Thursday, February 19, 2009

Guest post: Scripture, Ministry and the People of God – Introducing a new blog

A guest post by Mark Stevens

As a celebration of the official launch of "Scripture, Ministry and the People of God" I (Mark) have two copies of Eugene Peterson's "Under the Unpredictable Plant" to give away (A book that changed my life and helped me to hear my vocational call). All you have to do to be in with a chance of receiving one of the copies is, follow the blog (on the right hand side of the page), promise to add me to your RSS feed, and perhaps leave a comment or two! Finally, I would like to thank Chris for his help and support and Jim West has been a great sounding board for the original concepts for the blog. Thank's guys! UPDATE: I will announce the book winners towards the end of February.

Why does "Scripture, Ministry and the People of God" exist? Or, why does a Minister feel the need to blog?

The truth is I do not feel the impulse to blog for blogging sake. What I find of utmost importance is the need for me to continue my biblical and theological reflection and blogging is the avenue for me that encourages this. As a minister I often find the nature of parish ministry drawing me away from the discipline of biblical and theological reflection. I am not referring to ministry with people in our church who at unexpected and even sometimes at unwanted times call on us to be their minister. I refer to the business or busyness of ministry that subtly leads us astray. I wrestle with my schedule longing to have more time to reflect and the reality that there are only so many hours in a day. I try as best I can to prioritise what I deem important and work hard to allow my week to be formed by my values and not needs or distractions. Nevertheless, this is a tension in which I will always dwell as a parish minister.

It seems to me that for many of us, once we leave our colleges and universities, reflection stops and the work of ministry begins. However, it is within this context, if we allow it, that our theological journey takes on a new frontier; that of practical theology! Practical theology is not a theology of method, as Anderson argues, rather it is the, “critical engagement with the interface between the Word of God as revealed through scripture and the work of God taking place in and through the church in the world” (Ray Anderson, The Shape of Practical Theology, 2001, p.8). It is precisely within this tension that reflection takes place. A helpful metaphor in understanding my own vocation as a minister is, “theologian in residence". It is important that this metaphor not be used as permission to lock myself away in the Minister’s study and pour over scripture and the church fathers seeking to develop my own theological agenda. Rather it is permission to escape ministry as a business or management. It helps me to see my role as more than the day-to-day needs of the church. It is a vocation explored within the context of the community for the community. The distractions that I mentioned are the very outworking of Christ’s ministry in our midst. The phone call, the visits, the paperwork and even the sermon preparation are the necessary tension to theological reflection. As Eugene Peterson might say, “this is where we see Christ at play” and where we reflect on the nature and work of God revealed to us! It is in ministry that we find a playground for the unpacking of our theology.

In my role as “[theologian] in residence” I seek, as Anderson explains, “to interpret scripture, tradition and praxis, in order that the contemporary praxis of both church and world can be transformed” (Ray Anderson, The Shape of Practical Theology, 2001, p.33). As a minister who is helping a community understand who they are as the people of God and what that means with our particular context theological reflection is the method in which I am seeking to adjust or recalibrate the two horizons of gospel and mission so that they are horizontal. The task of theological reflection for the minister must not become a purely academic exercise. It takes place as an act of prayer and submission to God. It is explored within the context of relationship, Father, Son and Spirit and the community of God’s people. As we worship and pray, as we seek to listen to God and discern the movements of his grace in our midst we are indeed reflecting on the God revealed in Jesus Christ. As theologian in residence I am a “Practical Theologian” in service to God and his people, calling the church to its task of a missionary community established in Christ and thrust out by the Spirit.


Thursday, January 29, 2009

Guest Book Review by David M. Moffitt

My thanks to Brill for a review copy of Hebrews: Contemporary Methods—New Insights. BINS 75. Edited by Gabriella Gelardini. Leiden: Brill, 2005. Thanks also to David for another insightful review. Again, before I hand over I should note that the Greek font used is SPIonic.


The general trend to read the texts of the New Testament as works that belong within the pale of Second Temple Jewish literature, and thus more and more against the background of a Jewish milieu, has largely left the subset of Hebrews scholarship unaffected. I have no wish in this brief review to impose a reductionistic dichotomy between Judaism and Hellenism. Nevertheless, to paint with a broad brush, it seems to me that the world of Hebrews scholarship has remained happy to assume that, if any New Testament text can be considered pervasively influenced by Greco-Roman philosophy, rhetoric, and culture—surely this is it. Hebrews, many believe, represents a kind of Philo-like fusion between early Palestinian Jewish proclamation about Jesus and the bigger world of the Hellenized diaspora. As a result, a great number of assumptions about the cosmology, Christology, soteriology, and eschatology of the document have largely remained insulated from the sea change going on in the rest of the New Testament canon. Hebrews: Contemporary Methods—New Insights (now available in an affordable paperback edition) is one of a handful of recent publications containing hints suggesting that even the inlet of Hebrews studies is starting to be affected by the turning of the tide.

I cannot here detail all the essays in this volume. For a more thorough survey of the contents of the book see that of C. Patrick Gray in RBL:,2272,4895,2150,1059,6070,6966,5102,5445,5732. Instead, I will highlight two essays illustrative of what I consider to be some of the book's contributions vis-à-vis the kind of change alluded to above.

The volume's very first essay by Ekkehard and Wolfgang Stegemann is entitled "Does the Cultic Language in Hebrews Represent Sacrificial Metaphors? Reflections on Some Basic Problems" (pp. 13–23). In this piece the brothers Stegemann helpfully remind us that, "[D]ue to our epistemological paradigm, the sacrifice of Christ can a priori be ruled out as a potential historical referent [for the language of Jesus' heavenly offering], since from the perspective of our worldview heaven is no place for historical events" (p. 15). In other words, our modern worldview makes it easy for us to assume that the use of cultic and heavenly language in Hebrews to describe Jesus' salvific work "must be theological and metaphorical" (p. 17). The Stegemanns carefully note that they are not offering a detailed discussion of theories of metaphor (p. 14). Rather, they wish to point out to us that Hebrews scholarship has often used the language of metaphor in opposition to that of real, historical, objective representation. There is what actually happened (Jesus was crucified), and there is the metaphorical language of sacrifice and heaven used by the author to create the spiritual/existential significance of the earthly event. All of this looks like the sort of thing we might expect from a good Platonist after all.

The Stegemanns' essay is more a word of caution than a constructive proposal for how we should then read Hebrews. Yet, their brief word of exhortation offers us an opportunity to demythologize some of our own assumptions. What if, for example, the author of Hebrews does not imagine himself as interpreting the real, earthly event of Jesus' death by way of appeal to a spiritualization of the cultic practices depicted in Jewish scripture? What if he is not speaking in terms of metaphors (where the language of "metaphor" is understood along the reductionistic lines that the Stegemanns, rightly in my view, think many scholars intend when they use it)? What if, as those at Qumran seem to have thought, the author believes that there really exists a heavenly tabernacle (that Moses really saw), that there really is a heavenly liturgy and throne, and that Jesus really went to that place? It is not clear that a relatively orthodox Platonist would think this way, though a Jew with apocalyptic leanings just might. The Stegemanns do not develop their point in this direction. It seems to me, however, that their critique of our implicit assumptions at least provides a little space for us to try to reimagine the message of the homily along the lines of Jews who read their scriptures more like the apocalyptic writers than like Philo.

The second essay I want to highlight is that of Christian Eberhart entitled "Characteristics of Sacrificial Metaphors in Hebrews" (pp. 37–64). As the title suggests, Eberhart approaches the depiction of Jesus' death in Hebrews in terms of a metaphorical appeal to the sacrificial system. Yet, relying largely on his own massive research into Hebrew sacrificial practices, he encourages us to take the biblical accounts of sacrifice more seriously in order to clarify what the content of a metaphorical appeal to those practices might be. The first half of his essay provides readers with a concise summary of his own work and the backdrop against which it stands. One of his claims is that the Jewish scriptures do not identify the climax of a sacrificial act with the slaughter of the victim (p. 49). Rather, the offering, i.e., the bringing of the sacrificial blood (or other materials) into the presence of God, is where the effectual benefits of the act are obtained. Referring to the purifying/atoning results of blood sacrifices, Eberhart points out, "[T]his purification would not happen if the animal of, e.g., a sin offering were to be slaughtered without the subsequent blood application rite being carried out" (p. 58). In such cases the death of the victim is a sine qua non for the blood rite, but "the moment of slaughter as such … has no particular significance" (ibid.). One of the interpretive payoffs for Eberhart is that the references in Hebrews to Jesus' blood can be more clearly understood as emphasizing Jesus' death as the prerequisite for salvation. The term "sacrifice" can then be seen as referring to more than just the crucifixion. That is, in keeping with Hebrews' own logic, the sacrifice of Jesus should be seen to be inclusive of his death and "transition from earth to heaven where he now serves as the heavenly high priest" (p. 64).

