Saturday, October 14, 2017

Joel Green on penal substitution

Joel Green is a leading Arminian NT scholar and critic of penal substitution. I'm going to comment on some of his objections to Tom Schreiner's exposition of penal substitution in J. Beilby & P. Eddy, eds. The Nature of the Atonement: Four Views (IVP 2006).

By what logic can it be assumed that anger is quenched by acting on it in this way? That is, even if we grant these two claims regarding the divine "penalty," on what basis does it follow that Jesus' dying quenches the anger directed at us by God? Does the transfer of guilt satisfy the demands of justice? (112).

i) Problem with Green's criticism is that he's raising a philosophical objection to an exegetical question. Schreiner is doing exegesis, not apologetics. Schreiner's aim is not to defend what the Bible says; he takes the revelatory status of Scripture as a starting-point in this discussion. His aim is to interpret the witness of Scripture regarding penal substitution. There are well-worn objections to whether guilt is transferable from one party to another, but while that's worth discussing, that's a separate issue. That can be a question of inerrancy, where a critic of penal substitution admits and rejects the witness of Scripture.

ii) Also, even at a philosophical level, it isn't necessary to defend penal substitution directly (which doesn't mean that can't be done). If, say, one can defend the revelatory status of Scripture, then that indirectly defends whatever Scripture teaches. 

Given the anthropathy at work in attributing this sort of anger to Yahweh, can we so easily escape the reality that redirecting anger at an innocent party does not (or at least need not) return the guilty party to good graces? (112).

The human family, not God, needs transformation, a reading that does not mesh well with this emphasis on the atonement as assuaging God's anger (114).

Penal substitution doesn't require a category of literal divine anger or wrath, &c. It can easily translate that colorful language into a more abstract concept like divine justice. Indeed, the necessary presupposition of penal substitution isn't divine wrath, but divine justice. That's the essential principle. 

If this logic is explanatory of the divine economy, how are we to understand those biblical accounts in which forgiveness is extended apart from the satisfaction of wrath (e.g., Mk 2:1-11)? (112).

That's a dubious argument from silence. The fact that Jesus forgave sinners like the paralytic without explicit reference to penal substitution or vicarious atonement doesn't imply that remission is independent of penal substitution or vicarious atonement. Indeed, Jesus would be working at cross-purposes to extend forgiveness apart from his redemptive death. It's more logical to infer that when Jesus forgave the paralytic, that was with a view to his impending death on the cross. That's why he came from heaven in the first place. His redemptive death is the presumptive basis for forgiving sins, in advance of his redemptive death. The relationship is teleological rather than chronological. That's why OT saints can be forgiven ahead of time. 

And although that's more abstract, it remains personal. Justice and injustice are properties of moral agents. 

Green's alternative disconnects the forgiveness which Christ extended to sinners like the paralytic from his death on the cross, as if Christ didn't have that in mind. It is in his proleptic capacity as the Redeemer that Christ forgave the paralytic. It makes no sense to disengage forgiveness from atonement. That renders the atonement superfluous. 

Schreiner has not addressed one of the principal questions raised against the model of penal substitutionary atonement, namely, that it presumes a breakdown of the inner-trinitarian life of God…How can one claim that the Son had to die on the cross in order to propitiate God's anger? (114).

That objection is misconceived. The Son didn't die to placate the Father's wrath. Divine justice is an attribute which the Trinitarian persons share in common. Although vicarious atonement to satisfy divine justice involves a contrast between Father and Son at the level of action, it does not involve a contrast between Father and Son at the level of justice. It's not as if the Father is the repository of divine justice, rather than the Son. No one person of the Trinity is sole custodian of cosmic justice. As an essential divine attribute, justice is common property of the Father, Son, and Spirit alike. 

I'm unsure how the model of penal substitutionary atonement generates transformed life (114).

Green acts as though penal substitution is defective if it fails to address salvation as transformation. But that assumes salvation should be reducible to a single overarching principle. Likewise, it assumes that salvation and atonement ought to be conterminous. 

If, however, sin has two basic components–moral corruption and culpability–then it's logical for salvation to have corresponding components. Penal substitution atones for guilt. That's the work of the Son. Sanctification generates transformation. That's the work of the Spirit. These are distinct, but complementary categories. It would be pointless to sanctify hellbound sinners. 

Focussed as it is on the individual, on forensic judgment and on the moment of justification, how can this model keep from undermining any emphasis on salvation as transformation and from obscuring the social and cosmological dimensions of salvation? If the purpose of God will be actualized in the restoration of all things, then how is this purpose served by a theory of penal substitution? How does the model of penal substitutionary atonement carry within itself the theological resolution of racism? What becomes of the soteriological motivation for engaging in the care of God's creation? Against the backdrop of texts like Col 1:15-20 and Eph 2, these are not peripheral questions (114). 

i) It's unclear what Green means by the restoration of all things. Only a universalist subscribes to that imagery without qualification. But in orthodox theology, not all agents will be reconciled to God. The damned are permanently alienated from God.

ii) It's unclear what Green means by the "cosmological dimension of salvation" and the "care of God's creation". Although the NT uses "cosmological" language, it doesn't use that in the modern astronomical sense. Most of the universe is lifeless and inhospitable to biological life. 

