Thursday, December 27, 2012

How Easily We Forget Our Own Mortality!

This passage from Calvin is not only one of the best things I've ever read in him, but it belongs up there next to Dostoevsky or Walker Percy in terms of its grasp of the human psyche:
That human life is like smoke or shadow is not only obvious to the learned, but even ordinary folk have no proverb more commonplace than this...But there is almost nothing that we regard more negligently or remember less. For we undertake all things as if we were establishing immortality for ourselves on earth. If some corpse is being buried, or we walk among graves, because the likeness of death then meets our eyes, we, I confess, philosophize brilliantly concerning the vanity of this life. Yet even this we do not do consistently, for often all these things affect us not one bit. But when it happens, our philosophy is for the moment; it vanishes as soon as we turn our backs, and leaves not a trace of remembrance behind it. In the end, like applause in the theater for some pleasing spectacle, it evaporates. Forgetful not only of death but also of mortality itself, as if no inkling of it had ever reached us, we return to our thoughtless assurance of earthly immortality. (Institutes 1:714)
Indeed, how easily we forget!

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Book Review: Inerrancy and the Gospels by Vern Poythress

Way back in June we reviewed Vern Poythress’ book Inerrancy and Worldview. At the time I appreciated what a focused apologetic tool the book turned out to be. Poythress’ newest book, Inerrancy and the Gospels is meant to offer, as the subtitle of the book suggests, “A God-Centered Approach to the Challenges of Harmonization.” From the beginning you know that Poythress is not interested in arguing for an inerrant Gospel harmonization by beginning with the unbeliever’s worldview.

When the book begins, Poythress spends a chapter basically laying his cards on the proverbial table. He believes in the inspiration and authority of the Bible. He believes it is possible to answer Bible difficulties (and they do, of course, exist). He recognizes, from the beginning, that the biggest challenge in answering Bible difficulties is not the Scriptures themselves, but the answerer himself. “My primary challenge in accomplishing this task is myself. I am a finite, fallible human being. I am also affected by remaining sin. And sin affects biblical interpretation…So you must understand that this book represents part of a path toward a future fullness of knowledge…” (15). Poythress does not intend to undertake the project of harmonization as a disinterested, neutral, or impartial witness.

Early in the book, Poythress spends a chapter discussing the differences between Matthew’s (8:5-13) and Luke’s (7:1-10) account of the Centurion’s Servant as a way of highlighting the reality of challenges to harmonization. He then surveys the various solutions to the “problem” which have been presented, reminding the reader that it is only necessary, when answering skeptics, to present a possible, logically non-contradictory solution, not necessarily the definitive solution to each harmonization challenge.

Poythress does not only approach harmonization differences defensively. He points out the positive reasons for non-contradictory differences between the Gospel accounts.
The differences between the Gospels are an integral and significant part of the Gospels. The differences are there for a purpose: they help us. All the Gospels are talking about events that actually happened; they are not “making it up.” But they are telling about the events in ways that help us to grasp their significance and their theological implications. We do not need to feel as if we have to “roll back” the significance and the implications in order to get to “bare” events (32).
We were never meant to read the Gospels in a theologically stripped down sort of a way that allows us to inject our own theological (or bare historical) interpretation into the events. Poythress is reminding us that there is theological significance in each of the distinct accounts of the life of Christ, and each individual Gospel reflects that reality—hence the differences in the accounts.

Each of the Gospel writers has their own purpose and goals in writing, and those variations which exist among them can be accounted for in terms of those purposes. He demonstrates quite helpfully that differences or “compression” of the genealogies in the beginning of the Gospels do, in fact, reflect each author’s own theological goals in their writing (Ch. 10).

The middle portion of the book (Ch. 10-15) is especially concerned to discuss the spiritual issues (pride, autonomy, etc.) related to harmonization. I couldn’t shake the thought that these chapters might have fit in better in Inerrancy and Worldview. It was a surprising section in the book, and while it is not what I expected, I could understand that its omission would have left the book spiritually lopsided, giving credence to the illusion that spiritual matters are irrelevant to this discussion.

Poythress does eventually get into the material which I thought would compose most of the book when I first started reading Inerrancy and the Gospels— namely discussion of the practical ins and outs of harmonization. Poythress argues that the writers of Scripture do not use a “Mental picture” method of writing such as we normally use or expect in our own reading. This affects several areas where interpreters normally see problems. As an example, Poythress argues that it is not necessary to see Christ as cleansing the temple twice, simply because John includes the cleansing at the beginning (2:13-22) of his book and the synoptics include it at the end (Matt. 21:12-17; Mark 11:15-19; Luke 19:45-46). It is certainly a possible solution, and Poythress doesn’t see that solution as problematic (136). However, when one remembers that John is not recording events using the modern “mental picture” method of recording history, it might just as well be that John includes his recounting of the temple at the beginning for theologically significant reasons, and vice versa for the synoptics. Poythress argues that “we do not know for sure whether there was only one cleansing of the temple or two” (137). He does say, however, that we know everything that the Gospel writers wanted their readers to know: there was a temple cleansing, Jesus had a special zeal for God’s house, and Matthew and Mark were especially concerned to highlight the misuse of the temple that had taken place. In the end, the temple cleansing is simply a test case for Poythress in highlighting the fact that Gospel harmonization may include an understanding that the authors utilize “chronological flexibility” according to their motives, methods, and message. He makes similar points in discussing the rejection of Jesus at Nazareth, the cursing of the fig tree, and the commissioning of the twelve.