As an exercise in pushing us to think seriously about the ways sacrifice probably worked, or at least is depicted in the Jewish scriptures, Eberhart does us a great service and helps us begin to think through the Jewish milieu of Hebrews afresh. It is not uncommon for interpreters to conceive of Hebrews as an attempt to map the death and ascension of Jesus onto the two supposedly great moments of Yom Kippur—the slaughter/death of the victim and the offering of its blood. The work of Eberhart, however, challenges this conception of Yom Kippur. There was only one great moment—the presentation of the blood. In light of Eberhart's work, I find it interesting that the preferred verb for Jesus' priestly action in Hebrews is prosfe/rw (prospherō – meaning "to offer, present") and never qusia/zw (thusiazō – meaning "to sacrifice"). Eberhart, unfortunately in my view, translates the verb prosfe/rw with the gloss "sacrifice." Let me be clear that this is probably more an issue of English rendering than the Greek per se, but if the emphasis in Yom Kippur really does fall on the presentation of the sacrifice (where "sacrifice" is a noun) and not the act of slaughter, then it seems more accurate to bring prosfe/rw into English as "to offer/present," than as "to sacrifice." To sacrifice (especially oneself) in contemporary English parlance calls to mind an act that brings about death and connotes all kinds of things that may actually muddy the point being made by the author of Hebrews (and brings too much of Paul into Hebrews to boot). Some translations are more careful about this (e.g., the RSV), though some, like the NIV, prefer to gloss prosfe/rw as "to sacrifice" and thereby leave English readers with the impression that Jesus sacrifices himself in Hebrews. In fact, Jesus always offers himself to God (i.e., he is never the subject of the verb qusia/zw in Hebrews), and, interestingly, when the author speaks explicitly about where this occurred, he locates it in heaven.

I realize I may be accused of hair splitting (and that many will likely want to challenge some of my previous comments by pointing to passages like 10:5-10), but, while the semantic domains of these two Greek words overlap to a high degree in cultic contexts, the very evidence Eberhart deduces about the high point of blood sacrifices being the presentation of the blood before God may suggest that the author of Hebrews is more careful in thinking through the relationship between Jesus' death and Jesus' ascension/priestly activity in heaven and Yom Kippur than is generally assumed. In keeping with my comments above, perhaps we ought to take Hebrews' language of Jesus' offering himself, his body, and his blood, which incidentally is the agent of life in Leviticus, not death (a point that Eberhart notes; cf. another essay in the volume, that of Ina Willi-Plein, "Some Remarks on Hebrews form the Viewpoint of Old Testament Exegesis," [pp. 25-35, esp. 33]), in heaven more seriously. Perhaps, that is, what Jesus does in heaven is, very much in keeping with the biblical account of Yom Kippur, far more important for atonement in Hebrews than the crucifixion.

Space already fails me to say more. My own views on the points I raise above are being hashed out in my dissertation (a very brief abstract may be viewed here: Suffice it to say that Gelardini has compiled a volume of interesting and engaging essays, and I am grateful to Brill for publishing it. I recommend this book to anyone interested in learning more about some of the current issues being debated in Hebrews scholarship.

David M. Moffitt

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Friday, January 23, 2009

Guest book review: Misquoting Truth

My thanks both to IVP for a copy of Timothy Paul Jones's Misquoting Truth. A Guide to the Fallacies of Bart Ehrman's Misquoting Jesus and to Samuel Ciszuk for his review.

With the basic teachings of Christianity more or less constantly under fire and its demise proclaimed by a multitude of experts for what seems to be a host of different reasons for decades –at least here in the West, one should by now have expected inflation in the appeal of books proclaiming the end of Christianity being nigh. Perhaps at least one should expect people in general and Christians in particular to have become blasé by alarmism and approach their critics a bit more sceptically and patiently. Not so, it seems, as those attacking the validity of Christianity's basic tenets still seem to have a huge opportunity to impact believers', who allow their doubts to be fed and the carpet of trust in the basic tenets of their faith being pulled from underneath them, while not applying at least the same level of questioning against the critics themselves as they apply to their own faith.

One who did not panic when faced with serious questions, but paused for thought and then wrote a book to answer some of the latest claims of fallacy levied against the New Testament (NT), is Timothy Paul Jones, who in his "Misquoting Truth, A Guide to the Fallacies of Bart Ehrman's Misquoting Jesus" (2007, IVP Books), gives a strong defence against claims from a fellow textual criticism scholar, Bart Ehrman. Ehrman claims that so many mistakes have entered the NT and so many different versions have been put together, that the NT of today has very little in common with what the eyewitnesses of Jesus and the apostles originally wrote. His book "Misquoting Jesus", made discussions within the highly technical field of textual criticism accessible to lay readers, explaining much of the field's intricacies, while forcefully putting forth his revisionist thesis about the validity of the NT and his –to the lay reader often shocking claim- that "there are more differences among our manuscripts than there are words in the NT". Because of Ehrman's accessibility, his book became something as rare for a textual criticism tome as a bestseller, thereby taking the place as perhaps the only book on the subject read by many a believer -struggling to deal with the book's message- or indeed un-believers, inoculating them safely from coming to view the Bible as any reliable source of truth and authority. Jones' "Misquoting Truth" therefore fills a deeply needed void, in that it continues on Ehrman's path in making textual criticism even more accessible to readers without formal theological schooling, while systematically addressing the allegations of textual fallacy raised by Ehrman.

Jones does not spare energy on gracefully meeting Ehrman's contentions head on, chapter by chapter allowing Ehrman to speak for himself through numerous and often lengthy quotations, before attempting to paint a picture of what actually more-or-less is the broad consensus among scholars and going through the evidence which testifies against Ehrman's claims. Jones goes through the facts surrounding the original NT manuscripts in chapter 1, placing them into their historical context and also explaining how they were handled in the early church. In chapter 2 he delves into an assessment of the copyists, who copied and preserved the original texts, describing their stringent standards and meeting Ehrman's questioning of their abilities. In chapter 3 Jones meets Ehrman's criticism about the truthfulness of the Gospel full on, exposing the flaws in his reasoning and laying bare the facts which actually are widely agreed upon within the international body of NT contextual criticism scholars. First in chapter 4 does Jones takes his argument further, from defending the NT against Ehrman's charge and into scrutinising Ehrman's questions themselves, demonstrating how they seem bourn out of a will to find fault with the Gospel, rather then out of a fair will do research eventual textual discrepancies. In the second part of the book, Jones outlines and introduces the concept of oral history, the Gospels' authors, the concept of historical eyewitness testimony and how the books now forming the NT were originally chosen, in their respective chapters, informing and educating the reader, while continuing to undermine the basis for the relevance of Bart Ehrman's questions. The book is finally tied up with some more personal remarks from the author, tying his personal journey through theology and contextual criticism in with Bart Ehrman's and reflecting on their respective different outcomes.

Throughout the book, Jones meets Ehrman's charges of fallacy against the NT in a highly gracious way. Perhaps he is even too gracious, given how successfully he appears to not only defend the NT, but also expose Ehrman's questions as being the wrong questions -posed out of an initial will to discredit the relevance of the Gospel, and therefore exploiting a lack of detailed knowledge among readers in order to seem relevant, rather then to base them on anything even remotely close to objectively defined problems.

While successfully meeting a large swathe of charges against the validity and trustworthiness of the NT, the book is also a wonderfully easy and concise introduction to the history, background and treatment of the Gospels, as well as the field of contextual criticism. It is full of "fact sheets" and "know more"-boxes, for everyone needing to get a quick background on everything from parchment, to characters like Marcion of Sionpe. The will to make all jargon and terms understandable to all is perhaps taken too far occasionally, slowing down the narrative somewhat. Also, I might have found the narrative a little bit too personal and chatty at times, although that arguably is a question of taste. While, luckily, not all of us have struggled with these issues, I would clearly recommend the book to everyone. Not having given these issues any particular attention, I was rapidly drawn in by the book and it is my firm belief that any reader's respect for the Gospel and for the early Christians will be strengthened by it.

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Sunday, January 18, 2009

Guest Book Review: Martin Hengel's Die vier Evangelien

My thanks to Dr Thomas Scott Caulley, of Tübingen's Institut zur Erforschung des Urchristentums, for the following superb review of Martin Hengel's, Die vier Evangelien und das eine Evangelium von Jesus Christus, WUNT 224, Tübingen: Mohr/Siebeck, 2008. Before I hand over to Scott, I would point out that the Greek font used in the review is SPIonic, which can be downloaded here.

This work is an expansion of Hengel's book, The Four Gospels and the One Gospel of Jesus Christ (SCM/TPI, 2000). The new volume is a re-working of the Vorlage from which The Four Gospels was translated, "um über 40 prozent auf den jetzigen Umfang". Both volumes are dedicated to Hengel's long-time translator and friend, John Bowden, who translated The Four Gospels. Some of this material has roots in Hengel's earlier work, including on the Gospel titles and John's Gospel.