If he's indulging in a radical chic allusion to ecology, that stretches the concept of salvation. It's anachronistic to act as though the NT rubberstamps modern environmentalism, green energy, anthropogenic global warming, &c. 

Friday, October 13, 2017

Honor your mummy

On Facebook, I answered some questions from a curious unbeliever:

1.) Is there a “proper” Christian way to dispose of a body? 
Or is it all good, so long as there’s at least some well-meant attempt at a funeral rite?
Or is the notion of a “proper Christian burial” a more modern (man-made) idea.
2.) How come? 
Specifically, if there is a divine command to treat bodies in such a way, is there a “reason” given.
3.) If the soul is what’s important, and the flesh is — I’m not religious so forgive the words — dirty, or sinful or mostly irrelevant, etc. wouldn’t that leave treatment of the corpse kind of unimportant (spiritually speaking).

i) I consider cremation to be a legitimate way to dispose of the body. 

ii) Christian theology doesn't regard the body as dirty or sinful. Indeed, the body qua body can't be sinful: only agents can sin.

iii) Customs like a Christian funeral, memorial service, and/or graveyard service are ways to put death in a theological context, as well as honoring the life of the particular decedent (if his life was honorable), consoling mourners, as well as evangelizing attendees who don't normally come to church.

If incineration and burial are both on the table, is there anything that is particularly off the table?

Before commenting on specifics, there's the issue of symbolic reverence. For instance, a picture of your wife is not your wife, but if someone vandalized a picture of your wife, you'd resent that because the picture represents your wife. To vandalize a picture of your wife is to symbolically dishonor your wife.

It's analogous to funereal customs. The body of the decedent represents the decedent. If it's the body of a serial killer (say), there might be something to be said for ignominious disposal of the remains. But that aside, Christian funereal customs are designed to honor the memory of the decedent–among other things. 


From a Christian standpoint, that clings too much to this life. We need to be more heavenly-minded. 

Christians believe in honoring your mummy, just not mummifying her.

Sky burial?

i) To my knowledge, that's associated with Buddhism. Buddhism has a tragic worldview. Nothing lasts. Nothing we care about is permanent. So we should practice detachment. 

Sky burial represents the opposite extreme of mummification. It views the life history of individuals as essentially dispensable and disposable. That's in part because Buddhism is atheistic. 

ii) In addition, Buddhism subscribes to reincarnation, so there's nothing special about the decedent's body, since there is no one body that uniquely matches his body. He will have many unrelated bodies over the course of many lives. 

Donating one’s body to science?

Organ donation is morally commendable in principle. However, that's becoming abused. There's a trend to euthanize patients to harvest their organs. 

Burial at sea?

That can be appropriate for sailers and fishermen. Reflects their livelihood. And sometimes that's a necessary alternative to burial. 

Butchered and cleaned for consumption?

That goes to the ethics of cannibalism in general.

Taboo Calvinism

Most Calvinists I have ever read or heard or spoken to will insist that God is not the author of sin and evil. But can they, real Calvinists, say that with logic on their side? Or, when they say that, from within their own theological system, are they simply sacrificing logic entirely?

Calvin, Edwards, Sproul and Piper, just to name a few leading Calvinist theologians, affirmed that God foreordained the fall of Adam and Eve and thereby all of its consequences. According to one of them, put very bluntly but helpfully, God “designed, ordained, and governs” everything that happens without exception—including sin and its consequences (evil decisions and actions by fallen people).

The question that should automatically arise, then, is how does this avoid making God the author of sin and evil? I don’t think it can—from within the common Calvinist system of God’s sovereignty, providence and predestination of all things.

When asked to explain, to relieve the apparent contradiction, most Calvinists appeal to “secondary causes.” God renders sin and evil certain only through secondary causes. Two come to mind: Satan and fallen human beings. But we cannot avoid going “back” in our thoughts to how Satan came to be evil and how Adam and Eve fell into sin when they had fellowship with God—given that God “designed, ordained, and governed” (and rendered certain) even their evil decisions and deeds.

If Satan (Lucifer) and Adam and Eve fell into sin and evil because God foreordained it and rendered it certain, how is it possible to “get God off the hook?” It isn’t. In every intelligible sense, this view of God and evil traces evil back to God’s intentions.

Ah! Some Calvinists will say: God is not guilty because his intentions in foreordaining and rendering sin and evil and all their consequences certain are good. Satan’s and Adam’s and Eve’s (and ours) are not good. But that’s not the point here. (I could argue that one into the ground also, but I’ll leave that for another time.) Back to the point: It is simply illogical to say that God is not the author of evil insofar as one also believes God “designed, ordained” and rendered it certain—even if through secondary causes and with good intentions.

