Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Book Review: Bonhoeffer on the Christian Life by Stephen J. Nichols

I am a long-time Dietrich Bonhoeffer fan. I have been since I read The Cost of Discipleship as a 17 year old newly minted Christian. His challenge that “When Jesus bids a man come, he bids him come and die” has stuck with me all these many years. He has been a fellow traveler with me, and I feel as though I spent time with him in Flossenburg Prison, having read his letters. It is with great excitement that I finally got around to reading Stephen Nichols’ book Bonhoeffer on the Christian Life [WTS Books/Amazon], and I am glad I finally did. Keeping book reviews brief is always a challenge for me. Instead of saying everything there is in this book, I’ll try to give a sense of Nichols’ structure and a few of the highlights. 

Bonhoeffer’s foundation for the Christian life is the cross (26). Nichols begins with Bonhoeffer’s christology, followed by his ecclesiology, both of which, as many have noted before, loom very large in Bonhoeffer’s theology. Under this heading is Nichols’ chapter on Bonhoeffer’s view of community. This may have been my favorite chapter, where Nichols summarizes Bonhoeffer’s insistence that the church must come to grips with her own weaknesses and the weaknesses of her members. If Christians could permit themselves to be appropriately disillusioned, this communal realism could go a long way to helping the church. I found myself overjoyed in reading this chapter. It is filled with needed correctives, in my opinion.

Nichols goes on to summarize Bonhoeffer’s three essential disciplines of the Christian life as “reading and obeying Scripture, prayer, and the practice of theology” (26). In discussing these three essentials of Bonhoeffer’s, Nichols spends time discussing his doctrine of Scripture in chapter 4. Nichols rightly identifies his doctrine of Scripture as a linchpin issue in the debate over Bonhoeffer’s questionable status as a conservative. Offering an important caution, that “We need to be careful in these debates over who gets to claim whom, so that we so not do injustice to these figures in their own contexts,” (80-81) Nichols nevertheless concludes that “Bonhoeffer should not be counted among theological liberals. He was a theological conservative” (81). He goes further, claiming that Bonhoeffer is an evangelical, measured by the Bebbington four (82). There are certainly remnants of neo-orthodox elements in Bonhoeffer’s theology, but I think that Nichols is right. Based on everything I’ve read from Bonhoeffer (4 books, 2 biographies, and a collection of essays by him) I agree with his conclusion.

His chapter on prayer (chapter 5) contains some interesting nuggets that are worth chewing on, particularly in his insistence that seminary students should be force to pray and taught to pray. Bonhoeffer also saw an important relationship between how we read Scripture and how we pray, and the two ought to go together. Nichols later says and then quotes Bonhoeffer: “If we do not have a Scripture-saturated approach to our praying, we risk becoming ‘victims of our own emptiness’” (108). A Scripture-less person’s prayers will be filled with himself, and a prayer less person’s Scripture readings will be nothing more than intellectual exercises.

Nichols then discusses (in chapter 6) Bonhoeffer’s third essential, asking the question of how the Christian is to “think theologically and then live theologically” (27). Bonhoeffer encouraged his students and readers to not pit theology against the Christian life, but to integrate the two.

 Practicing the three above spiritual disciplines would never lead, in Bonhoeffer’s way of thinking, to an isolated or monastic existence. Instead, theology works its way out into community. While it is popular today in theological circles to emphasize community, Bonhoeffer offers some helpful and sound counsel that Christians would do well to heed, whether they think the contemporary emphasis on community is simply a fad or is here to stay.

Nichols, in summarizing Bonhoeffer’s “worldly Christianity,” (chapter 7) is careful to bring out what Bonhoeffer really means when he uses that phrase. Nichols summarizes Bonhoeffer by saying that Christians should be neither monastics, nor “cultural Protestants.” Instead, Christianity must ask something of its adherents. It must challenge churchgoers in deeply personal and costly ways, while at the same time insisting that they not cease their callings or jobs.

Nichols discusses Bonhoeffer’s view of freedom (ch. 8) “disguised as service and sacrifice” (27). Anyone who has read his book The Cost of Discipleship (which he later came to regard as too legalistic) knows that Bonhoeffer is adamant in his insistence that the Christian life is one that requires self-denial and sacrifice. For Bonhoeffer, however, love (ch. 9) is the thing that “accents” all of the above disciplines and expressions of faith lived out.

What makes Nichols’ book great is his willingness to let Bonhoeffer’s own ideas breathe. Reading Bonhoeffer can be maddening sometimes because he lived in such intense and formative times. The atmosphere of all his writings and sermons is thick with ominous threat both politically and to the Church. Knowing his biography first often brings some needed context - something that not all readers can have the luxury of exploring. Nichols does a nice job of pulling out the disparate elements, though, and giving the reader a nicely formed whole. I very gladly place it on my shelf along with my collection of other Bonhoeffer books, and I think that I will find myself turning it to it often.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Enemies of the State?