While Hengel engages with the latest scholarship, this book is more than just an updating of the literature. The new section VII.2, "Die 'Minor Agreements' zwischen Lukas and Matthäus gegen Markus", is significant. The previous section VII.1 ("Das Rätsel 'Q'") includes changes which transition to the new material. On the other hand, most of the additions are supplemental to the overall argument, which remains unchanged.

Hengel begins with a two-part problem: (1) What is the relationship between the early Christian understanding of "Gospel" as the preached message (Paul); to the written "biographical" reports of the four Gospels, and how can both of these represent the same title ("Gospel")? (2) How is it that we possess these written "Gospels" in a four-fold form, which though canonical, presents us with several contradictions? He restates the problem in two overlapping questions: (A) "What was the 'Gospel' originally, as the message of salvation? Was it accounts of Jesus from his closest followers, or was it teaching about him as "christology" and "soteriology"? Or is this only an apparent contradiction? Must not the Gospel have necessarily contained both from the beginning? (B) Why, and from what time have we had the "Gospel" also as story (Erzählung), and indeed in such different literary forms?

Hengel's answer to these questions leads to the conclusion that the gospel was both "proclamation" and "story". He points to proclamation in 1 Corinthians 15:1-11, but notes that "story" was not totally absent in Paul. The "narrated Gospel" is most important in the case of Peter, whom Hengel believes stands firmly behind Mark's Gospel. Finally, Hengel compares the Gospel to the Torah, two examples of the "Erzählung des Heilsgeschehens".

Hengel defends a traditional "slow-growth" theory of the development of the four-Gospel collection, against recent attempts to redefine that development as "punctiliar" (variously, T. Heckel; D. Trobisch). He faults H. Gamble (Books and Readers) among others for perpetuating the old assumption that the Gospels were circulated as anonymous documents—Hengel thinks the titles were necessarily present once the Gospels began circulating. "Jedes schriftliche Evangelium braucht den Nachweis der Autorität, die dahinter steht". The reception of Mark's Gospel in Rome, the congregation which emerged as de facto leader of the Christian west after the destruction of Jerusalem and Neronian persecution, marks the transition from the use of the term "Gospel" as preached message to written document.

Hengel's detailed account of the first Christian "book cupboards" is integral to his argument. As book titles met the needs of the libraries, scriptoria and book shops of hellenism, the titles of the Gospels were functional necessities in the church from early on. Hengel notes what others have pointed out, namely that in the manner of ascription, the titles of the Gospels break with convention found throughout the hellenistic world. This usual form is the genitive of the author's name, followed by the title of the work. Indeed, this conventional form is used with the Catholic epistles (Pe/trou e)pistolh/ A). The apparently unprecedented Kata\ Ma/rkon, etc. as ascriptive title is a shortened form, presupposing the collection title, "The Gospel(s)". The short titles within the collection should thus be rendered: "(The Gospel) in the version according to Mark", or "Luke", etc. But since "der eigentliche 'Autor' des einen Evangeliums war Jesus Christus selbst", the ascription to the "human author" in the genitive is inappropriate, and we find instead in Mark 1:1, "The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ". Thus, the title of the work cannot read simply "Ma/rkou eu)agge/lion", as convention would dictate, and the double genitive Ma/rkou eu)agge/lion )Ihsou~ Xristou~ would be stylistically very awkward.

Hengel argues for the priority of Luke over Matthew. He sees in the Lukanischen Doppelwerk the work of a "direct" Paulusschüler as well as Pauline companion. Acts cannot have been written a long time after Paul. Where would an anonymous 2nd century author have acquired the historical details in Acts which are largely confirmed by a comparison to Paul's epistles? The "We" sections in Acts are not from an unknown source, but are autobiographical reports in the same style as the entire work. Citing Luke's Passion narrative with Jesus' admonition about the coming catastrophe (Lk 23:28-31), Hengel asserts that the author of Luke must have experienced those days, after which he also was involved in the disputes with fanatical Christians over the imminent expectation of the Parousia.

In the last part of the work Hengel outlines his case that Matthew is the latest of the Synoptics, and dependent upon both Mark and Luke. In general, Matthew reflects the Jewish War only where he inherits the material from Mark. On the other hand, like John Matthew reflects the later development of the Christian argument with the Synagogue that emerged as stronger after the war. Matthew presupposes the post-70 emergence of the Pharisaic Scribe as preeminent religious authority in Palestine, a situation reflected throughout the Gospel, but especially in Matthew 23 (the hendiadys "Scribes and Pharisees", and Matthew's special material "The Scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses' seat; so do what they say, but not what they do..."). The trinitarian formula of Matt 28:19 suggests a relatively late time of writing. Finally, next to John's Gospel Matthew presupposes the furthest development of the polemic between Jews and Christians. Hengel adds a section here not found in The Four Gospels expanding his argument for the early date of Luke-Acts. In closing, Hengel cites the irony that the two "non-apostolic" Gospels are the earlier of the four, and closely linked to the apostles. The other two are later, and bear the apostolic names with which they were provided. Once a Gospel had been identified as apostolic, all subsequent Gospels must also be apostolic.

Hengel builds a plausible case for the origins of the reception of the Gospels in the early churches. He notes that in hellenistic contexts, under certain circumstances a well-known pseudepigraphical name was given to a document so that it would not be anonymous. It is suggested that the first Gospel received its title in this manner. But this solutions begs the question, Who made such decisions, and how did they become nearly universally accepted, and, seemingly "over night"? The argument, "once a Gospel had been identified as apostolic, all subsequent Gospels must also be apostolic" seems a bit contrived. Was this not rather merely a function of advancing time and changing needs of the communities?

While Hengel makes an impressive case for the early superscription of titles to the Gospels, pushing the events back into early obscurity does not ultimately answer the questions about the remarkable uniformity of the Gospel titles, the near-universal popularity of the codex in Christian circles, and the seemingly universal use of the nomina sacra in early Christian texts. In fact, Hengel's argument against D. Trobisch (that "the Vierversammlung cannot have been the work of an individual Christian authority or school, since no person, no school, and no congregation in the early 2nd century possessed the authority and power to impose on everyone else their individual decision about a four-Gospel collection") appears to work against his own case. While we owe Prof. Hengel a great debt for illuminating the events and possible motivations behind the development of the four-Gospel collection, the search continues for more complete answers to these basic questions about the early Christians and their scriptures.

Thomas Scott Caulley

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Thursday, October 30, 2008

Guest Book Review: Sumney’s Philippians Greek

My thanks both to Hendrickson Publishers and to Luke Welch for his review. Luke revels and excels in detail, as you will read.

Review of Jerry L. Sumney, Philippians: A Greek Student's Intermediate Reader, 2007 Hendrickson: Peabody, Mass.

The book under review is an attempt to ease the transition from first year Greek to reading the New Testament by explaining and parsing every word in Philippians and discussing the syntax thereof. This concept is based on the educational system either in Bible Colleges or Seminaries in North America. After a short introduction to the letter of Philippians, including the provenance, integrity, purpose and text, he proceeds with the Greek text NA27 and an English translation of every section of the letter. The introduction is based primarily on commentaries both in English and in German.

In the first section to Phil 1:1-2, the author offers basic syntactical observations and a word study of dou=loj. It may have been preferable to introduce the student to the principles of a word study, a concept that seems to still be deeply rooted in the Evangelical tradition in North America. What he says about the word dou=loj is true, but is the word not also used outside of the New Testament? This is a fundamental presupposition to hermeneutics and not necessarily a critique. I would however take issue with his "converting" the nominative xa/rij and ei0rh/nh into infinitives then using Smyth, 2014 to sneak the optative into the translation. I agree, an optative should be included in the translation, but it could be just as correct to say that it is implied, or that we should think that the author meant to include ei1h or plhqunqei/h (I Pet 1,2). The next comment, "Compare this use of the infinitive in commands in Smyth, 2013" (5) is incomprehensible to me. If this were a discussion on the use of the infinitive in I Peter, it would be justified. He then cites Wallace's categorization of this phenomenon, "nominative absolute" (5), but unfortunately leaves unanswered how these two suggestions should fit together. Are they infinitives or nominatives in a special function?

The overall goal of the first section was however reached. The reader could with very little knowledge translate or at least understand this section of Philippians with ease.

Continuing to read, on page eight one is confronted with the suggestion of a certain Peng, I am not sure if he means Paine. He correctly sees pas with the article as meaning "whole" but the translation is a bit awkward. The use of e0pi/ plus a dative is also brought into the discussion. This maybe should have been worked out, since this is an important but small distinction. In classical Greek, a temporal dative with a preposition would have been construed with e0n. In Koine it seems that the meaning of e0pi\ and e0n overlap, or there distinction has somewhat been diminished, something confirmed by the substitution of one for the other in manuscripts (Eph 6,16).

There are some keen observations on page 8 and 9 but then we stumble upon another "conversion" of the Greek. ei0j is understood as equalling a dative of advantage, then he introduces the dativus commodi as a grammatical category. It then becomes clear that ei0j can mean "for the sake of," but should this not be discussed under meaning of the preposition?