Two points here. First, in my experience, most young, impressionable evangelical Calvinists have not thought this through. As soon as it is pointed out to them (viz., that logically Calvinism makes God the author of sin and evil no matter what their favorite Calvinist pastor or theologian says) they either say 1) Oh, I hadn’t thought that, or 2) Whatever God does is good just because God does it. The latter is what their Calvinist mentors should say, but usually don’t because it doesn’t answer how God is not the author of sin and evil and it makes God morally ambiguous.

Occasionally a Calvinist theologian, pastor, teacher, writer, will bite the bullet and admit that, from within the Calvinist system, as explicated by Calvin, Edwards, Sproul, and Piper, God is the author of sin and evil. Then, suddenly, he is harshly criticized for falling into heresy.

Logic matters—in every theological system and even in the pulpits. If Calvinists want to avoid logical contradiction they need to “back up” and re-think their whole explanation of God’s meticulous sovereignty in which God designs, ordains and renders certain everything that happens without exception or else admit that they do believe (whether consciously or hidden even from themselves) that God is the author of sin and evil.

(Footnote: I do not consider anyone a consistent, true Calvinist who does not believe God foreordained the fall of humanity and rendered it certain. Here, in this essay, I am addressing only those true, consistent Calvinists who, together with Calvin, believe God foreordained the fall of humanity and everything else and rendered everything certain according to a divine plan. There are all kinds of people who call themselves “Calvinists” who I do not consider “real Calvinists” and there are all kinds of people who call themselves “Arminians” who I do not consider “real Arminians.”)

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Shoe-leather evangelism

Recently I've been listening to some Francis Chan clips on YouTube. I should preface my comments by saying my knowledge of Francis is quite cursory, so it's entirely possible that what I've seen and read doesn't reflect a representative sample, in which case my observations may be off-the-mark. Those who are more conversant with his ministry than me can correct or supplement my observations:

i) He strikes me as one of those communicators, like Jeremiah, St. Paul, and some of the Psalmists, who wears his heart on his sleeve. That makes him very engaging.

ii) Apropos (i), some preachers have a textual or doctrinal emphasis, whereas he seems to have an existential emphasis. Up to a point that's good. We're supposed to internalize the Gospel. Become what we believe. There's a danger, in theology and apologetics, where orthodoxy can be a substitute for application. 

The church needs different kinds of preachers. Preachers like Francis fill a necessary niche.  

iii) Apropos (i-ii), from what I've seen, he likes to use personal anecdotes as sermon illustrations. That's very engaging. Everyone likes to hear a good story. It can be edifying and inspirational. 

That said, over-reliance on personal anecdotes can be hazardous. That might contribute to pastoral burnout. 

If you keep dipping into the well of your personal experience for sermon illustrations, it won't be long before the dipper scrapes bottom. Each individual only has so many fresh, exciting anecdotes to share. In general, life is fairly mundane.

To vary the metaphor, over-reliance on personal anecdotes is like self-cannibalism. If you over-use your own experience, it's like feeding off of yourself, because you only have so much to spare. 

Imagine being stranded on a desert island. There's nothing to eat. To forestall starvation, you begin consuming "expendable" parts of your own body. You have ten fingers. Ten toes. Two arms. Two legs. How much of yourself can you consume and still survive?

I'm not saying for a fact that he has that problem. Perhaps his experience is sufficiently varied that he doesn't run dry. But there is a risk, if a preacher feels the need to spice up his sermons with new, thrilling personal anecdotes, that he will eat himself alive (as it were).

iv) Apropos (iii), Francis has a particular skill set. It would be a mistake for a greenhorn preacher to imitate Francis. As a natural public speaker, he can pull things off that somebody without his talent can't get away with.  

v) Apropos (iv), because the church has many members, the strengths and weakness of one member ought to be balanced out by the strengths and weaknesses of other members. Everyone has limitations. Don't try to be more than you are. Rather, make the most of whatever you are. 

vi) Apropos (v), Francis can reach many people in some demographic groups that old square white guys like John Piper, John MacArthur, and Charles Stanley can't. We need the variety.

vii) From what I've seen, Francis seems to have an appetite for modern miracles. And he has some striking anecdotes of special providence. For instance:

That's encouraging. There is, though, the danger of becoming deflated if you feel that you need to witness a new miracle every so often. Like, "Okay, God, that was sensational! But that's so last week. What have you done lately?" 

viii) Apropos (vii), the church needs people like Francis to shake things up. Keep devotional life from becoming too mechanical, perfunctory, complacent, set in our ways.

On the other hand, a large part of perseverance, of spiritual maturity, is coping with the hum drum of so much we have to do. Life can be grueling enough without having Olympic expectations. It's an achievement just to get across the finish line. 

ix) Francis has been criticized for quitting a megachurch that he started. I think one reason he quit is that he has a heart for personal evangelism. He feels a duty to connect with people face-to-face and one-on-one. That's not something the senior pastor of a megachurch has time for. The pastor to parishioner ratio prohibits much individualized ministry. That's delegated to associate pastors who do visitation and small-group ministry.

I can understand if Francis felt his church outgrew his sense of vocation. He wanted to get back to shoe-leather evangelism. And he has a knack for that. Can you imagine John MacArthur or Charles Stanley doing street evangelism in the Tenderloin neighborhood of San Francisco? Likewise, Francis recently addressed a high school audience. Even though he's already 50, he's naturally in his element with that demographic. 