Michael Gerson, in a Washington Post op-ed, asks the question, "Can Muslim Lands Learn to Tolerate Christianity?" Near the end of the article, Gerson makes the following observation:
“Including World War II,” argues Inboden, “every major war the United States has fought over the past 70 years has been against an enemy that also severely violated religious freedom.” The reverse is equally true. “There is not a single nation in the world,” he says, “that both respects religious freedom and poses a security threat to the United States.” 
There are a number of possible explanations for this strong correlation. The most compelling is that religious freedom involves the full and final internalization of democratic values — the right to be a heretic or infidel. It requires the state to recognize the existence of binding loyalties that reach beyond the state’s official views.
I wonder if those who favor state-sponsored execution of heretics, adulterers, and children who disobey their parents have ever considered that this would not only place them in unpleasant company, but (if Gerson is right) it would also make them enemies of democracy.

Michael Kruger's The Question of Canon - Chapter 5 Summary and Conclusion

This is the longest chapter in the book. Instead of giving Kruger’s arguments in this chapter, to keep things as short as possible, I’m largely going to be sharing his conclusions in each section. If the reader wants to see how he argues for these conclusions (which he does very persuasively in my opinion) I strongly suggest that they purchase a copy of The Question of Canon and read it for themselves.

The last chapter asks the question, “When did New Testament writings first begin to be viewed as Scripture?” According to the extrinsic model - Kruger calls this view the “big bang model” of canon - it was not really until the end of the second century that these documents came to be viewed as Scripture. Of all the chapters in the book, I think the average reader will probably find this chapter the most interesting, because Kruger goes through sources prior to the end of the second century to show that these writings were regarded as Scriptural and authoritative at a time when the extrinsic model should regard as shocking.

Irenaeus and His Contemporaries
Kruger begins with Irenaeus, whom most advocates of the extrinsic model offer as the singular most important figure. To these scholars, “Irenaeus is an innovator” (157). They see his naming of a canon as something prior Christians would have been scandalized by. But Kruger argues that “there are indications that books were received as Scripture prior to the time of Irenaeus.”

One of the first things Kruger argues for is that Irenaeus does not see himself as an innovator, but as passing along that which he himself has already received. After sorting through some of the opposition that is often made to Irenaeus in this regard, Kruger concludes that “there are no reasons to regard Irenaeus’ most controversial claim - that the church receives four and only four Gospels - to be a new idea in his day” (162).

Kruger then looks to the Muratorian fragment, arguing that its existence contemporaneous with Irenaeus “is problematic.” It means that there was already “restriction and limitation” to the canon by 180 A.D. and that it was not Irenaeus who was responsible for it.

Another important figure is Theophilus of Antioch, who wrote an important document, To Autolycus in 177 A.D. Kruger notes that “Theophilus places the ‘Gospels’ on the same level of inspiration and authority as the Old Testament Prophets” (164). He also puts a citation of Luke 18:27 alongside of “citations from Genesis and Isaiah” (165) which shows the significance he attached to the Gospel writings.

Clement of Alexandria, writing in 198 A.D. (“slightly later than Irenaeus”), affirmed many books of the New Testament canon. “He received all thirteen Epistles of Paul, Hebrews, Acts, 1 Peter, 1 and 2 John, Jude and Revelation” (168).

So far in the book, Kruger helpfully summarizes: “According to…influential and geographically diverse sources at the end of the second century - there was a core collection of scriptural books in place that the church fathers themselves did not view as newly established” (169).

Prior to Irenaeus
In the next section, Kruger goes back before Irenaeus. “If the New Testament canon did not pop into existence overnight, then we should expect to find some remnants of its existence during this earlier time period” (169). Justin Martyr, for starters, in 150-160 A.D. knew Paul’s letters. In addition, “Justin also seems to show knowledge of Acts, 1 Peter, Hebrews and Revelation” (176) and regards them with the same authority he regarded Old Testament books.

Papias, writing around 125 A.D. was a friend of Polycarp and “had heard the apostle John preach…he knew the daughters of Philip the Evangelist…[and] plainly declares that the source of his information is ‘the Elder’ who is likely to be ‘John the Elder’” (182). Papias is helpful with regard to Mark’s Gospel, because he “assures the reader of the reliability of Mark’s account when he says that Mark made sure ‘to leave nothing out that he heard’” (183-184). “It appears that Papias also knew 1 John, 1 Peter, Revelation and also some Pauline epistles…[and] would have known John’s Gospel” (186). All of this “suggests a Fourfold Gospel in the first half of the second century” (186).

The Epistle of Barnabas, believed to have been written around 130 A.D., appears to cite Matthew 22:14. Kruger spends some time arguing that this is probably a written source, not an oral source as some scholars speculate.

Ignatius, writing in 110 A.D., seems to have had an extensive knowledge of the writings of Paul. One scholar is “quite confident that Ignations knew at least four of these - 1 Corinthians, Ephesians, and 1 and 2 Timothy” (188). Kruger says that he also “seems to know Romans, Philippians and Galatians…the key point is that Ignatius not only has a Pauline letter collection, but mentions it to the Ephesian church with full expectation that they are also aware of it” (190).

