 as Isaiah witnessing Christ’s glory. Whereas the Son was revealing himself in the Old Testament, he was revealing the Father in the New.

But is this the view throughout the New Testament? At times, the implication is that the Father, the God of the Old Testament with whom Jews were familiar, was the one who sent Jesus Christ. I think of Hebrews 1:1-2a: “God, who at sundry times and in divers manners spake in time past unto the fathers by the prophets, Hath in these last days spoken unto us by his Son” (KJV). Is this saying that God the Father was the one who spoke in the Old Testament?

Of course, there is a way to get around this: to say that, when the Son speaks in the Old Testament, that is, in effect, the Father speaking, for the two are one. Why, then, would the Gospel of John make a big deal about Jesus revealing the Father, if the Father had revealed himself all along before that time? Perhaps its point is that Jesus incarnate is a clearer manifestation of the Father, or to marvel that the revelation of the Father walked on the earth, among people, for a period of time.

C. Matthew J. Thomas. Paul’s “Works of the Law” in the Perspective of Second Century Reception. IVP Academic, 2020. Go here to purchase the book.

Matthew J. Thomas has a D.Phil from Oxford and teaches biblical theology at the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology and also at Regent College.

When Paul criticizes seeking to be saved by obeying the law, what exactly is Paul criticizing?

According to the old perspective, exemplified by Luther, Calvin, and Bultmann, Paul was saying that humans cannot become righteous before God through their good works. People cannot rely on the law because, being corrupt sinners, they fail to meet its high demands. Reliance on the law also generates self-righteousness and self-idolatry. People need God’s grace, forgiveness, and free acceptance in order to have a right standing before God.

According to the new perspective, the “works of the law” refer to Jewish rituals, such as the Sabbath, food laws, and circumcision. Paul was saying that people are saved by Christ, not these laws. While Christians enter God’s community through grace and God’s forgiveness, they must observe God’s moral law (love of God and neighbor) to receive ultimate salvation (the resurrection of the righteous).

As Thomas shows, there is a diversity of emphases within the new perspective, but Thomas addresses the question of whether second century Christian thinkers agreed more with the old perspective or the new perspective as they are conveyed above. His conclusion, after looking at texts, is that they agreed with the new perspective’s understanding of the “works of the law.” Not only do the church fathers stress Jewish rituals when discussing the “works of the law” while maintaining that Paul still upholds the Christian obligation to observe God’s moral law (love), but Luther, Calvin, and Bultmann themselves acknowledge that their own understanding of the “works of the law” is lacking in the church fathers. Thomas appears to imply that patristic understandings of the “works of the law” may very well clue us in as to what Paul originally meant, for would people so close to Paul’s time utterly miss Paul’s point?

The book gets rather sidetracked, at times, with scholarly minutae, but scholars may deem such minutae to be relevant and essential to Thomas’s thesis. Thomas’s conclusion is lucid and effective in summarizing the issues.

In assessing this issue, a question that I have is: “Does it have to be either/or”? I think so, but I will explain why after explaining where I believe there can be overlap between the old and new perspectives.

Both the old and the new perspectives can affirm that the law cannot give people a right standing before God. Both deny that people, in their carnal state, can satisfy God’s moral demands. That is why the church fathers believed that God’s transformation of people through Christ was necessary: the law may have restrained the Jews in the Old Testament, but it did not cure them of sin, which was why Christ had to come. In light of this, both perspectives can affirm, with Paul, that attempts to be justified through the law leads to unwarranted boasting (Romans 4:2; Ephesians 2:9). Carnal human beings cannot boast that they have attained right standing before God through obedience of the law—-whether ceremonial or moral (see Romans 7-8)—-for, apart from God’s grace in Christ, they cannot obey God.

Where the old and new perspectives may differ is in their understanding of grace. The way some old perspectivist preachers talk, obedience is optional when it comes to ultimate salvation, for God saves people by grace: he accepts them as righteous, even though they are actually sinners. They are like “snow-covered dung.” The church fathers, by contrast, may have seen grace more as God empowering Christians to live a practically righteous life.

What I say in the above paragraph is simplistic, for there are plenty of Reformed Christians who would say that good works, in some way, shape, or form, are necessary for final salvation. But, in critiquing the old perspective, Thomas (and others) seems to portray the old perspective in terms of a “free grace,” antinomian approach to salvation.