As a reviewer one cannot discuss every single sentence in a given work, but it would be hoped that this sort of work is done in classrooms where this book could be of service.

I can skip ahead to some exegetically significant passages.

Among the keen observations on Philippians 3,4-6 are: zh=loj as a neuter, something easily overlooked and the use of the designation Israel and the indeclinable Israel and Benjamin. Names are always difficult for students of NT Greek, I don't recall them in a beginning grammar of NT Greek. The comments to "Hebrew of Hebrews" leaves the reader wishing the author had cited his sources. He also confuses the discussion by using the designation "Palestinian." This designation was later an important one in the early church and the superscription is after all on one letter in the NT "to the Hebrews."

A sketch of NT syntax, a glossary and an annotated bibliography round out the book.

A few words about the overall character of the book are in order. The author seems to be committed to the syntactical system of Daniel Wallace. This point is not defended or discussed. He proceeds as if the categories are as much true as the text of the NT. These categories are partially constructs based only upon usage in the NT with very little reference to other Greek works from this time. It is never asked, "how would someone have expressed this in Greek of the time?" This said, one other point should be mentioned, the citation of BDF and Wallace seems to follow closely the register of those given works.

The placement of this work in this tradition can lead me to say, I could recommend this book for second year college students, and perhaps second semester seminary students, although at the graduate level the works BDF and others should be consulted directly. The book offers one text as a working basis to learn syntax and therefore bridges the gap to Wallace for those students who do not enjoy reading single sentences for grammars sake.

Luke Welch

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Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Guest Book Review: Nelson Moore on James McGrath’s The Burial of Jesus

James F. McGrath is Associate Professor of Religion at Butler University in Indianapolis, Indiana. His newest book, The Burial of Jesus: History and Faith (Booksurge Publishing, 2008,) is without question a good read.

The book is imminently readable and at 142 pages, easily digested. It is not a scholarly tome – there are no footnotes, no critical interaction with other historical Jesus scholarship, and many areas where he could have elaborated but chose not to. Rather, this is a book written by a biblical scholar for a popular audience.

McGrath has three primary goals: to introduce the average reader to the historical reasearch methods employed by biblical scholars, to put those tools to work in the historical study of the burial of Jesus, and ultimately to convince the reader that a bodily resurrection did not take place and is not a necessary component of Christian faith. This last goal is not explicitly made public in either the title or the opening chapters of the book, but by the time the reader arrives at the the final pages, there can be no mistake that this really is high on McGrath's priority list.

Chapter 1 – Introduction

McGrath shares his concern in the opening chapters about two elements of contemporary religious life in America. One is the proliferation of conservative Evangelical and fundamental strains of Christianity. The other is the popularity of television documentaries that seek to show "what the scholars have discovered" and then present often sensationalized or one-sided claims – claims that seem more oriented around drawing a large audience than around dealing in a thorough and reasoned manner with historical and archaeological material. So McGrath is annoyed by both of these. And in response to that he has produced this book.

He notes also in the first chapter that since the claims that Christians make are often historical (e.g. Jesus lived, Jesus died, Jesus was buried) it is simply a requirement that the tools of historical study be employed to investigate what happened. It would be ridiculous to make historical claims and then resist the attempts of historians to evaluate them.

Chapter Two – Research Methods

McGrath spends chapter two laying out his argument for how historical research in Gospel studies should be done.

He does a good job of laying out the tools of historical research. In general, historians have access to ancient records (in our case, gospel narratives, Pauline epistles, other early documents) and archaeological finds (signets, cookware, weaponry, etc.) It is the job of the historian to examine this data and draw conclusions. No historian worth his or her salt would ever accept written sources uncritically. As a result of this, Prof. McGrath will expose the biblical narratives to the same kind of critical inquiry. And he is not afraid to reject biblical sources that display evidence of tampering.

McGrath then proceeds to use the tools of historical critical biblical study to examine the Synoptic Gospels. He does a fine job outlining what is the majority opinion among New Testament scholars today: Mark was written first; Matthew and Luke used Mark as a source; Matthew and Luke seem to have shared a second common source that we often refer to as Q; Matthew has some material that is totally unique to his Gospel; so does Luke. A careful reading of this material will help one realize that these are not wild claims that are invented by an imaginative scholar, but rather are reasoned conclusions based upon careful examination of data.

Based upon his work here, McGrath concludes that Matthew and Luke have heavily modified the original story for theological and rhetorical purposes. As a result, they are not reliable as historical sources. This conclusion will become very important when he later examines the burial of Jesus.

Chapter Three

In chapter three, McGrath puts to work the historical research methods that he laid out in chapter two. Due to his conclusions there, he will use the Markan account almost exclusively. He draws the following conclusions.

It is virtually indisputable that Jesus existed and that he was crucified. While history will encounter some who from time to time seek to deny these facts, the historical record is really rather clear. It is also virtually certain that Jesus really did die. Theories about how Jesus could have survived crucifixion are most unlikely.

He concludes that the words ascribed to Jesus as he hung on the cross are in all likelihood fictive. He concludes that Jesus' body was in all probability laid in a mass criminal's grave, used often for the purpose of entombing crucified criminals. The likely motive for the Sunday visit of Jesus' followers was to get the body out of this dishonorable location and to give the body of their fallen leader a more proper burial. The whole tradition surrounding Joseph of Arimathea, the desire of the woment to anoint the body, the existence of the guard at the tomb – all are rejected as unhistorical.

What we can conclude, therefore, is that Jesus lived, he was crucified, he died, and the body was missing on Sunday morning. As an historian McGrath is willing to concede that it is possible that the body rose from the dead. But he does not believe that the tools of historical inquiry can reach that conclusion. (And since he believes those are the only tools suitable for historical research, he does not draw that conclusion.)

Chapter Four

One might expect a book entitled The Burial of Jesus to end at this point. McGrath continues his exploration, however, to investigate what happened after the tomb was found empty. (He is particularly interested in examining New Testaent experiences with the resurrected Lord because as a Christian, he believes that they are still happening.)

McGrath examines Paul's testimony and notes that Paul has no empty tomb references. He then points out that "all such details which emphasize the physicality of Jesus' resurrection body are in the latest of the New Testament Gospels: Luke and John" (106). He concludes concludes in chapter four that it was not the existence of an empty tomb that created resurrection faith, but rather encounters with the risen Christ.

Chapter Five

Chapter five is McGrath's attempt to lay out what resurrection and faith look like in light of his findings. He briefly examines Christian beliefs regarding concepts such as eternal life, final judgment, the immortality of the soul, and the like. Among other things, he draws the following conclusions. New Testament authors speak of eternal life not as "going to heaven whe you die" but rather something to be experienced on earth. In the Bible, judgment is more often than not something you need to be concerned about while on earth. A non-corporeal resurrection of Jesus corresponds more clearly with what Christians have believed regarding their own fate. "If it makes sense to regard eternal life as something non-bodily, then surely the appropriate action is to regard Jesus as having entered eternal life in precisely the same way and same form as will eventually happen to all" (130). This corresponds to the concept of Jesus as forerunner.


The Burial of Jesus by James McGrath is definitely worth purchasing and reading. For those unfamiliar with how historical work is done in Christian academic contexts, McGrath provides a wonderful primer. If you are a biblical scholar, you may find this book very valuable as a resource to share with friends or students who are looking to understand historical scholarship. All in all, I thoroughly enjoyed this work.

by Nelson Moore

post scriptum

I would like to thank Chris Tilling Really Very Holy Ministries for the opportunity to present this material. May Tom Wright be blessed.

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Friday, August 22, 2008

Guest Book Review: OT Ethics

My thanks to Phil Sumpter for the following review, and to the kind folks at IVP for the copy.

Christopher J. Wright, Old Testament Ethics for the People of God (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2004)

The title alone is enough to make you baulk at the scope this volume attempts to achieve. This isn't just a description of the ethics of ancient Israel, nor is it a description of the ethics found in the literary deposit of this community: “the Old Testament.” It is an attempt to locate the ethics of both within their true Sitz im Leben, the lived contemporary reality of the true Israel, the Church. Before we even enter its pages, then, one can expect at the outset an attempt to integrate historical critical, literary, philosophical, and theological concerns in a synthesis of the like rarely encountered in the guild of biblical studies. Whether Wright has succeeded will remain to be tested by those with an adequate knowledge in all these areas. Critique by specialists in only one area will run the risk of confusing the particular with Wright's broader vision.