Polycarp, writing around 110 A.D. “distinghishes Paul’s authority as an Apostle from his own authority as a bishop” (193). “Scholars generally agree that Polycarp knew Romans, 1 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, and 1 and 2 Timothy. Again, Polycarp may have known more letters of Paul than these, but he simply doesn’t use them in his letter to the Philippians” (194). There are also “indications that Polycarp regarded Pauline letters as ‘Scripture’” (195). “Polycarp also knew 1 Peter and 1 John…[and] does appear to quote from some of the Synoptic Gospels on a number of occasions” (196). It is highly significant that these things are happening so near to the time of their writing. This would have been within 50-60 years of the time of the writing of most of the books of the New Testament!

1 Clement, written in 96 A.D., uses many New Testament texts. “At a minimum, scholars are agreed that 1 Clement certainly uses 1 Corinthians, Romans and Hebrews, and a number of scholars find it probable that he also knew Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians and Titus” (197). One scholar argues that Clement knew all of Paul’s letters. Kruger finds it significant that, like Ignatius, “clearly expects that his audience also has access to the very same ones” (197). Among the most amazing things Kruger quotes is a passage from 1 Clement 47:1-3 where he refers to 1 Cor, telling his readers to read Paul’s epistle and attributing inspiration to Paul by saying he sent the letter “pneumatikos” or “in the Spirit” (198). He also appears to be exhorting his people to read Paul’s letter publicly in the worship service.

Kruger also goes back further than 96 to the actual New Testament itself. He points to 2 Peter 3:16 to show that Peter regarded Paul’s writings as Scripture. He also points to 1 Timothy 5:18, arguing that Paul quotes from Luke 10:7 in the second half of the verse. Even if the reader is skeptical about Kruger’s argument here, he points out that “it should still be acknowledged that 1 Timothy at least regards some book…to be Scripture alongside the Old Testament” (202).

All of this, of course, lends credence to Kruger’s contention in this chapter that “the origin of a new corpus of scriptural books should not be conceived of as a ‘big bang’ type of event, extrinsically imposed on the church, but as something that grew gradually over time with roots that extend further back in the history of the church than previously allowed” (158).

Having pressed back hard on these five major tenets of the extrinsic (“big bang”) model of canon, Kruger draws out three major conclusions.

1. “Historical investigations, like scientific ones, often operate on the basis of models, or what we might call paradigms” (209). His point here being that he hopes proponents of the extrinsic model will acknowledge the place of presuppositions in their own argumentation and especially in their standards of what they will and will not accept as evidence.

2. “There are enough problems with the extrinsic model to raise serious questions about its viability” (209). This doesn’t mean that the extrinsic model doesn’t have positive aspects to contribute, but that it ought not to hold the field in canon studies.

3. “More scholarly consideration should be given to what we have called the intrinsic model” (209).

Kruger offers his concluding paragraph:

The intrinsic model argues that the idea of canon was built into the DNA of the Christian religion and thus emerged quite naturally. In this sense, the canon was like a seedling sprouting from the soil of early Christianity—although it was not fully a tree until the fourth century, it was there, in nuce, from the beginning (210).

Monday, December 23, 2013

Michael Kruger's The Question of Canon - Chapter 4 Summary

It is popular in modern canonical studies to believe that the New Testament authors “wrote unaware of their own authority and without any intention that their writings would be ‘Scripture’” (119). In fact, I can attest that as a new Christian I believed this for years, not really knowing any better. And a form critic I was not! The chapter is one that I would guess even average Christians could read and benefit a great deal from.

Kruger argues in this chapter of The Question of Canon that “the New Testament authors, generally speaking, demonstrate awareness that their writings passed down authentic apostolic tradition and therefore bore supreme authority in the life of the church” (121). Kruger says that if one requires the word “Scripture” to be used in order to consider a reference one bearing apostolic/divine authority, then that misses the point that these authors “wrote books that they understood to contain the new apostolic revelation about Jesus Christ and therefore to have supreme authority in the church” (122).

a. Paul’s Letters. Kruger says, for example (and demonstrates well, I think) that Paul’s writings bear numerous marks of Apostolic self-awareness. Not only does he openly defend his apostolic authority and the divine nature of his message in Galatians, but in 1 Thessalonians he insists that his letter be read publicly in the same way it was customary to read the Old Testament texts. Kruger summarizes several pages analyzing the Pauline letters in three ways: “Paul (1) affirms his own apostolic authority to speak for Christ, (2) makes it clear that this apostolic authority not only applies to his oral teaching, but is being employed in the very letters that he is writing, and (3) indicates that anyone who rejects his teaching (oral or written) is thereby rejecting the commands of Christ and subject to prophetic condemnation or excommunication” (129-130).

b. The Gospels. It’s common to point to the anonymity of the Gospels as a negative against their authenticity as Scripture. However, the Old Testament history books such as Chronicles, Kings, Samuel, etc. are anonymous. “The anonymity of the Gospels, far from diminishing their scriptural authority, actually served to increase it by consciously placing the Gospels ‘in the tradition of Old Testament historiography’” (130-131).