And it seems to recharge his batteries. Gives him a chance to see God at work, transforming individuals. 

x) Francis became uneasy with his celebrity. In part, I think he felt unworthy. People were coming just to hear him.

And it's true that, ideally, people should come for the message, not the messenger. If, however, the messenger is what draws them to the messenger, then I don't think a preacher should feel guilty about their motivations. 

There a paradox about great actors and speakers: they have a natural talent, but once they get a reputation, it's hard for them not to become self-conscious of their talent. Instead of just doing what made them famous before they became famous, there's a temptation to live up to their reputation. They may lose some of the focus and spontaneity  that made the popular in the first place. 

For instance, Laurence Olivier was widely regarded as the greatest actor of his generation. Yet he got to a point in his career when he suffered from crippling stage fright. How can the world's greatest actor suffer from stage right, you ask? By having that hanging over your head every time you walk out on stage.   
It's a greater challenge for conscientious preachers, since their aim is not to impress an audience. They don't want to be the center of attention. They don't want to be the object of adulation. It's a dilemma for great preachers. They should just accept the fact that God is using them as instruments. God usually works through creaturely media. And he created the medium. 

Etch A Sketch theology

Catholic theology is written on an Etch A Sketch:

Circumscribing violence

One of the popular moralistic objections to the Bible concerns the holy war commands and holy war accounts. That's a popular trope among village atheists and "progressive Christians," as well as many OT scholars. My main point is that I think this objection has the issue backwards, but before addressing the main point, a few subsidiary observations:

i) War is brutal. I don't think the reader is expected to find this material uplifting. The ugliness is part and parcel of life in a fallen world.

ii) The hand-wringing and moralizing is a luxury of people who feel safe and secure. People writing in peacetime. 

Not surprisingly, people who find themselves in a war for natural survival are far more hard-nosed. A lot of disapproval heaped on the OT is a reflection of decadent culture elites in gated communities.

Mind you, it can be useful to live at a time and place where we are able to practice critical detachment. I'm not saying that automatically disqualifies the critic. But it also fosters self-deception, as people say things they don't really believe, if they found themselves in a life-and-death struggle. They can talk that way because it's a safe abstraction. They can afford to make disingenuous, unrealistic statements because it doesn't cost them anything. 

iii) Now to my main point: the holy war commands are countercultural. They reflect a dramatic restriction on what is permissible in warfare. 

Historically, many or most cultures, if they had the wherewithal, had no compunction about invading other countries or raiding other tribes for land, women, war captives, loot. They didn't think there was anything wrong with wars of aggression and conquest. Might made right. 

And they invented war gods to rubber-stamped their military campaigns. They just assumed they had divine sanction for military expeditions and raiding parties. 

Likewise, take the glorification of war in the Iliad. For centuries, that was a paradigmatic honor code. An ideal that young men aspired to. 

In the OT, by contrast, God does not endorse war in general. There's defensive war, with rules of warfare. And the only war of conquest was the occupation of Israel. 

So there was a drastic reduction in the kinds of wars deemed to be permissible. Moreover, the enemy was allowed to survive if he submitted to the God of Israel (e.g. Rahab, Gibeonites). So the OT massively curtails the scope of licit violence. 

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Who got what from whom?

NT scholars typically assume that if Matthew and Luke are quoting and editing Mark, they are not just literarily dependent on Mark, but substantially dependent on Mark. He's their source of information. Now, let us compare these three statements:

Reynolds (pp. cxxiii-cxxv) lists about 150 words that are placed on Jesus' lips in John but are never used elsewhere by the Evangelist. Not a few of these are sufficiently general that they would have been as appropriate in the Evangelists's narrative as in Jesus' discourse. D. A. Carson, The Gospel According to John (IVP 1991), 45.

It is interesting to note as one proceeds through the Gospel how often stylistic peculiarities of John appear on Jesus' lips first and only afterwards in John's narrative material (e.g. 2:4; 3:15; 5:17-23; 6:39; 7:33), suggesting that John's own style may at times have been influenced by Jesus' manner of speaking. And it is not quite true that the discourses of Jesus in John are wholly indistinguishable from John's narrate style elsewhere. No less than 145 words spoken by Jesus in John appear nowhere in the Evangelists's narrative material, and many of these are general enough in meaning that we might have expected them elsewhere (Reynolds 1906: cxxiii-cxxv). C. Blomberg, The Historical Reliability of John's Gospel (IVP 2001), 52. 

It is not true that the discourses of Jesus in John are wholly indistinguishable from John's narrative style elsewhere. H. R. Reynolds's much-neglected commentary lists over 145 words spoken by Jesus in John that are never used by the Evangelist elsewhere, and many of these are general enough that they would have been appropriate in narrative as well as discourse. C. Blomberg, The Historical Reliability of the Gospels (IVP, 2nd ed., 2007), 232.