A three-dimensional approach to OT ethics such as this, which strives both for descriptive accuracy and theological normativity, cannot be content to tell us “what the OT said.” A model is needed in order both to integrate the parts and span the horizons, and this is the task Wright's first section: A Structure for Old Testament Ethics. He takes the now well-known route of “world-view” analysis (á la N.T. Wright) in order to provide a context in which to make sense of and correlate the mass of OT ethical material. Though he often talks of “what an ancient Israelite thought,” it is clear that the world view he has in mind is the one presupposing the entire OT canon – an entity with its own hermeneutical and theological integrity (see footnote 3). If one poses this totality the four “world-view questions” (Where are we? Who are we? What's gone wrong? What's the solution?), we come up with an “Israelite” answer along the following lines: we are in God's creation, created for relationship in the image of God, the created order is in a state of fallenness due to our rebellion and so God's solution has been to initiate a historical project of redemption. The “we” in the narrow sense is Israel, elected to be the means of God's redemption in the world. As Wright goes on to explain, this “we” can be expanded in different directions: either paradigmatically to stand for humanity as a whole, eschatologically to stand for the redeemed community of the eschaton, or typologically to refer to the church.

Wright identifies three primary “actors” in this world-view who stand in triangular relationship to each other: God, Israel and the Land. This so-called “ethical triangle” provides Wright with a framework for sifting through the diverse OT material as well as a foundation for expanding the OT material beyond its original horizon.

These three “pillars of Israel's faith” are padded out in the following three chapters. Accordingly, the “theological angle” provides us with the “fundamental axiom” of OT ethics: “ethical issues are at every point related to God—to his character, his will, his actions and his purpose” (23). Wright takes us through the OT's presentation of God's identity, particularly as it is manifested in the narrative accounts of his actions. This activity, salvific in nature, provides a foundation for ethics. God takes the initiative (e.g. the exodus), his people respond, and obedience flows out of thankfulness for this action. These actions are combined with God's speaking (e.g. at Sinai) in order to bring about his purposes for creation through Israel. Wright sums up the heilsgeschichtliche context: “Old Testament ethics, based on history and bound for a renewed creation, is thus slung like a hammock between grace and glory” (35). In the meantime, our actions should be grounded in a knowledge of this God as we emulate him by “walking in his ways.”

The “social angle” references Israel on the triangular grid. Wright points out that within the aforementioned meta-narrative, redemption has a social dimension. In Gen. 12:1-3 God responds to the fall by choosing a nation, which was to pattern, model and be a vehicle of this redemption. In terms of the application of OT ethics, then, our hermeneutical procedure must take very seriously the communal nature of the people of Israel. We must not jump from isolated principles to the present, but rather first locate that principle within its original social context. Only then can we draw an analogy with present “Israel,” before going on to see the implications for the world at large. Yet the distinctive nature of this nation as opposed to the other nations must not be lost. This nation has a unique experience of God, which gives its history a didactic quality. Through it we learn about God (the “theological angle”) and we learn how to live (the “social angle”). In short, Israel is God's paradigm, an important concept for Wright as he attempts to make Israel's ethics ours. According to Wright, a paradigm is

a model or pattern that enables you to explain or critique many different and varying situations by means of some single concept or set of governing principles” (63).
Israel as paradigm helps the Church today implement what was true then to a new situation now.

The final essential element in Israel's world view is the Land, providing us with an “economic angle.” When understood within Israel's story, we see that the promised land is a theological entity, part of the pattern of redemption. The understanding of the land as both divine gift and divine tenement, for example, has what Wright calls “enormous paradigmatic power” for the appropriation of Israel's economic ethics. Within the divine economy, we see that the welfare of the land and its inhabitants functioned as a “covenantal measuring gauge,” signally the quality of the relationship between God and his people.

Following the belief that “God's relation to Israel in their land was a deliberate reflection of God's relation to human kind on the earth” (183), Wright moves on in the following two chapters to work out the implications of this “redemptive triangle” for the ethics of ecology and economics in general. In the case of ecology, for example, he discovers parallels to the affirmations made at the narrower level concerning Israel in the land of Canaan: “divine ownership (the earth belongs to God, Ps. 24:1) and divine gift (the earth he has gifted to humanity, Ps. 115.16)” (103)—the so-called “creation triangle.” This double claim becomes the foundation for Wright's ethical reflection in the following two chapters. The fact that a concern for ecology is largely foreign to the authors of the Bible demonstrates how we can paradigmatically appropriate the Bible's principles for issues beyond the Bible's original horizon.

The most intriguing chapter is the sixth, in which Wright, having now illustrated ways in which the Bible can be paradigmatically appropriated, rises once again to theory in order to discuss two others ways of appropriating the OT: the eschatological and the typological. By means of fascinating triangular diagrams, he shows how these different methods are distinct yet complementary. Paradigmatically interpreted, for example, the land becomes the earth as it is now: cursed. Eschatologically, the past becomes a template for the new, and so we have a foretaste of the new creation. Typologically, for the apocalyptic community caught at this point in the “in-between-time,” the land is now fulfilled by the koinonia, the fellowship of believers. This complex interrelationship is then demonstrated exegetically in relation to the jubilee (Lev. 25).

The rest of this main part of the book is dedicated to further ethical issues: politics and the nations, justice and righteousness, law and the legal system, culture and family and finally the way of the individual. The volume is rounded off in Part 3 with a historical overview of the church's wrestling with this question, a bibliographic overview of the contemporary attempts to deal with the question of OT ethics from a confessional standpoint and a detailed discussion of hermeneutics and authority in the OT. A final appendix presents us with some broad perspectives which Wright finds helpful for setting the “Canaanite question” within it the context of broader biblical considerations. Though Wright doesn't feel he has solved the issue, he feels these considerations help “contain” them.

In response, I can only echo a critic's comments on the blurb at the back of the book: this book is “truly a magnum opus and should be at the top of the reading list for any student, teacher, minister or layperson interested in the relevance of the first part of the Bible to modern ethical issues.” Issues that have dogged the church since its inception are taken up once again and re-articulated in a clear, logical and thorough manner, taking into account the latest developments in rhetorical, literary, and, to a degree, canonical criticism. Whether Wright's conclusions become the consensus opinion of the next generation obviously remains to be seen, but I can't imagine future discussion of the issue ignoring the well-thought out arguments laid out in this book.

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Thursday, July 10, 2008

Guest Book Review: Our Mother Saint Paul

My thanks to WJK for a review copy and to Alisha Paddock for her review.


Beverly Roberts Gaventa, Our Mother Saint Paul, Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2007. 218 pages, $24.95.

In Our Mother Saint Paul, Beverly Roberts Gaventa embarks on a project long in the making. Gaventa has long been interested in Paul's use of metaphors, especially those referring to the role of mother. She not only combines articles previously written, but also brings them up to date by adding new insight and research. In this book, Gaventa takes on two tasks. First, she investigates four passages in which Paul uses maternal imagery and second, she explores Paul's theology, specifically in Romans, keeping God's apocalyptic act at the forefront of her discussion.

In part one, Gaventa argues, and rightfully so, that the passages in which Paul employs maternal imagery have been neglected or glossed over in recent scholarship. After isolating these passages, Gaventa discovered that Paul uses these metaphors to add new dimensions to the apostolic office. In 1 Thessalonians 2:7, Paul portrays himself as both an infant and as a nurse taking care of her own children. Apostles are not only to be innocent and childlike, but also "the responsible adult" who tends "charges with care and affection" (27).

In Galatians 4:19, Paul writes that he is going through the pain of labor again until Christ is formed. Paul is so desperate not to let Galatians return to their pagan ways, he is willing to go through the painful birthing process again. Gaventa argues that Paul shows how an apostle is to "birth" people into the family of God.

In 1 Corinthians 3:1-3a, Paul is dealing with spiritually immature believers who cannot handle solid food, but milk provided by a "nursing" Paul. This utilization of maternal imagery has a three-fold function. One, it stresses the importance of the concept of family (which is lacking in the Corinthian community). Two, it "places Paul at the margins of what is perceived to be 'genuine' manhood," to show the apostolic role is of servant leadership (50). Three, it emphasizes the bond between Paul and the Corinthian believers which is akin to the bond between a nursing mother and her child.

In the final passage (Romans 8:22), Paul is not the one who takes on the role of mother, but it is all of Creation which is in labor. Here Gaventa contends that one has to read this text apocalyptically. Even though Creation is in labor, what is awaited is not Creation birthing something, but God's actions of adoption and redemption (57).

The second part of Our Mother Saint Paul attempts to place the passages from part 1 into their proper apocalyptic context. The first half is an in-depth look at Paul's autobiographical remarks in Galatians 1 and 2. Gaventa argues strongly that these verses should not be looked upon only as an apology, but as a way to show how the singular gospel Paul preached puts an end to "all prior commitments, conventions and value systems," including Paul's Jewish beliefs (93).

The second half of part two thoroughly examines the letter to the Romans and its apocalyptic context. Gaventa explains that God had an active role in handing over Creation to "cosmic conflict" (113). She also clarifies that the idea of sin in Paul's letter is more than a transgression, but an anti-God Power (capital 'S' Sin) that is defeated by Jesus' resurrection (127). With this defeat of the cosmic powers believers are liberated, but this freedom comes with certain behaviors and boundaries. Believers are actively to support one another, be engaged in prayer and thanksgiving, all serving in the house of the Lord. The boundaries of the believing community are "the shared memory of God's action" against Sin and Death and "God's persistent calling and saving" of both Israel and Gentiles (143).

