Wednesday, August 03, 2016

Bruce Waltke on prayer and providence

Easter week, 1928, my dad, a roofer, fell five stories and was not expected to come out of his coma. Mother, however, believed God would spare him, as he had Daniel's three friends in the blazing furnace. God "remembered" her, as he had Hannah, and a year later I was conceived. 

One night, as a four-year-old lying in my crib, I saw an angel looking down on me–on the headboard, then suddenly on the footboard and, just a suddenly back again on the headboard, without flying. It was as real to me as the moon shining through my bedroom window, though I knew it was not physical property.

In college I majored in history and minored in Greek and philosophy. Confronted with the rationalists the likes of Voltaire and of Rousseau, I had to choose between revelation and reason as my chief source and test of knowing what was good (i.e. an enhanced life) or bad (i.e. diminished life). I resolved my epistemological crisis both by my heart and my mind.

After having been tried for three centuries, the Enlightenment in social and moral skills proved to be a colossal failure. The Enlightenment moved Western civilization from Greek virtues to Nietzsche's will for power. In its wake came Nazi genocide and ethnic cleansing. Geneticists, social scientists, and medical practitioners sometimes play God and kill unwanted human beings. Today no human life can be assured it is precious or safe. 

Let me begin my walk with God at seminary by sharing an amazing answer to prayer. Going to a non-denominational seminary is a risk. Unlike a denominational seminary, where the graduate is fitted like a cog into an ecclesiastical machine, a graduate of a non-denominational seminary has no job security. I saw Dallas graduates flounder like a fish out of water, never finding satisfying employment. So for the sake of financial security, I took my destiny into my own hands: I applied and was accepted to be inducted into the US army chaplaincy. I persuaded myself of the truth that being a chaplain was a noble calling. But I fear I was bastardizing that noble call, for I was entering to serve myself, not soldiers. On the Wednesday before I was to be sworn in, I received a letter from the army instructing me that I would be sworn in at Hensley field, an airbase nearby to Dallas, and to expect a telegram on Friday morning specifying the time. Thursday night cold sweat trickled down my spine, a sure sign of a bad conscience. I prayed earnestly that God would get me out of my conflicted mess. Friday morning I received a letter from the army: "all your papers are lost: start over again." I did not obey.

I was troubled by the Bible's inconsistencies. In second year Hebrew I encountered the first discrepancy that shook me. The apostle Peter argues from Ps 16:10 that David predicted the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth when he said: "You will not abandon me to the realm of the dead, nor will you let your faithful one see decay [Hebrew sahat]" (cf. Acts 2:29-31). Peter reasoned David cannot be speaking [of] himself but must be speaking of Messiah because David, not Jesus, saw decay. But the authoritative lexicographers, Brown, Driver, and Brigs, later confirmed in the authoritative lexicon, The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament, give as the only meaning of sahat "pit." In that case David does not speak of Messiah's resurrection but of his own momentary triumph over death. So I faced the dilemma of trusting Peter or the human authorities. I chose to trust Peter on account of both my epistemology that true revelation trumps human reason and my Spirit-given conviction that the apostles speak the truth. Years later, as a mature scholar in Hebrew, I cross-examined the lexical authorities and found them wanting. I demonstrated that sahat is a homonym that means either "pit" or "decay." With verbs of motion such as "descent" it means "pit"; with verbs of sense such as "see" it means "decay." [B. Waltke & J. Houston, The Psalms as Christian Worship: Hearing the Voices of the Psalmist and of the Church in Response (Eerdmans, 2010), 323-24n76.]

According to one of my garrulous Harvard professors, the department of Ancient Near Eastern Literatures and Languages Program debated my application for three hours; I was their first evangelical applicant. 

At Harvard I often found myself in courses having to learn from the unknown to the unknown. This was acutely so in Comparative Semitic Grammar, a course taught every three years. Consequently the third-year men had already studied most of the Semitic languages, but the ten men of my first-year class were only beginning to learn some of them. Nevertheless, the professor assumed we all knew all the languages. I took notes furiously, hoping later to make sense of them. The ten of us were all in the same boat: our notes made no sense. We decided to meet three times before the examination, hoping that our collective knowledge and insight would be better than one's own to make sense of them. The first two meetings were fruitless. The exam was on a Monday morning, and we agreed to meet for the third and last time on the preceding Saturday morning. As I pored over my notes that Friday night beforehand, I could not make sense of them. I prayed, arguing with God that he should not have brought me this far to wash me out. God in his grace heard my plea, and gave me insight into the unknown, which I gladly shared the next morning with my peers.

When I went through the Ishtar Gate at Babylon and saw the image of Marduk, the patron deity of Babylon, with his dragon-like head, lion-like torso covered with fish scales and his serpentine tail, I thought to myself: "No wonder Daniel had visions of incredible animals." Probably Moses, who had the finest education of his day, was familiar with other law codes of his world, including the Code of Hammurabi, and God used his education in formulating the law. 

Another problem I confronted during my universities days was the discrepancy between Exod 6:3: "the Lord did not make himself known to Abraham," and Gen 12:8: "Abraham called upon the name of the Lord." How could Abraham call on a name that had not been made known to him? At the time I did not have a resolution to the discrepancy, but my high view of Scripture does not depend upon my resolving all apparent discrepancies. Over thirty years later I resolved the discrepancy; I concurred with Eslinger that the Lord's statement in Exodus 6:3 meant he had not yet demonstrated that he was truly God by miraculous interventions, such as his awful plagues on Egypt that enabled the Exodus. [B. Walkte, An Old Testament Theology (Zondervan, 2007), 368.] B. Waltke, "Why I have Kept the Faith," I (Still) Believe: Leading Bible Scholars Share Their Stories of Faith and Scholarship (Zondervan 2015), chap. 18.


  1. I read the following from McCandlish Phillips' book The Spirit World (chap. 4, p. 74)

    I heard Dr. Charles E. Fuller, founder of Fuller Theological Seminary, tell of a highway accident in which the car he was driving went off the road and turned over. He said that, as the car turned over, he momentarily saw angelic protectors completely surrounding him, and he received not a scratch in an extremely dangerous accident. He said that, while he was turning upside down, he saw himself fully enveloped in light.

    1. It reminds me of one of Ronald H. Nash's testimonies. When he was young he once drove during a very foggy night and all of a sudden the steering wheel jerked to one side. He later realized that had not his car moved he would have missed the bridge and fallen off the cliff and died. He said that he suspected an angel may have saved his life.

    2. I'm also reminded of J.P. Moreland's testimony of what he believes is an encounter with three angels.

    3. Where are Ronald Nash's testimonies?

    4. I heard him mention that story in one of his MANY lectures at about 10 years ago. I tried finding that testimony many times throughout the years but never succeeded.

      If he had died that night, instead of when he actually did, the church would now be missing all the wealth of truth and wisdom he left behind. I also loved his sense of humor.

    5. I should also say that I think took down some of Nash's lectures.