1. I think there's clearly some literary dependence at work. And given the sequence of publication, I take it that Blomberg's statement in his earlier work is indebted to Carson. 

2. However, I think it's highly likely that Blomberg has direct knowledge of the commentary by Reynolds. So he and Carson share a common source. Blomberg is both dependent on Carson and independent of Carson. In other words, I assume he read both. 

In the earlier work, the wording of his statement seems to be influenced by the wording of Carson's statement. There's stylistic carryover. Stylistically, the data in Reynolds is filtered through Carson. 

In theory, it could be that he had the text of Carson right in front of him when he was writing his own commentary, and he consciously paraphrased Carson. But it could also be, and more likely be the case, that Carson's phrasing stuck in his mind, which subconsciously conditioned how he wrote that paragraph. 

And even if he's stylistically dependent on Carson's wording, he presumably had independent knowledge of what Reynolds wrote. It's an interesting question which he read first. Did he read Carson first, which alerted him to Reynolds, then he consulted Reynolds? As a careful scholar, he might double-check Carson's summary interpretation against the original source. 

3. Then there's the relationship of his later work to his earlier work as well as Carson and Reynolds. Did he still have Carson in the back of his mind when he wrote the later book? Seems more likely that in his later work, he paraphrased and abbreviated his own statement in the earlier work–without going back to reread Carson or Reynolds. He may have done that from memory or perhaps had the text of his own earlier work in front of him. 

Yet the statement in his later work shares some wording with Carson that's absent from his earlier work. It maybe that Carson's phraseology was still floating around in Blomberg's mind. 

Finally, we have:

Although John writes in a fairly uniform style throughout his Gospel–even when Jesus is speaking-there are at least 145 words used only by Jesus that appear nowhere in John's narrative sections. C. Blomberg, Jesus and the Gospels (B&H 2009), 181. 

By this stage, Craig may well have a stereotypical memory of original claim that's psychologically detached from Carson. Craig has written this often enough that it's like stock imagery. 

4. This illustrates some of the imponderables of source criticism and redaction criticism, as well as how some reconstructions erect a false dichotomy between firsthand and secondhand knowledge. Sometimes it's demonstrably both. 

The voice of Jesus and John

1. One issue regarding the authenticity of John's Gospel is similarity between the voice of Jesus and the voice of John (the narrator). Conversely, the difference between the voice of the Johannine Jesus and the voice of the Synoptic Jesus.

Explanations range along a continuum. At one end is the view that John's Gospel is pious fiction. The whole thing was fabricated by the anonymous writer.

Less radical is the view that the author rewrote the sayings of Jesus to impose stylistic uniformity on his Gospel. 

2. On one hand, there's the danger of exaggerating the difference between Jesus and John. 

i) For instance:

Reynolds lists about 150 words that are placed on Jesus' lips in John but are never used elsewhere by the Evangelist. Not a few of these are sufficiently general that they would have been as appropriate in the Evangelists's narrative as in Jesus' discourse.  D. A. Carson, The Gospel According to John (IVP 1991), 45. 

ii) Commentators typically think we can distinguish the words of Jesus from the words of the narrator in Jn 3. They think the narrator takes over at v16. So John's style is less homogenous than the objection assumes. 

3. The difference can be accounted for in part by demographic and geographic factors entirely consistent with the historicity of John and the Synoptics alike. For instance:

The location and setting of most of John's discourses differ from those in which the Synoptics take interest…Some variation in style may occur because in the Synoptics Jesus converses especially "with the country people of Galilee," whereas "in the Fourth Gospel he disputes with the religious leaders of Jerusalem or talks intimately to the inner circle of his disciples". 

Further, although only John reports lengthy interchanges between Jesus and Jerusalem leaders, there can be no question that interchanges occurred, especially during Passion Week, and they were undoubtedly longer than the Synoptics report.

Most scholars hold that Jesus used mainly Aramaic when he conducted his ministry in the rural parts of Galilee, But at times he probably taught in Greek, the regional trade language and language of the urban centers. He lived in a multilingual society, even if most people were not equally proficient in both Greek and Aramaic. C. Keener, The Gospel of John: A Commentary (Hendrickson 2003), 1:76-78.

4. In addition, the Matthew and Luke are basically a collage of disparate materials: monologues, dialogues, prosaic teaching, parables, miracles, exorcisms, travels, &c. Moreover, Matthew and Luke are crammed with this disparate material.

By contrast, John is far more selective. He takes more time to cover less ground. That in itself results in a pronounced stylistic difference, but it's not "stylistic" in the rhetorical sense of how to word things.

5. What is meant by the distinctive Johannine style, anyway? In John's Gospel and 1 John, the author is repetitious. His style is often an extension or elaboration of his favorite key words, key metaphors, and key motifs from the OT. He rings the changes on these elements. 

But what's the source of those elements? It's possible that this reflects his own observation and cast of mind. But it's equally possible that Jesus is the source of his key words, metaphors, and OT motifs. 

6. Sometimes one person's speech imitates another person's speech. A paradigm example is how the syntax and diction of kids will imitate their parents or older siblings. 