One of the more important contributions to Pauline discussion OMSP brings is a new framework in which to deal with the issue of women in the Church. Gaventa maintains that Paul's gospel is one that "obliterates worlds" (68). There is no room for gender in Christ. Instead we are a new creation in which identity markers mean nothing. Gaventa does not attempt to answer the questions she poses, but to present them in order to prompt more discussion.

Beverly Roberts Gaventa sheds light on texts and wrestles with issues that have been in the dark too long. But there is one issue I have with the book. Part one and part two do not seem to be connected. After the introduction of part two, there is no mention of maternal imagery; the focus turns wholly to explaining Paul's apocalyptic context. Gaventa needed to work a bit harder keeping the theme of maternal imagery at the forefront of the reader's mind. This might have been achieved had there been a conclusion to the book. A summary would have helped the reader place the metaphors mentioned in part one into their apocalyptic context. Overall, Gaventa sets forth a new and refreshing perspective that will add much to Pauline scholarship, doing a wonderful job going where few men have gone before.

Alisha Paddock

Manhattan Christian College
Manhattan, Kansas

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Monday, June 30, 2008

Guest Book Review: Doubting by McGrath

First, my thanks to IVP for a review copy of Alister McGrath's Doubting. Click here for the table of contents and an excerpt. Second, thanks to Nelson Moore for the following. As you will realize by reading his superb offering below, Nelson has a very sharp mind and he is not afraid to say what he honestly thinks. Plus it made me laugh. Prepare for a tremendous review ... Hang on, this sounds like I'm reviewing a review! I'll stop now.


The book at hand was originally published by IVP in 1990 under the title Doubt. Its current edition, entitled Doubting, first appeared in 2006. It is written not for an academic audience, but rather on a popular level, having originally been created as a series of talks to a group of university-aged people. Because of this, I do not recommend this book for those who are trained in theology or philosophy. You will be disappointed by its thin content in many areas.

The book is divided into eleven chapters, each of which attempts to deal with some element of the overall discussion. For example, chapter one attempts to define the terms "faith" and "doubt" while chapter two discusses what McGrath calls "the vain search for certainty." The list goes on (doubts about Jesus, doubts about the Gospel, etc.) as McGrath tries to provide a cursory treatment of a variety of matters relating the doubt and faith.


McGrath does deal capably with some items. He responds quite helpfully in chapter one, for example, to the notion that faith should be defined basically as the absence of doubt. In this model, one begins with doubt and as soon as every single doubt has been overcome, then the residue is called faith. McGrath rejects this model, viewing faith as more of a "saying 'yes'" to the call of God – a call to which people respond despite the fact that do not have the answer to every objection.

He also does a very good job in chapter two supporting the claim that no side in the debate over the existence of God is going to have absolute certainty. He is quite clear that faith in Jesus is ultimately going to require a leap (p. 25) in which you choose to believe and follow. Take heart, however, because your ideological opponents also need to make a leap in order to arrive at the conclusion that no God exists.

In some of his later chapters, he does a good job of using biblical narrative in a pastoral manner, drawing upon the Exodus narrative and subsequent wilderness wanderings, for example, to illustrate the need for persevering faith. There are plenty of instances in which he engages the biblical material in this way. These later chapters also contain simple, practical advice. Read the Bible, pray, join a community of faith so that you are not alone in your spiritual walk. I certainly do want to endorse his counsel on these matters.


Despite the above, I was disappointed by the book in many ways. My biggest objection is that at no point does McGrath ever address the question of whether doubt can be good and healthy. If the Jehovah's Witnesses come to my door, for example, and try to convert me, should I not exercise a kind of Cartesian doubt and ask them to prove their position? Or should I just jump on board and believe them, since to doubt is sin? Obviously, I am going to doubt them; and if I am going to do that with the JW's then it only makes sense that I have a similar doubts about traditional Christian claims. In short, there has to be some legitimate place for doubt and McGrath never addresses the question of where this is. (He would obviously agree with the statements above – he just never deals with the subject in the book, and that is my objection.)

I also found myself a bit disappointed by the thin treatment of philosophy. It seems odd to have a book that talks about faith as a leap without ever discussing Kierkegaard. And while Ravi Zacharias mentions Descartes in the foreword, I do not believe that McGrath ever discusses the French philosopher in the context of doubting what cannot be proven. Does it really make sense to write a book that is self-describedly geared toward university students and then never cite the philosophers whose insights you are using?

The exegete in me finds the book quite thin when it comes to actual biblical exegetical work. I know it's written for a lay audience, but I don't think it's wise to write a book in which you define the word "faith" without doing some pretty hefty exegetical work.

And finally, some of the statements McGrath makes are just plain silly. I will provide the most egregious two examples.

Chapter two is entitled "Doubt and the Vain Search for Certainty." While the chapter ultimately proved to be quite good, I cannot help but comment on the following passage.

"Absolute certainty is actually reserved for a very small class of beliefs – for example, things that are self-evident or capable of being logically demonstrated by propositions. Christianity does not concern logical propositions or self-evident truths, such as 2+2=4, or 'the whole is greater than the part.' Both of these are certainly true, and we are able to know such truths with absolute certainty – but what is their relevance to life? Realizing that 'the whole is greater than the part' isn't going to turn your life inside out! Knowing that two and two equal four isn't going to tell you anything much about the meaning of life. It won't excite you. Frankly, the sort of things that you can know with absolute certainty are actually not that important" (23).

I am trying to imagine McGrath's response if his pharmacist were not altogether concerned about 2+2=4 when dispensing life-saving medication. Or perhaps the pharmacist might counsel a patient to swallow the whole bottle of pills since it doesn't really matter that the whole is greater than the part. That a trained scientist and theologian would make such an absurd statement is nothing short of stunning.

In chapter eight on "Doubts about Jesus Christ," he brings up the question of whether or not the resurrection might have been some sort of cover-up. He writes, "Doubts about the resurrection arise from suggestions – along with the deep-down feel of some Christians – that the resurrection is just too good to be true!" Such a statement is so ridiculous I can barely respond to it. I think people doubt the resurrection because it is difficult to believe! Now I do believe in the resurrection, but I think we need to engage skeptics sincerely, not with ridiculous platitudes.


In my own spiritual and intellectual life, I definitely find myself beset with doubt. "What if this whole Christianity thing really is just kind of a pre-modern folklore that arose to fill a psychological need?" "What if I leave behind other business opportunities to enter ministry, only to learn down the road a bit that the whole thing is a fraud?" "What if Dawkins is right?" "What if Mohammed is right?" These are very legitimate questions and I have been beset at times with every one of them. And it is clear to me that Alister McGrath also takes them seriously. I just wish he did a better, more thorough job of answering them.

If you are well educated regarding Christian life and thought, I suspect that you will want to skip this book. And if you are trained in philosophy, you will definitely want to skip it. But if you are more of an "average" person who is exploring the world of faith and doubting, then you may well find some encouragement from Alister McGrath's Doubting.

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Monday, June 02, 2008

Guest Book Review: The War on Terror

My thanks to the kind folk at IVP for a review copy of Megoran's book, and to Phil for another great review.

Nick Solly Megoran, The War on Terror: How Should Christians Respond? (Downders Grove, Ill.: IVP Books), 2007

Conservative Evangelicals have in recent years acquired a reputation for being so individualistic and other-worldly that they have lost sight of Church's obligation to be engaged in the pressing social and moral issues of the present. Whether true or not, Nick Solly Megoran can be seen as an example of a committed Evangelical, rooted in the tradition of Martin Lloyd-Jones and John Stott, for whom this is clearly not the case. His book is a plea to Christians to analyse their gospel and turn to their scriptures in order to face the most important challenge of our age: the War on Terror. His concern is not only to equip Christians to think about war, but also to build them up in their faith in Christ and enable them to witness to the gospel by talking sensibly to non-Christians in the context of discussions about war. This book has therefore a strong devotional and practical dimension. Each chapter opens with a discussion of a particular portion of the Bible and closes with concrete examples of how these biblical principles have been put into practice.

The War on Terror is divided into four sections with a final appendix. In Part one, Megoran gives an account of various responses to the War on Terror, both secular and Christian. The phenomenon of Islamic terrorism has been variously defined as either an “irrational evil” by those on the right or as the result of “government oppression” by those on the left. Both of the main protagonists, Bush and bin Laden, describe the war as one between good and evil. There is also diversity amongst Christians, depending in large part on whether they take up a pacifist or a “just war” position on violence in general. Megoran believes the former is the more biblical, which brings us to Part 2.

The chapters in Part 2 deal with the big questions raised by the war on terror. The first concerns the realism of Jesus' command that we should love our enemies (Mt. 5:9, 38-48). While not wanting to undermining the difficulty of this command, Megoran believes it is the only way to demonstrate the true nature of God and bring about genuine transformation. Just as God has reconciled to himself us who were once his enemies, so we are called to demonstrate the same grace to our enemies. We are liberated by the experience and empowered by the Spirit to do so. In other words, the key to the solution of war is the gospel of justification by faith (44). Reconciliation with God is good news for everyone: terrorists, superpowers, ourselves and the world.