The Gospel of Matthew, Kruger argues, saw itself as completing the Old Testament story. He bases this on the unique way that Matthew begins his Gospel. His discussion of this issue is worth the reader spending time over. His comparison between the opening words of Matthew in the Greek and the LXX name of the book of Genesis are very insightful, as well.

The Gospel of Mark, Kruger points out, begins with language that “matches language from the opening of some Old Testament prophetic books” (132). He also spends time drawing out the connection of Mark to the Apostle Peter by pointing to the similarity of the structure of Mark and Peter’s sermon in Acts 10:34-43.

The Gospel of Luke has an introduction with highly significant content. For starters, he is confident that what he is conveying is apostolic in origin, using the uncommon word “eyewitnesses.” Kruger concludes his section on Luke by suggesting that “Luke is presenting his Gospel as the embodiment of the authoritative apostolic ‘word’ that had been delivered and entrusted to him” (141). Later, Kruger says, “Luke is presenting his Gospel as an apostolic document designed to show how Christ completes the story of the Old Testament and thereby to bolster confidence in foundational Christian truths” (143).

The Gospel of John. Kruger spends some time speaking of authorship, but what is of greater interest is John 21:24, which Kruger says seems to be “a declaration to the reader that Jesus’ promise in 15:26-27 to send authoritative witnesses has been fulfilled - the very book they are reading is the authoritative testimony of Jesus’ Spirit-filled disciples” (137, his italics). He also mentions something that I found very interesting - namely, the phrase γεγραμμένα ἐν τῷ βιβλίῳ τούτῳ doesn’t occur only in John 20:30, but also in LXX Deut. 28:58; 2 Chron. 34:21; and Jer. 25:13. He calls these parallels “suggestive that the author of the Gospel of John saw himself in a prophetic role” (138, his italics).

c. Other Texts. Kruger also spends time looking at Revelation 1:1-3, 1 John 1:1-4, 2 Peter 3:2, and Hebrews 2:1-4 to support his thesis, though readers will have to get the book if they want to see Kruger’s discussion of these specific texts. I found the discussion interesting, but we need to leave some mystery so folks will actually buy the book!

Kruger concludes the chapter by bringing things back home. It’s important to remember that Kruger’s larger purpose here is to defend the intrinsic model of canon. “If the New Testament writers were aware of their own authority, then this gives further confirmation to the intrinsic model. Although they could not have foreseen that the church would be guided by exactly twenty-seven books, they did intend to write books that would guide the church” (154).

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Michael Kruger's The Question of Canon - Chapter 3 Summary

In Chapter three of The Question of Canon, Michael Kruger is concerned to address the popular notion among some scholars that early Christianity was “a predominantly, if not exclusively, oral religion that would have been hesitant to place value on written documents.” As readers who have followed the previous two posts can see, this argument by advocates of the extrinsic model of canon fits nicely into the overall case made by the extrinsic advocates that a written canon of Scripture would have been foreign to the earliest Christians. This chapter is largely negative in the sense that Kruger is interested in casting doubt on the three pillars of this above mentioned claim.

Claim #1: Early Christianity was an Oral Culture. Pointing to the fact that the majority of people other than leaders could not read, these critics go so far as to argue that early Christians would have thought that a written medium of communication “might compromise the Gospel” (to use Kelber’s words; 85). While Kruger acknowledges that this is largely true (Christians were not as literate as today, and oral tradition did have a high place in that time period), these facts are not “a sufficient basis to characterize it as having an ‘oral state of mind’” (86). Kruger argues that (quoting Mary Beard) “the number of literates is a secondary issue” (87).

a. Kruger argues that there is nothing self-contradictory about a culture where a high value is placed on text but also the majority of that culture or community cannot actually read. These are not mutually exclusive features for a community to possess. In fact, argues Kruger, “they exist within a symbiotic and mutually reinforcing relationship” (89).

b. Kruger also argues that early Christianity, contrary to the popular perception, was actually a highly textual culture. In support of this he points to (1) Early Christian writings, (2) the obvious textuality of the Old Testament, and (3) early evidence that Christians were producing books. In the end, he says, “to reconstruct the history of Christianity solely through the lens of orality is to significantly distort the history of Christianity” (103).

Claim #2: Early Christians Expressly Stated their Aversion to Writing. Two primary examples of this thinking come from Papias and from the Apostle Paul. Kruger points out the irony, of course, of someone expressing their dislike for written words in writing. Regarding the Papias quote, he says that “for Papias the ‘living voice’ is not antithetical to written texts, but often the foundation for them.” The quote from Paul that is often pointed to is in 2 Cor. 3:6 where he says, “the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life,” implying that this passage teaches Paul’s great dislike of literal letters. Kruger spends more time on this passage than I think he needs to, but he does conclude, accurately, that “Paul’s contrast between these two mediums is really a contrast between two covenants,” the Mosaic covenant and the new covenant (110). 