7. Bishop Robinson (The Priority of John) has argued that Jesus and John were probably cousins. 

According to the Gospels, John's hometown was Capernaum while Christ's hometown was Nazareth. These are only 20 miles apart. At a time when people travelled on foot, that's not a great distance.  

Therefore, it's quite possible that Jesus and John were childhood friends. If so, Jesus may have made a profound impression on John during his formative years. Jesus has an overwhelmingly dominant personality. And if he was a older cousin, one can imagine John, as a boy, looking up to Jesus, as an inspirational role model. 

Even if you think this is too conjectural to lay much weight on, it brings out the fact that we know next to nothing about the background of the disciples. About their social life before Jesus summoned them. It's not something we can rule out. And there's no presumption against it. 

8. In my experience, people are apt to recount the same anecdotes. Although we experience life like a continuous movie reel, we remember and interpret our lives by mental snapshots. Particular events of personal significance that we use as a frame of reference. 

In that respect, John's Gospel is consistent with an eyewitness account. A naturally selective focus on events that stand out in his mind. If you spend much time around older relatives, they have a habit of repeating a handful of anecdotes. These are paradigmatic experiences. John's Gospel is like that.

9. Assuming that John authored the Fourth Gospel, how could we envision the process of composition? Was he hunched over a desk, manually writing his biography? I doubt that.

More likely, he dictated his memoirs to a scribe. Other Christians may have been in attendance when he did that, listening to him reminisce about Jesus. They might have asked him questions. The scribe would record the answer, but not the  question.

If the process was basically along those lines, then John's Gospel is a transcription of oral history. A record of the spoken word. If so, the spoken word has a different flow than the written word. Who said what–the speaker or the narrator–may sometimes seem blended insofar as there won't be the explicit literary transitions you have in a history or biography that originated in a written text from the outset. That's not a stylistic difference in the rhetorical sense of how to express things, but a difference in medium between the spoken word and the written word. 

10. I'd add that many of the shorter statements of Jesus in the Fourth Gospel (e.g. the "I am" sayings) are aphoristic sayings in simple, and frequently picturesque language. There's no obvious incentive for John to rewrite them. No reason they couldn't reproduce what he actually said in the way he said it. 

Tuesday, October 10, 2017



In high school, Eric was an atheist. He exulted in his Nietzschean emancipation. A member of the honor society, Eric's IQ was definitely above average, but well short of brilliant. Yet he viewed himself as a superior being compared to his benighted classmates. He had particular contempt for a special ed student–as well as Josh, an openly Christian classmate. Eric regarded Christianity as a crutch for the weak. He disdained its "slave morality". He used to quote Mark Twain's adage, “I do not fear death. I had been dead for billions and billions of years before I was born, and had not suffered the slightest inconvenience from it.”

Although Eric derived momentary satisfaction from looking down on others, and contriving clever putdowns, he felt empty and bitter. That attitude ate away at him.


One weekend, some students organized a hike up the mountain. There were two small teams. Josh was in the first team, ahead of the second team, which Eric was in. When they began their ascent at the crack of dawn, it was a clear, chilly day. But further up the trail, it became overcast. At that point Eric removed his sunglasses. About an hour later, Eric's vision became blurry and painful. Despite the cloud cover, unfiltered UV rays from the thin air in combination with reflected light from snow-blanketed hillsides, induced snowblindness. 

The first team reached the summit, then began their descent, crossing paths with the second team, on the way up. By the time his team was approaching the summit, Eric could no longer see well enough to continue. He had to sit down. He told his classmates he was losing his vision. But they left him there while they made it to the summit, to take in the spectacular view. 

On the way back down, they walked past Eric. He was hoping, expecting, counting on one of them to lead him back down the trail, since he couldn't see well enough to navigate the trail on his own. But his classmates were worried that he'd slow them down. They needed to make it back to base camp before sundown, since they couldn't see the trail in the dark and temperatures plummeted after dark. So they left him behind to fend for himself.

Eric cursed them out leaving him behind, to die from exposure, but they quoted back to him one of his fond Nietzschean aphorisms: "The great majority of men have no right to existence, but are a misfortune to higher men."


So Eric sat by himself, desperately pondering what to do next. Although he could barely see, he tried to text-message Josh to come rescue him. 

At first he didn't remember Josh's number. Then, for the first time in his life, he prayed. A moment later, he remembered the number. 

He wasn't sure his message was intelligible, since he couldn't see the keypad properly, and he wasn't sure Josh even got the message, because reception was spotty on the trail. In fact, he wasn't sure if he had the right number. 

So he sat by himself in lonely silence and fading light. Fading, not because it was getting dark outside, but because his eyesight was fading. Minutes later, he was totally blind. 

Eric sat there for what seemed like hours. He realized that he was terrified of death. He didn't really believe Twain's adage. All along, he was playacting, having cast himself in a flattering role. He used to love quoting Nietzsche's death-defying maxims, but he only wanted to live dangerously if it wasn't really dangerous. 

So he sat and sobbed. He swore at God, if there was a God, for letting him die on the mountain side. 