The second question raised by the War on Terror is why God allows such violence to occur in the first place. Though the Bible gives us no answers, the prophet Jeremiah (Jer 4.11-27) represented war as the undoing of God's creation and thus contrary to God's will. Jeremiah promised a new age in which the kingdom of God would be established and there would be no war. The reality of this future kingdom was initiated by Christ, who has reunited us with God. This reality is demonstrated today, in anticipation of its final consummation, wherever his kingdom of peace, justice and righteousness is proclaimed and lived out. This is the task of the church in an age of terror, as illustrated by the early church in Carthage.

Part 3 turns to the practical issue of how the church can concretely “proclaim and live out” Christ's rule. A key concept here is that of “citizenship” (Phil 3:12-21; Jer 29:1-23). Christians have to negotiate between two allegiences: to the state and to heaven. We are to seek the peace and prosperity of the state, which has the divinely instituted role of promoting virtue and preventing vice. On the other hand, the fact that God is our true king means that we are ultimately answerable to a different set of rules. It is these kinds of citizens that the world needs for true peace to reign. Examples are given of Christian responses to U.S. support of Nicaraguan terrorists in the 1980's and the French priest André Trocmé.

Indeed, the gospel as the creation of a community of divinely reconciled sinners creates the conditions for overcoming the idolatry of nationalism. This reconciliation between different peoples is the outworking of God's plan for history, as can be seen in Acts 10.1-23, in the work of post-war Polish and German Bishops and in the movement Reconciliation Walk.

Before we can work for unity in the world, however, we need to work for unity within the church. This is our proof to the world that we have been forgiven and have peace with God. Phil 4:2-9 provides us with five principles for conflict management within the church, which can also be applied to the international scene, as demonstrated by the work of MRA and the LWF in Guatemala.

A role model for being a “citizen of heaven” is ironically provided by Jos 5:13-6.27: the battle of Jericho. This violent story, however, has to be interpreted within the framework of God's big plan. The invasion of Canaan was the task of Israel under the old covenant, where citizenship was understood in earthly terms and so violence was necessary. When it is understood that we are now under a covenant of grace rather law, we are free to spiritualize the story and draw the correct principles. The goal of invasion was to create holiness, a land devoid of whatever is contrary to God. The means for doing so was faith. Examples of these principles in practice are provided by John Paton and Tom Skinner.

The final question concerns hope in the face of the threat of death. On the one hand, Ps 116 assures us that God actually works to save us from literal death in concrete situations, with the result that the church in general is strengthened. Megoran gives examples of deliverance from terrorists, brutal regimes and weapons of mass destruction. Nevertheless, often the saints do die (see v 15). Even then, their knowledge that death has lost its sting enables them to be witnesses to Christian hope, as the Evangelical church in Beslan has been able to do.

Part 4 brings the baisc theme together. Like Jeremiah, who bought a field despite immanent exile (Jer 32-33), we need to engage in prophetic acts, pointing people to a reality that transcends what is visible now. The work of FFRME and CPT are held up as varied examples. We need to follow Paul's example (Acts 27:17-31), who despite his hopeless situation in prison preached the kingdom and taught Jesus, held as he was by his vision of God's great plan (as Horatio Spafford and Rev. Mehdi Dibaj did). Ultimately, war is nothing new. It is the manifestation of sin, and so the only solution is the gospel, which justifies us and thus brings peace with God and with neighbour. As we wait for the consummation of Christ's kingdom, our task is to prayerfully read our scriptures, think about the issues raised by war and sin, praise God for what he has done and proclaim it to the world.

Megoran has not written an academic treatise. Though one may question at times his theological argument, that is hardly the point of the book. It is an introduction to the key issues that are a matter of life and death, and as such provides an invaluable reference point in a complex area. Most significantly, it is a call for action, and to that end I found the abundant examples of concrete Christian witness in action helpful, inspiring and at the same time shaming for my own inactivity.

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Friday, May 23, 2008

Guest Book Review: The Gods of War

My thanks to IVP for a review copy of Pearse’s book, and to Philip Sumpter for his review. He obviously enjoyed the book, which always makes for a rousing review! And he touches upon some really tricky issues.


Meich Pearse, The Gods of War: Is Religion the Primary Cause of Violent Conflict? (Nottingham: IVP), 2007.

The current spout of religious warfare has generated a more vigorous secular critique of the religious worldview as inherently violent. Pearse reports that an opinion poll in Britain in late 2006 indicated that 82 % of adults “see religion as a cause of division and tension between people. Only 16 % disagree” (14). This is a sentiment expressed both in the media and amongst many Western intellectuals. In response to this misrepresentation, Meic Pearse has taken it upon himself to demonstrate historically that wars are multi-causal and complex, and are motivated by all ideologies, secularist as well as religious. His book attempts to substantiate four main arguments:

1. Irreligion has produced wars far worse and far bloodier than religion.
2. We must distinguish between belligerent and non-belligerent religion.
3. Cultures enshrine religion, and wars fought for one often appear as being fought for the other.
4. The global secularist campaign against religion and traditional cultures (as supposedly violent) is already and will continue to be productive of the most ferocious violence.

The first chapter opens with the truism that the 20th Century was the bloodiest century of all. The key question is whether this massive bloodshed was simply a result of more developed technology or whether it was connected with the prevailing secular ideologies of the time. Pearse illustrates how within the ideologies of the key thinkers of Communism, Fascism and the French Revolution, human life was considered expendable for the sake of the attainment of a particular abstract ideal, an understanding of “the grand scheme of things.” Within these secular creeds, the end not only justified the means of its attainment, it defined what it meant to be human. “People” had no intrinsic value grounded in the imago dei, rather they were a theoretical construct to which the “facts” must conform. This attitude, combined with technology, has catastrophic consequences.

Not that religion can be excused. Chapter two looks at the question of religion as a cause of war. Religion is defined as “an interconnected system of beliefs and/or practices rooted in the numinous or spiritual world that gives meaning to the lives of those who embrace them or have been reared in them” (22). Yet when we try to analyse concrete historical examples, we are faced with the complexity of their causes. Were the Jewish revolts of the first century religious or political? How about the druids in Roman Britain? Christianity was peaceful for the first 300 years of its existence, and then became bloody from 330 A.D. An overview of the wars of the Greeks, Romans, Vikings, Mongols, French and Americans indicates that more mundane factors such as greed, security, booty, glory, territory and nationalism were the predominant factors rather than religion.

More clear cut cases are the subject of chapter three. Islam, in contrast to Christianity, was “cradled in war.” Pearce outlines its history of violence and notes that it shares a teleology or dynamic with communism: universal, this-wordly rule. In dividing the world between dar al harb (“sphere of war,” i.e. the non-Muslim world) and dar al Islam (“sphere of Islam”), the price of peace becomes submission to Islam. Christianity, on the other hand, had a different beginning and ideology. It doesn't have an equivalent of the Muslim ummah, the believers whose life must be expressed as a political entity. Though the Crusades were no less violent, Pearce argues that their causes are more “mixed.” Indeed, the undefined frontier of Europe has always been a source of war, regardless of the religious affiliation of each side. In a sense, war between East and West seems inevitable.

Chapter four offers an historical analysis of wars in which the situation is far more ambiguous. The English and American civil wars, the conquests of South America, the conflicts between the Orthodox church and the Ottoman empire. Often cultural identities are enshrined by a religion, so that a challenge to this identity leads to an increase in religious intensity. Often, religion functions as a morally convenient cloak for another cause. In the end, religion in inseparable from cultural, social and political issues.

The following two chapters look in detail and a particularly insidious mix of politics and religion: religious-national myths. In the cases of Serbia, Russia and England, the nation is deified and rendered immune to criticism.

So what causes war? Chapter seven offers a historical overview. In ancient times religion was hardly significant. The key issue was was access to property in the form of livestock, food, slaves, land and women. When religion was present, it often functioned as a restraint on war, as the fall of the Roman Empire, the medieval papacy and the Islamic umma indicate. For Pearse, it wasn't until the rise of popular rule that religion became a major factor in creating conflict. When loyalty to an absolute ruler is not enough to acquire popular support for war, reference to an abstract principle that generates both group identity and enthusiasm is necessary. Religion becomes a handy framework of meaning to meet these needs.

This is, more or less, what Marxists have always said, and so Pearce draws on their arguments in chapter 8. Though for the first 300 years Christianity was spread by persuasion, the moment it was adopted as the meta-narrative of the state, the sanctification of that state's wars is inevitable. Marx helps us uncover the real aspirations that undergird a states use of religious language: namely economics and politics. This can be seen in the transformation that Christian doctrine underwent from the time of Eusebius onwards, through the Middle Ages and into the Reformation, as various states adopted varieties of the religion for its own purposes. The same pattern, claims Pearse, can be seen in other religions.