Claim #3: Early Christians Expected the Imminent Return of Christ. Implied in this argument is that if they believed the world was about to end, Christians would have had no reason, early on, to produce written works. This thinking is heavily influenced by Albert Schweitzer and Bart Ehrman. Kruger responds by pointing out

a. that one must understand the apocalyptic language of the New Testament by taking into account the already/not yet distinction. “In a very real sense, the kingdom of God did come in the lifetime of the disciples (Mt. 12:28; Lk. 4:21; 17:20-21); but in another (apocalyptic) sense, it is still yet to come when Jesus returns to judge the world (Mt. 7:21; 8:11; Mk. 14:25; 15:43). Failure to make this careful distinction leads to an all-or-nothing approach to the coming kingdom of God and thus creates the impression that Jesus was mistaken about his own return” (113-114). Kruger then argues that
b. even if the early Christians believed the return of Christ and end of all things was imminent, that still isn’t any reason to think this would mean Christians wouldn’t produce written documents. He points to the Qumran community which, though highly apocalyptic in their orientation, still produced numerous written documents. Kruger ends this response to claim #3 by quoting Gerd Theissen: “The thesis about the imminent expectation of the end as a factor impeding literary creation is false. Jewish apocalyptic writing is full of imminent expectations and yet attests to a flourishing literary production” (as quoted on 117).

In the end, says Kruger, “In many instances Christians may have even preferred oral modes of communication over the written. But this is not the same as a prejudice against writing" (118).

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Why Christians Should Listen to Punk Rock

Punk rock music is the true Christian art form. I know it's hard to believe, what with all that rebellion and screaming, but hear me out. Nancy Pearcey in her book, How Now Shall We Live? discusses classical music, and in so doing argues (I'm going from memory here since my copy of the book has gone the way of the buffalo) that classical music is an especially Christian form of art because it embraces narrative, motion, beauty, structure, and elegance; all of which are part and parcel of the Christian worldview. As her foil in the book, she sets up John Cage, the prince of musical disorder. His music, so she says, embodies chaos, detachment, and lawlessness (all of which reflect the ethos of the serpent in Genesis 3). Now, Nancy Pearcey is just wrong, and I'll tell you why. There is a far more superior musical art form to classical music: namely, punk rock. The author of this blog post is a fan of punk rock, and I like it for one simple reason: It is the Christian form of music.

First of all, not all music that is classical in form is Christian in content. Think of the Mephisto Waltzes by Franz Liszt. But even excluding disturbing exceptions like this, its form is all wrong, as well. Whereas classical music embodies order, law, structure, and beauty, punk rock embodies--not the world as it should be--but the world as it is. Also, punk music has a social awareness that would put Beethoven and his ministry to the deaf to shame.

Punk music has its feet firmly on earth and deals with the nitty gritty of a world in chaos, scrambling for some moment of sanity. Think of The Clash in their song "Straight to Hell." This song addresses in rather painful fashion the mistreatment of immigrants, as well as the love children of American G.I.s who procreated with the unfortunate female population of Vietnam during the war. Gritty, painful, dirty. Punk lives in the here and now--the already, rather than the not yet. Or consider a song by The Dropkick Murphys called "The State of Massachusetts," which faces head-on the effect that drug-abuse has on families.

These singers sound more like the Psalmist or Habakkuk and less like the sort of feel-good Christianity that gets day-in and day-out dumped out of the musical sugar jar we call K-LOVE. The world is plunged into sin, and Jesus Christ has brought hope. Yes, punk music reflects a genuine attempt to push back against authority, but Paul speaks in Colossians of the fact that Christ "disarmed the rulers and authorities." Jesus was the original punk (minus the wallet-chain). Things aren't right in the world as we know it, but Jesus Christ will one day come to consummate what he began in his incarnation. There's some already in there with the not-yet, but the structured, ordered, law-abiding nature of classical music misses out on the already and exchanges it for cherubs floating on clouds clutching harps.


One thing that we see a lot of in our world today--especially when it comes to interchange between Christians and the cultural enjoyments they partake of, is an impulse towards baptizing our own particular preferences. Nancy Pearcey did it in How Now Shall We Live?, we just did it in the first part of our post above (for purposes of illustration), and bloggers and Facebookers the world over do it all the time. It's that human religious tendency to take something that we like, and to say, "You know? This makes sense to me when I look at it a certain way," and then jump to the conclusion that the music or the art or the movie or the political party that we enjoy may just have some warrant in Scripture.

This doesn't mean that we ought to despair ("Oh no! The Bible doesn't tell me which political party to join! What will I do!?"). Instead, it means we ought to be modest about our own views and preferences if Scripture doesn't speak to the matter. We use common sense, we use reason and thoughtfulness (all aspects of the imago dei) to arrive at correct conclusions. I do not need the Bible to tell me that the stock market crash of 1929 happened because of X, Y, or Z in order to arrive at a correct conclusion (obviously it was because the U.S. left the gold standard and started printing money, but that is beside the point and has nothing to do with Scriptural teaching).