Having lost hope, and having lost track of time, Eric was surprised and startled when he heard Josh call to him. Josh gave him a hug, and Eric cried. Josh waited for Eric to regain his composure, before putting eyedrops in his sunburned eyes, then winding a bandage around his eyes to keep him from blinking. 

Then Josh took him by the hand and began to lead him down the trail. When the trail was rough, Josh put Eric's arm around his shoulder to guide and steady him. 

It was too late to make base camp before dark, so they had to find a place on the trail, below the timberline, to camp out overnight. Josh gathered wood for a fire. Eric was utterly helpless. Josh fed him rations–spooning the spam out of the tin can with his finger. They snuggled for warmth during the frigid night.

Next day they continued their descent. After arriving at base camp, they spent another day and night in one of the cabins until Eric regained his sight. 


After that, Josh and Eric were best friends. Eric began to read the Bible, asking Josh questions about the Bible. He attended church with Eric. Befriended the special ed student. In college, Josh suffered a crisis of faith, and it was Eric to prayed for him. 

Decades later, Josh predeceased him. On his deathbed, Eric reflected on his brush with death as a teenager. Once again, he was facing death, yet the contrast made all the difference. 

Christ and Churchill

Critics of the Gospels make a big deal about what the Gospels don't say. They deploy the argument from silence to question the historicity of the Gospels. And it's true that the argument from silence can sometimes be telling, if there's an expectation that a writer would mention something in case he knew about it. But even that inference can be precarious. 

I've been dipping into The Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis; Volume II : Books, Broadcasts, and the War, 1931-1949. I begin with the index, then read entries that interest me. 

There's only one letter (April 21, 1940), to Warnie, that mentions Churchill in passing: 

On Thursday I dined at the Carlyles. The old man was in great form. He highly praised Churchill's Marlborough...(399).

That's in a volume with a 1000 pages of letters spanning the lead up to the war and the war proper. Jack doesn't even mention Churchill in his pivotal role, at the time of writing, as the wartime prime minister, but Churchill as author and historian. 

The only reason he even mentions Churchill at all is because Carlyle referred to Churchill's biography of Marlborough at dinner, and Jack thought that tidbit would interest his brother since Warnie had a copy of the biography (according to a footnote). So it's just happenstance that there's even a single reference to Churchill in Jack's collected correspondence. 

You'd never know from the letters what a dominant figure Churchill was in English politics during this long ordeal, when England was facing a war for national survival. Indeed, a political giant at the time. 

Ironically, the reason he doesn't crop up more often in the correspondence is because he was too central, too important to mention. That's ubiquitous common background knowledge. 

Monday, October 09, 2017

In retrospect

To understand the Spirit of the Lord in the OT it is first necessary to recognize that the Christian understanding of the Holy Spirit (as a distinct person of the Trinity) is due to progressive revelation and is not exactly how the Israelites would have viewed the Spirit of the Lord, in the Old Testament, and especially in the book of Judges, the Spirit of the Lord is portrayed as an extension of the presence, power, and authority of Yahweh. 

While some scholars have identified the appearances of the angel of the Lord as theophanies or Christophanies in which God (or the Second Person of the Trinity) himself is revealed, there are a number of problems with such a view. First, the Christophany view forces NT theology onto earlier OT texts, which violates the concept of progressive revelation and makes exegesis secondary to theology. Second, the Christophany view dilutes the uniqueness of of the incarnation event and undercuts the teaching of Heb 1, which reveals Christ's superiority over the angels (cf. 1 Pet 3:22). Third, both views ignore what is now widely known from ancient Near Eastern practices that envoys, who were sent by kings or deities, functioned as authoritative mouthpieces for their superior. Like a prophet, who occasionally shares the same title (malak, see Hab 1:13; cf. 2 Chron 36:15-16; Isa 42:19; 44:26; Mal 1:1; 3:1), the messenger would often speak the words of his sender in the first person, and the recipients would respond to it as though they were dealing directly with the sender. Thus is it preferable to understand the angel of the Lord not as an ontological equivalent to God himself (e.g. note how the Lord is distinguished from the angel in Judg 6:21-23 and 13:16) but rather as a function that is filled by a human or angelic intermediary who is sent by God to speak and act on his behalf. K. Way, Judges and Ruth (Baker 2016), 30,79.

This raises some perennial issues in hermeneutics. I've discussed the general issue on many occasions, but now I'd like to approach it from different angles:

1. The first time you see a movie or read a novel, or read a history book (assuming you don't know the plot), you're in the same situation as the characters or participants. Like theirs, your viewpoint is prospective. You don't know what to expect. You don't know how things will turn out.

When, however, you see a movie or read a novel for a second time, your viewpoint is retrospective. Because you now know how the story ends, you bring that later insight into how you interpret the earlier action. The first-time perspective is unique and unrepeatable. 

There are, in fact, some people who only see a move once or read a novel once because, having lost the element of surprise, they lose interest. But that's pretty shallow. 

2. Take some concrete examples. If you're reading Gen 2-3 for the first time, you share the blinkered viewpoint of Eve. You don't know what the serpent is up to. 