Another relevant issue is that some of the church fathers whom Thomas profiles saw the Old Testament system as one of bondage, the implication being that the system that Christ inaugurated is not. But how was the Old Testament system one of bondage, whereas the New Testament system is not? My antinomian desires like to say: “Because the Old Testament required people to earn their salvation, whereas, in the New Testament, they do not have to do anything to possess it; just accept God’s free gift.” The fathers, however, appear to have had a different answer: because the Holy Spirit enables people to keep the law under the New Testament system, so the obedience is not bondage. Here, at least from a spiritual standpoint, I have issues. If obedience flows so automatically from the Christian, why is being good so difficult for Christians?

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

Wednesday, January 20, 2021

Colossians and Gnosticism, Talents as Forgiveness, Rebels and Exiles, Resurrecting Justice

 My church write-up, followed by two book write-ups:

A. The Bible study is continuing its way through Colossians. On Sunday, the pastor talked about Gnosticism, since Paul in Colossians is probably fighting a proto-Gnostic Christian heresy.

The Gnostics believed that God is utterly spirit and is separate from the material realm. As far as the Gnostics were concerned, spirit is good and material is bad. There are levels between God and the material world, and a key aspect of spiritual advancement is going through those levels to reach the non-material God. Gnosis means knowledge, and Gnostics maintained that people could receive a secret knowledge from God about some mystery. For the Gnostics, the material does not matter. Some Gnostics fought the flesh because they viewed it as evil, whereas others indulged the flesh because they felt it was irrelevant. According to the pastor, there were official Gnostic institutions, but Gnosticism also infiltrated other religions. Christianity especially fell prey to it because Christians, like Gnostics, held that God is spirit.

The pastor argued that Paul in Colossians was employing Gnostic terminology so as to subvert the heresy. Paul’s statement in Colossians 2:9 that, in Jesus, the fullness of the Godhead dwells bodily would have been anathema to Gnostics, who radically separated the spiritual Godhead from the material body. Paul, like the Gnostics, believed in a divine mystery, but, unlike the Gnostics, he held that God was proclaiming this mystery publicly rather than secretly and to select individuals (Colossians 1:26-27). Paul, too, believed in knowledge (gnosis) and understanding, but the knowledge and understanding that the Gospel provides bears fruit in this world, including love for the saints, rather than seeking to transcend the material world (Colossians 1:9-10).

At the same time, I observe that there is an otherworldliness, and perhaps even an individualism, in Colossians. The hope of the Colossians is laid up in heaven, and they are to seek the things above, not the things on earth (Colossians 1:5; 3:1-2). Their lives are hidden in Christ as they go through this world, and Christ inside of them is their hope of glory (Colossians 1:27; 3:3). Perhaps Paul (or whoever wrote Colossians) sought to clarify where Christianity overlapped with and diverged from the Gnostic heresy.

As a shy introvert, I tend to gravitate towards a spirituality that is interior and otherworldly, especially in seasons when I do not fit in. But I still believe in helping people. As pissed off as I am at Democrats these days, I winced when I read that Republican South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem sneered at a Christian charity by tweeting that “there is no free lunch.”

B. The pastor in his sermon spoke briefly about Jesus’s Parable of the Talents (Matthew 25:14-30). He said that he does not believe it is so much about vocation as it is spreading Jesus’s forgiveness in the world. The Parable of the Talents has long troubled me, especially since the fruitless servant appears to be condemned to hell for his fruitlessness. I have no problem with the idea that we should do something with what God has given us rather than ignoring or neglecting it. But, for some reason, I think that salvation should be based solely on God’s free grace, no strings attached. Why do I think that? Why should salvation work that way, in my mind? Perhaps my feeling results from a combination of two factors. First, it is wishful thinking on my part: I hope that salvation is solely by grace because I know how abysmally short I fall from God’s standards. Second, the grace message is prominent within Christianity, so there is outward affirmation of the idea that salvation should be solely by grace, no efforts on our part.

C. Matthew S. Harmon. Rebels and Exiles: A Biblical Theology of Sin and Restoration. IVP Academic, 2020. Go here to purchase the book.

Matthew S. Harmon has a doctorate from Wheaton College and teaches New Testament at Grace College and Theological Seminary in Winona Lake, Indiana. This book is part of the Essential Studies in Biblical Theology series, which, according to the back cover, takes “cues from Genesis 1-3” and traces “the presence of these themes throughout the entire sweep of redemptive history.”