Chapter 9 seeks to exculpate Christianity by find out what it really is. Pearse argues that both historically and theologically the church was never intended to form the basis of a political order. When that has occurred, the church has strayed from its roots and a belligerent form of Christianity is the result. It wasn't until the Anabaptists, with their insistence on the split between the state and church, that a situation similar to that of the early church was rediscovered after the “Constantinian” development. In addition to this, the pluralistic political developments in the modern era have helped create a situation in which the church can stop trying to do that for which it was not designed—running society—and get back to it's original function: guiding individual lives. Today, though there is still an inner-ecclesial debate concerning pacifism, it is universally agreed that when war is waged, it cannot be fought to spread the faith.

So, can a Christian fight at all? Pearce doesn't provide an easy answer, for to do so is to sanitize war. War is an insoluble dilemma and neither pacifism nor theories of just war can adequately deal with it. Both arguments are analysed for their strengths and weaknesses, and Martin Luther King and Bonhoeffer are drawn on as role models. The solution? In war there is none, neither in theory or practice. The best we can do is take moral responsibility for our own actions and to keep those decisions conscious. No general or king can do that for us.

Pearse ends with a glance at our contemporary situation. In his final chapter, “The War Against Faith and Meaning,” he points out that apart from greed a principle cause of war is conflict over the shape of society. The principled irreligion of the West, spread through globalization, in which meaning itself is held to be the problem and thus must be banished, is an “absolutizing relativism” that is itself a cause of violence. Rather than being a universal pancea, the attempt to eliminate difference both inside and outside the West is just another unattainable utopianism which produces violence through its intolerance. The only real solution to world peace is genuine tolerance, which can accept different kinds of polity and the cultural spaces that make them possible. “And to that end, Christians, who know from Scripture and from their own painful, error ridden past that their faith is not a basis for governing society as a whole but a private choice and a transcendent calling, have far, far more to contribute than most” (207).

I thoroughly enjoyed this read and can recommend it to all. Whether one agrees with his construal of Christianity or not, this informative and eloquent book provides us with important categories for entering an important debate.

N.B. For those wishing to look at this issue in relation to Christian Zionism, check out this fascinating article.

Philip Sumpter

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Friday, May 09, 2008

Guest Book Review by David M. Moffitt

My thanks both to the kind folk at Westminster John Knox for a review copy of Luke Timothy Johnson's Hebrews: A Commentary, and to Dave for the following stimulating review.


Luke Timothy Johnson's recent commentary on Hebrews (Westminster John Knox, 2006) accomplishes a feat rarely achieved by scholarly commentaries. It is easily accessible and readable. Johnson's volume is no substitute for more thorough studies like those of Attridge, Grässer or Spicq. Yet, what this commentary lacks at the level of detailed discussion and engagement with secondary literature is atoned for at the level of lucid prose and exposition. There is little to distract from Johnson's own sustained interpretation of this oft neglected text. As such, this volume is a welcome contribution for those of all levels of expertise who share an interest in this ancient homily.

This review will neither detail the contents of the commentary, nor expend a great deal of verbiage explicating the main emphases of the book (for those seeking more information, see the helpful reviews of Craig R. Koester and Wolfgang Kraus already published in RBL: Suffice it to say that this is a thoughtful and at times provocative study (e.g., Johnson's argument for a pre-70 dating) that is well worth reading. Instead, I will briefly discuss Johnson's welcome emphasis on Jesus' resurrection in Hebrews in view of one of the major themes that orients the whole of his interpretation of the "epistle"—his claim that the argument of Hebrews is best understood in terms of a Platonic worldview.

In his introduction, Johnson claims that, "Hebrews appreciates rather than deprecates the physical. Only because Jesus had a human body could he be a priest … His body, moreover, is not cast off at death but is exalted: Jesus opens the new and living way to God through the veil that is his flesh …" (p. 20). He later adds, "By his resurrection and exaltation, Jesus has entered into the true holy place, which is the presence of the eternal God, with his own blood …, which he offers for the sins of many …" (p. 52). Johnson is not the first to argue for a real emphasis on the bodily exaltation of Jesus in Hebrews (e.g., Spicq, Vanhoye and especially Hofius—whose intriguing interpretation of 10:20 has been largely neglected). As someone actively pursuing dissertation work on this topic (, my interest was especially piqued by Johnson's bold and somewhat surprising comments. In any case, it should be noted that the suggestion that Jesus' bodily presence in heaven forms an important element of Hebrews' soteriological and Christological claims is a minority view.

Such a notion, however, seems at odds with the assumption of a Platonic worldview for the author of Hebrews. Johnson notes the problem stating, "The Platonism of Hebrews is real—and critical to understanding the argument—but it is a Platonism that is stretched and reshaped by engagement with Scripture, and above all, by the experience of a historical human savior whose death and resurrection affected all human bodies and earthly existence as a whole" (p. 21, Johnson dubs this "biblical Platonsim" on p. 173). Granting that "Middle Platonism" is typified by the diversity of opinion and comment on Plato's texts, one still wonders if the fundamental dualism between the material and spiritual realms could really be "stretched and reshaped" to the degree that the confession of Jesus' bodily resurrection and ascension entails. Are we really dealing with an author whose Platonic dualism is being reshaped by Jesus' exaltation, or are the author's claims simply better explained by an appeal to some other set of cosmological presuppositions like those of some form of Jewish apocalyptic?

I do not mean to imply that one can view "Platonism" and "Apocalyptic" as hermetically sealed ideas that never influenced one another. I only want to suggest that if the confession of Jesus' bodily resurrection is actually important for Hebrews—not to mention notions like those of the ongoing personal identity of Jesus after his entry into God's heavenly presence, or that of belief in Jesus' personal return (cf. 9:28), it would seem that there are better cosmological analogies to be drawn in the ancient world than to presume that the author forges a new kind of paradigm breaking Platonism.

These decisions are important because they inevitably color the way one interprets other issues in Hebrews. For example, Johnson often conflates the categories of Jesus' resurrection and exaltation. In his index of subjects one even finds "resurrection/exaltation" listed together as one topic (p. 402). While this conflation fits well within the consensus position on Jesus' resurrection in Hebrews, such an approach more easily coheres with a notion of spiritual ascension in which Jesus' immediately enters God's presence at the moment of his death, than it does with a confession of his bodily resurrection.

More to the point, the supposed fusion of resurrection and exaltation in Hebrews more readily aligns with some form of Platonism than does the claim that Jesus' rose and ascended bodily into God's presence. One therefore wonders if the confusion between the categories of exaltation and resurrection in Johnson might result in the encroachment of his assumption of a Platonist cosmology upon his claim that Jesus' bodily exaltation actually matters in Hebrews. Such a suspicion is born out when later in the volume Johnson comments that, "[T]he notion of 'eternal' does not mean simply 'everlasting,' but more, a participation in the life that is God's own. Salvation, therefore, is more than possession of the land and success, it is 'heavenly' …, transtemporal because also transmaterial" (p. 148, emphasis mine). Somewhere—when speaking of Jesus' offering through the eternal spirit— he also says that by this comment, "[T]he author [likely] intends to describe the mode of Christ's offering. … If spirit is the realm of God's existence, then Christ's entry into that presence is appropriately described as 'through the eternal spirit" (p. 236). And again he says, "The use of 'spirits' [with reference to righteous in 12:10] simply reminds that the way they now live is as God lives, not in their former mortal bodies but in the dimension of spirit." Those who say such things seem to show that they look for a resurrection in which the body no longer plays a role. Thus at sundry times and in various ways it appears that Johnson has actually allowed a Platonic worldview to stretch and reshape his claim that Jesus' human body is not cast off at death (p. 20).

As should be clear, the immediate goal of this review is not to offer a solution to the conundrum I have sought to identify, but only to problematize Johnson's appeal to Platonism on the one hand while claiming that Jesus' body was exalted to heaven on the other. The two assertions stand in sharp tension and it would appear that even for Johnson himself one of these claims really does become obsolete, even to the point of fading away, as his exposition proceeds.

My larger goal, however, is to highlight the less than clear way that commentators on Hebrews tend to employ the language of "resurrection" when explicating the homily. What do we mean when we use this terminology with reference to Hebrews? Does writer affirm Jesus' bodily resurrection? Is resurrection simply another way of speaking of exaltation? Can these two positions be held together or does one exclude the other? Or, does the paucity of resurrection language (some would say total lack—e.g., Attridge) suggest that this author intentionally avoids or denies the resurrection? This latter view seems to offer the most consistent explanation of Hebrews when viewed through the lens of Platonism. Regardless, some clarity in terminology, especially for those who want to use "resurrection" language remains a desideratum.

In conclusion, let me say again how much I appreciate Johnson's commentary. His generally balanced approach and clear exposition not only provide those of all levels who would learn more about this homily with an excellent resource, they also provide a fine example of how a fine commentary can be written.

David M. Moffitt

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