But on a second reading, the scene has dramatic ironic because you now know something Eve doesn't. She's oblivious to her peril. This conversation will lead to expulsion from paradise. There's a particular suspense in seeing that someone is in danger when they themselves are oblivious to the danger they are in. Alfred Hitchcock used the example of having viewers see a man put a time bomb in a box, and put the box under a table. The audience knows when the bomb will go off. People sitting at the table have no idea.

Or take the scene of David viewing Bathsheba's bathe. On a second reading, you don't view that incident in isolation. Rather, you know that this will set in motion a disastrous chain reaction. You know far more about the consequences of David's fateful lust that he knew at the time. You know where it all leads, like falling dominoes. 

Consider the curse sanctions in Deuteronomy. Reading them in hindsight, which is, of necessity, what all of us do, is a different experience than hearing the warnings for the first time, in advance of the Babylonian exile and Assyrian deportation. We can't really forget what we know. What was future for them is past for us. We inevitably read those dire warnings with a sense of fatalism, not in the que sera sera sense, but because we know what happened and how it happened. 

Or take a thriller in which the behavior of one character is initially puzzling and intriguing. As the plot unfolds, it turns out that he is a spy. That explains his enigmatic behavior early on. It's not as if, upon each rereading, we should try to forget the plot. That's not something we can do, even if we tried.

3. In general, there's nothing exceptional about bringing later information to bear when we interpret a story. That isn't unique to how some Christians read the Bible. To the contrary, that's how we read stories generally. 

4. To be sure, we need to guard against anachronistic interpretations of a certain kind. This in part raises the question of whether the viewpoint of a particular audience supplies an interpretive frame of reference, and if so, what audience would that be? Is it the original audience? Or is it the canonical audience? Compare an OT Jew who only had the Pentateuch–with post-exilic Jews (e.g. Ezra, Nehemiah, Zechariah, Malachi, the Chronicler). They read the Pentateuch, not as a self-contained literary unit, but in light of Israel's evolving history as well as Israel's evolving canon. They are able to see a trajectory leading out of the Pentateuch. Is that a misguided perspective? How can they not read the Pentateuch in light of subsequent historical and canonical developments? That's well before we ever get to the NT. 

5. If the Spirit of God is same individual in the OT and the NT, if the OT successful refers to the same individual, if the Spirit of God is a distinct person of the Trinity, then he will have the same attributes across time (indeed, across possible worlds) even if our knowledge of the Spirit is progressively revealed. Like my example of the spy in the thriller. He was already a spy when the story began. His true identity only became apparent in the subsequent course of events, yet even though other characters were ignorant of his true identity, the reader is privy to something they don't know. 

Suppose oil reserves are discovered on a parcel of land in 1950. Although that's the first time the property was known to have oil reserves, the land had those reserves for thousands or millions of years. That was already true about the land, in the distant past. 

6. To take a different example, Abraham is the ancestor of David. Of course, you wouldn't know that if all you had to go by was Genesis or the Pentateuch. But suppose you're a Jew living at the time Samuel was written. So you have everything up to and including Samuel as your canonical frame of reference. That will shed a backward casting light on Abraham in Genesis. On God's plans for Abraham and his posterity. On the historical significance of his covenant with Abraham.

7. My maternal grandfather is one of my ancestors. He died before I was born. At what point did he become my ancestor? There are different ways to answer that question. You might say he became my ancestor when I was conceived. But given my existence, he was always going to be my ancestor.

Suppose you were alive when he was alive. Suppose you had foreknowledge of his progeny. You'd already view him in the larger context of his descendants. 

Or, to consider this from yet another angle, if my mother is my ancestor, and her father is her ancestor, then he became my ancestor when she was conceived. The ancestor of my ancestor is my ancestor. I can view his ancestorship retroactively. 

8. Over and above the general hermeneutical issue of progressive revelation in reference to the angel of the Lord:

i) What's the difference between a theophany and a Christophany? In my opinion, the OT usually refers to "God" or "Yahweh" without further Trinitarian specification. By the same token, the angel of the Lord doesn't necessarily represent out any particular person of the Godhead. It could just be generic. 

If so, there's a sense in which a theophany will include a Christophany, just as the Trinity includes the Son. Although a theophany doesn't single out the Son, the Son will be included in a theophany. In that respect, there's a false dichotomy between theophanies and Christophanies, for a Christophany is a subset of a theophany. 

ii) An OT Christophany wouldn't dilutes the uniqueness of of the incarnation event for the obvious reason that an OT Christophany isn't an OT incarnation. It's categorically distinct.

iii) An OT Christophany wouldn't undercut the teaching of Heb 1, which reveals Christ's superiority over the angels, for the obvious reason that, on a Christophanic identification, the Angel of the Lord isn't an "angel" in the sense of heavenly, discarnate creatures, but God manifesting himself by simulating an angel.

iv) Some apparitions of the angel of the Lord are neutral on whether that's a theophany or angelophany, but in other cases (e.g. Gen 18; Exod 3), it doesn't have the same status as a creaturely envoy, like a prophet of God.