This issue doesn't only affect politics. As seen above, it affects Christian attitudes towards music, as well. We shouldn't come at issues of music as people who are aesthetically relativistic. But we ought to acknowledge that the Bible just simply doesn't spell out musical forms. At all. Like, ever. The most we know is that the people of Israel celebrated using a range of instruments in the praise of God. We don't know if it sounded like a drum line, a flute sonata, or De-loused in the Comatorium. What we do know is that instruments were involved and there was some dancing. End of story. Anything that is "derived from Scripture" beyond this is almost always a mixture of speculation and taste, brewed together, and then served up to perfection as someone else's new normative standard.

But there is a way out of this conundrum, and it's something that many Christians are uncomfortable with. The Bible doesn't speak about everything that ever happened in the history of mankind. The Bible does not tell us who is funnier: Hugh Laurie or Stephen Fry. The Bible does not tell us if a certain kind of musical beat is sinful. The Bible does not tell us whether or not to shave our head or do the comb-over. The Bible doesn't tell us if we should have oatmeal for breakfast or eggs. There are just issues in life that the Bible doesn't directly teach on, and when it doesn't, that becomes an area where we ought to be extremely careful about making dogmatic declarations. Many a Christian are guilty of taking their pet peeves or their pet preferences, or even opinions they've arrived at via a very rational and thoughtful mental process and making it an issue of dogma.

The hard thing that we're calling for is a good bit of modesty about many of our views, recognizing that we do not need a "thus saith the LORD" in order to justify every decision or choice that we make in life. In other words, stop baptizing your preferences.

But seriously, God may not say so, but you should really start listening to punk music anyway.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Michael Kruger's The Question of Canon - Chapter 2 Summary

In chapter two of The Question of Canon, Mike Kruger takes aim at a second claim made by those who propose an exclusive extrinsic model of canon. They say that there was nothing inherent in earliest Christianity that might have led to a canon (23-24). Kruger has a quote from Harry Gamble that expresses this idea well: “There is no intimation at all that the early church entertained the idea of Christian Scriptures…” (47-48). The canon, so they say, was brought in 300 years later and imposed upon a Church for whom such a concept would have been unnatural. Kruger, argues, in response to this line of thought, that the theological climate of the early church would have been very conducive towards the production of new Scripture based on three overarching arguments.

a. Eschatological Expectancy in the Early Church. In responding to this challenge, Kruger points to the theological state of the early Church to demonstrate that they had major theological expectations which would have made a great deal of sense of canon. The first thing he argues is that Second Temple Judaism stood in an eschatologically expectant posture, even ending their canon with the expectancy of 2 Chronicles (and the decree of Cyrus) rather than the more chronologically sensible Ezra-Nehemiah. Looking at intertestamental writings such as Tob. 14:5-7; Bar. 3:6-8; 2 Macc. 1:27-29; Wis. 3:7 and Qumran, Kruger argues that “the Jews of this period viewed the story of the Old Testament books as incomplete” (50). With the arrival of Jesus, early Christians would have transferred that eschatological expectation to Christ and viewed him as the long-awaited one. He even points out that this theme is not only present in others’ statements about Jesus, but in his words regarding himself as well (51). He makes three sub-points here that are worth noting:
1. The forward-pointing nature of the Old Testament expectation indicates an environment where a written ending to the Old Testament would have been sensibly expected.

2. The OT itself demonstrates that periods of redemption are followed by periods of revelation and inscripturation. There is a [Redemption ——> Revelation] tendency in the Old Testament and early Christians would have expected writings to accompany the redemptive activity surrounding Christ. Kruger argues this point very persuasively, pointing to Gaffin’s work in Resurrection and Redemption to anchor some of his argument.
3. The OT also teaches that “this new era will be accompanied by a new divine message,” (54) and that divine message entails writings. In passing I will mention that he spends time discussing Deut. 18:18; Isaiah 11:1; Isaiah 61:1-2; Isaiah 2:2-3. All of these passages, says Kruger, demonstrate that the coming eschaton, from the Jewish perspective, would have been one of divine message and the sorts of writings that these revelations had always entailed.
All of these observations lead towards one conclusion: “there appear to be ample reasons to think that a new revelational deposit might have emerged naturally/intrinsically from within the early Christian movement rather than being foisted upon it by later ecclesiastical pressures” (57).

b. Covenant in Early Christianity. After pointing to the eschatological expectations of the early church, Kruger then points to the importance of covenant in early Christianity. As N.T. Wright observes, “Covenant theology was the air breathed by the Judaism of this period” (57). Because of the close connection in the Jewish paradigm between covenant and written text, Kruger says that the emergence of a fulfilling of the David and Abrahamic promises in Christ and the consequent “new covenant” ratified by Christ “suggests that the emergence of a new corpus of scriptural books…could not be regarded as entirely unexpected” (62). Briefly, he points out five worthy observations in this regard:
1. “The New Testament has its own ‘inscripturational curse’ in Revelation 22:18-19” (63).