As the title indicates, this book is about exile. Adam and Eve were exiled from God’s presence at the Fall. Israel was exiled from her land and God’s presence. And the New Testament uses the language of exile and return. In Christ, people who were alienated from God are returned to him, and Christians in this world are strangers and exiles.

The book is a pleasant read, although, with a few exceptions, I cannot say that I learned much from it that was earthshakingly new to me. Harmon in a footnote refers to N.T. Wright’s view that Jews in Second Temple times believed they were still in exile, even though they lived in their land, while referring to possible indications to the contrary in Second Temple literature. Harmon also speculated that God may have intended for Adam in the Garden to suppress the serpent, which I have read elsewhere, but it was nice to encounter that idea again.

The book would have been better had it more effectively integrated Old Testament prophetic expectations with the New Testament. Harmon tries to do this, on some level. The Old Testament prophets depict Israel’s restoration as inaugurating a new creation, and a new creation is part of Jesus’s restoration of sinners to God. Harmon observes that Israel’s return from exile failed to inaugurate this new creation, so there must be a fuller fulfillment of this hope that transcends the Jewish people’s return to their land. Harmon briefly says at one point that the New Testament treats Israel’s restoration from exile as a metaphor for the sinner’s return to God.

Perhaps I was hoping for a fuller and more sustained treatment of this issue, especially since the Old and New Testaments appear to present two different pictures. The Old Testament prophets emphasize Israel’s return to her land as the nexus for the new creation, whereas the New Testament largely appears to depart from that concept in favor of a spiritual understanding. At least overall, as there are exceptions to that: a case can be made that Jesus in the Gospels sought to restore the nation of Israel.

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

D. Douglas Harink. Resurrecting Justice: Reading Romans for the Life of the World. IVP Academic, 2020. Go here to purchase the book.

Douglas Harink teaches theology at The King’s University in Edmonton, Alberta.

Paul in Romans speaks frequently about “righteousness” (Greek, dikaiosune). What is this righteousness? For many Protestants, it is God imputing Christ’s righteousness to sinners such that God sees them as righteous rather than as the sinners that they actually are. The “Romans Road” approach to evangelism exemplifies this understanding: you are a sinner, Christ paid the penalty for your sins, you accept that, and God now accounts you as righteous. For Catholics, “righteousness” refers to God transforming people such that they become practically righteous; this righteousness is infused rather than imputed.

Harink goes a different route, even though he preserves aspects of the Protestant and Catholic understandings. Harink interprets “righteousness” in Romans as justice. God seeks to deliver people from bondage to sin, especially systemic sin, and to create a loving community in which people accept each other regardless of social class, a radical concept in the ancient world. This occurs through God’s efforts, not human attempts to exert power and control. God’s sheer mercy to sinners contrasts with human attempts to control others, and Abraham trusted that God would bring about justice rather than trying to bring it about himself. In the tradition of John Howard Yoder, Harink appears to be a pacifist.

God’s free mercy and grace are still a part of Harink’s interpretation of Romans, in accordance with Protestants, but “righteousness” still has a practical dimension, as Catholics maintain.

The book has compelling discussions. First, there was the discussion of whether Paul in Romans 1-3 regards all humans as depraved. Harink argues in the negative. Paul in Romans 2 acknowledges that humans do good and bad. But people are trapped in bondage to sin, especially systemic sin, and many are victimized by such a system. God, in God’s goodness, seeks to deliver people from that system. This discussion especially resonated with me, since I have long read Romans 3 and thought to myself, “All humans are not THAT bad, are they?”

Second, Harink talks about the importance of the nation of Israel in God’s plan. God, through Israel, revealed Godself to the nations, which were trapped in idolatry. Israel is indispensable in this part of God’s plan, which is why Paul struggles with most of Israel’s unbelief in Romans 9-11.

The question would then be whether Harink makes a convincing case. On this, I am ambivalent. The “Romans Road” evangelistic interpretation appears neat and clean, even though I struggle with how well it accords with the reality of how humans are. Harink, in my opinion, fails to demonstrate that Abraham’s righteousness was of a systemic sort, and there lingers the question of whether humans are to have any role at all in bringing this about or if God acts unilaterally. Human participation would seem to be necessary, on some level, since people do not naturally come together and create a loving, forgiving community: they have to work at it, and even then, they fall short.

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

Search This Blog