He then turns his attention, finally, to what (especially early in my life when apologetics was a big emphasis for me) was my biggest sticking point in appreciating inerrancy as much as I could: variance in speech between the Gospel accounts. Poythress begins his test case by looking at the words of Christ following the stilling of the storm, comparing Matt. 8:26, Mark 4:40, and Luke 8:25. In his examination of these passage, he notes there is some variance. One possibility of harmonization is to conclude that there were three different stillings of the storm, which Poythress does not give much credence to. Another possibility, which Poythress considers is that Christ actually said all three things which are in each Gospel successively and each Gospel writer only included a portion of what Jesus said. This may seem like an unusual possibility, but Poythress makes the case that this is not as weird as you might initially think (159).

Poythress also suggests another possibility.
Jesus is God. So Jesus’ speeches are divine speech. The four Gospel writers are human beings, but they were inspired by the Holy Spirit so that what they wrote is also divine speech. Whenever the Gospel writers report things from Jesus’ speeches, we are seeing God’s report of what God himself said (163).
Poythress carefully argues that “God is free to use wording that brings out implications of his earlier words” (173). He uses a similar principle to understand New Testament authors’ free use of quoting Old Testament passages. Poythress points out that when modern preachers express the meaning of a passage by combining or rewording passages, nobody accuses them of misusing the Bible. This is because of two factors “(1) the modern use does not claim to be an exact, verbatim quote, and (2) it derives meaning from the original rather than distorting the original meaning into something else” (174). These principles can equally be applied to the NT authors, as well.

Overall, I should have known not to come into Inerrancy and the Gospels expecting a handbook of bible difficulties. Wrong expectations tend to be my undoing, and I seem to always have them whenever I read Poythress’ works. I personally would have preferred a truncation of the first half of the book and an expansion of the second half. That being said, this is just a preference. All in all, this is a very important book, and one which all students of the New Testament should read. I really wish I had read this book when I was a new Christian, because many years of struggle over the text against apologetic doubts would have been quelled by having a healthier understanding of what inerrancy does and does not mean for the text. I hope many Christians will avail themselves of Poythress’ book. It is my favorite so far in his “Inerrancy” series, and I look forward to more forthcoming additions to the series.

[I received a free copy of this book on condition that I review it. I am not required by the publisher to give a positive review.]

You can find the book in print by visiting Westminster books.
You can also find a free PDF of the book by visiting Poythress and Frame's web page.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Now You Want Meaning?

Modern people do not know why they exist. They are not moving towards anything, ultimately, and they value nothing ultimately. This is as much a moral issue as it is an existential crisis.

To quote John Cheever, "The main emotion of the adult Northeastern American who has had all the advantages of wealth, education, and culture is disappointment." Boredom and disappointment pervade America's Christ-haunted culture. While the ghost sits on the modern man's shoulder, beckoning to him to come find meaning and purpose, he buries his face in his iPhone and hopes that an answer will come shining off of the screen between games of Angry Birds. But the answers seem to never come. When something as horrible as this school shooting happens, suddenly purpose and meaning step to the fore. These same distracted, disappointed people want to know why this has happened, in spite of the fact that they have been perfectly happy to go through life with blinders on up to this point.

The immediate and direct answer is probably that he was bored, he was distracted, and he was disappointed, he was affluent, he was white, just like all the others who perpetrate these sorts of wicked mass murders in the West. As Walker Percy insightfully said, “You live in a deranged age, more deranged than usual, because in spite of great scientific and technological advances, man has not the faintest idea of who he is or what he is doing."

When horrific events like this take place, people begin to demand that clergy answer for God. However, all thinking people ought to demand that the humanist just as well answer for man.

The humanists among us offer their answers to the problem of meaninglessness and boredom, basically saying that the more people get to know themselves, the more they dive down into the human condition, the more likely they are to find meaning - after all, from their perspective there is nowhere else to go to find it. All the while, the ghost sits on their shoulder, defining them and establishing who they are as they continually fight to shake it off.

As long as people refuse to be defined by their Maker - defined from without, they will continue to be baffled by what they find within, and a restless, dangerous boredom will continue to cover our land.