2. “The New Testament has its own declarations that it should be read publicly,” specifically in 2 Cor. 10:9; Col. 4:16; and 1 Thess. 5:27 (63).

3. “The New Testament writings seem to perform the same covenantal functions as their Old Testament counterparts” (63).

4. Paul viewed his own second letter to the Corinthians as a “covenant lawsuit,” again reinforcing the idea that not only was his letter authoritative, but that he viewed his letter as functioning as a covenant document with God’s own authority.

5. “The fact that the new corpus of Christian Scripture eventually was called the ‘New Testament’ or ‘new covenant’ is indicative of the close relationship between the concepts of ‘covenant’ and ‘canon’” (65). He draws attention to the fact that in Exodus the tables of the law are actually called “the covenant.”

And so, argues Kruger, the covenantal focus of early Christianity meant that “the emergence of a new corpus of covenantal books would not have been something entirely unexpected” (67). 
c. Apostolic Authority in the Early Church. Finally, after pointing to the eschatological expectancy of early Christians, and after pointing to the covenantal focus of early Christians, he finally argues that the authority of the Apostles would also have contributed to an environment of expected inscripturation. “If apostles were viewed as the mouthpiece of Christ, and it was believed that they wrote down that apostolic message in books, then those books would be received as the very words of Christ himself. Such writings would not have to wait until the second-, third-, or fourth-century ecclesiastical decisions to be viewed as authoritative” (70). As is his pattern, he gives three sub-points in support:
1. “The disposition toward written covenant texts would no doubt have played a part” (70).

2. “The textualization of the apostolic message would have occurred quite naturally as the apostles…began to die out” (71).

3. “Many New Testament writings share elements of the ‘testamentary’ genre” (73) which implies a written record of one’s final words. In fact, Kruger is stronger: “It was the mission of the apostles which would have made writing…a virtual inevitability.”
In the end, Kruger concludes chapter two by summarizing his argument that there are sundry theological reasons why the early Christian environment was one that was quite friendly to the idea of producing new Scriptural documents which would have been viewed as on the same canonical level as the writings of the Old Testament.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Michael Kruger’s The Question of Canon - Chapter 1 Summary

Over the next couple of weeks, I’m going to spend some time summarizing each of the five chapters in Michael Kruger’s new book The Question of Canon, published a couple months ago through IVP. I first began reading the book for the purposes of writing a review, but since I am not an expert in canon studies I don’t feel I am adequately qualified to review the book, though I find myself highly appreciative of what I see in this volume. What follows is a summary of the introduction and the first chapter. This may be especially helpful to those who have read Canon Revisited and want to understand what Kruger is doing in this new volume.

Kruger’s Introduction
Kruger has written this book, not to defend a model of canonicity, per se (as readers may recall he did in Canon Revisited), but to answer the more basic question of “why is there a New Testament at all?” (17). In this book, Kruger is out to show the problems with the extrinsic model of the canon (which views the canon as, “to some degree, imposed upon the Christian faith” by outside ecclesiastical concerns in the fourth century). Kruger says this extrinsic view is the dominant model of canon in academia today. As its alternative, he presents the intrinsic model of canon, which views the canon as something that “is not …imposed from the outside but develops more organically from within the early Christian religion itself” (21). He summarizes the extrinsic model by its 5 major tenets, which he spends one chapter each in the book addressing. These are the five tenets of the extrinsic view:

1. We must make a sharp distinction between Scripture and canon.
2. There was nothing in earliest Christianity that might have led to a canon.
3. Early Christians were averse to written documents.
4. The NT authors were unaware of their own authority.
5. The NT books were first regarded as Scripture at the end of the second century.

Kruger’s book is structured into five chapters, each intended to deal with one of the above five tenets of the extrinsic model. In the end, he does hope readers will see the problems with the extrinsic model and see that the facts seem to line up with aspects of both the intrinsic model and also the extrinsic. He does not see the two models as mutually exclusive but as capable of harmonization. It is those who claim the extrinsic model is the only viable model of canon on whom Kruger sets his sights, as he sees much to be appreciated in both models.

Chapter 1: The Definition of Canon
Kruger agrees with Brevard Childs: “Much of the present confusion over the problem of canon turns on the failure to reach an agreement regarding the terminology” (27). This chapter is dedicated to finding a helpful definition of canon. Kruger narrows the possible definitions of canon down to three, and he finds each of them on their own to be insufficient apart from the others. They are:

1. The Exclusive definition: “Canon as a fixed, final and closed list of books” (29). This view puts the canon’s formation in the fourth century.
2. The Functional definition: “The term canon need not be restricted to a final, closed list but can ‘encompass the entire process by which the formation of the church’s sacred writings took place.’” (34). This view puts the canon’s formation in the second century.
3. The Ontological definition: Canon as defined by God. “What the canon is in and of itself, namely the authoritative books that God gave his corporate church” (40). This view sees the canon as existing as soon as it is written.

