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.

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