Kruger says that all three of these views complement each other because they each encompass a particular "phase" of the formation of the canon. He calls this a “multidimensional approach to the definition of canon” (43). To appreciate exactly how he sees them complementing each other, the following quote is helpful:
When the three definitions are viewed together they nicely capture the entire flow of canonical history: (1) the canonical books are written with divine authority; —> (2) the books are recognized and used as Scripture by early Christians; —> (3) the church reaches a consensus around these books. The fact that these three definitions are linked together in such a natural chronological order reminds us that the story of the canon is indeed a process; and therefore it should not be artificially restricted to one moment in time. Put differently, the story of the canon is organic (43).
Kruger argues that this “multidimensional approach” allows scholars to understand the canon in a way that is more in keeping with historic Christianity while at the same time appreciating the most helpful aspects of all three definitions.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

"A Milestone in Contemporary Hebrews Research"

In his recent book from the Topical Line Drives series, The Authorship of Hebrews: The Case for Paul, David Alan Black makes a reference to fellow Bring the Books blogger Josh Walker's work with Andrew Pitts regarding Pauline authorship of Hebrews. Here is what Black has to say from the book's introduction:
[A] recent study by Andrew W. Pitts and Joshua F. Walker has challenged the consensus opinio by reexamining the raw data, drawing heavily from my previously published work on the subject. Their essay is entitled "The Authorship of Hebrews: A Further Development in the Luke-Paul Relationship." In it they conclude that Hebrews is "Pauline" in a very real sense, in that Luke took a discourse given by Paul in a diaspora synagogue and subsequently published it as a written text. They write, "Although Hebrews has been handed down to us without an author, we have argued that both external and internal considerations suggest that Hebrews constitutes Pauline speech material, recorded and later published by Luke, Paul's traveling companion." In my view, this essay marks a milestone in contemporary Hebrews research. Few have attempted this kind of close scrutiny of the text because it necessitates a highly critical stance toward recent tradition, in this case at least a century of tradition that has rejected the Paulinity of Hebrews. I am grateful for essays like this one. They ask us to "revision" the text in ways that are perhaps more faithful to the evidence, both external and internal. Revisioning is a difficult process. It is difficult because it is hard for us to look past our own traditional blinders in the light of serious exegesis. It can create dissonance between ourselves and our theological heritage. It is fraught with problems and challenges. Yet the rewards can be remarkably satisfying.
I thought this would be a good opportunity to brag on the work of my friend Josh Walker, as well to draw attention to Black's book. You can find Black's book The Authorship of Hebrews: The Case for Paul by clicking here (it is quite affordable!). You can also find the book containing Walker and Pitts' chapter on Amazon by clicking here (it is quite unaffordable - but still worth it).

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

John Frame's New 'Systematic Theology' Currently 50% Off

I must confess, John Frame's brand new, gargantuan Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Christian Belief may have the longest list of endorsements I've ever seen for a book. Add to that, it may have the most variety of endorsements from all over the Reformed world, as well. Ligon Duncan, Bryan Chapell, Al Mohler, J.I. Packer, Mike Kruger, Jay Adams, Peter Leithart, Justin Taylor, James Anderson, Gerald Bray, Paul Helm, Andrew Hoffecker, Kelly Kapic, Doug Kelly, Robert Letham, Don Macleod, Norman Shepherd, Derek Thomas, Bruce Ware, and more... Given my own theological views, I wouldn't want all of these men (*cough* Shepherd/Leithart *cough*) to endorse my book, but somehow Frame has managed to impress a very large and broad swath of the Reformed world, and for that reason alone my interest is piqued.

As with the other books Frame has written as of late, this book is Shakespearean in scope and size, weighing in at over 1200 pages. I love collecting Systematic Theologies and consulting them from time to time (I'm not the type to read them straight through), and whatever differences I often find between myself and Frame on various issues, there is no doubt that I will still be consulting this book in the future. As the title of this post suggests, the book is currently being sold by Westminster Books for 50% off. You can get it here.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

New Volume on the Doctrine of Scripture

Westminster Seminary has just announce a new gargantuan volume (1400+ pages!) on the doctrine of Scripture. Edited by Peter Lillback and Richard Gaffin, this book might be described as an anthology of sorts. It draws writings and witnesses from several eras of Reformed theology together in one place to testify to the inerrancy of Scripture. Here is what J.I. Packer says about this book:
The embattled title casts this book as an apologia for Westminster Seminary’s stand in a recent internal debate. Yes, it is all of that, but it is a great deal more. It is a massive array of extracts from major writers over five centuries, demonstrating both the breadth, strength, clarity, humility, and rootedness of international Reformed bibliology according to its historic confessional self-understanding, and also the insightful energy with which Westminster’s own scholars have labored to vindicate the Reformed position as catholic Christian truth. The book excels as a resource for study and a witness to Westminster’s integrity.
The book is organized into thirteen parts, each dealing with a different era of Reformed history. You can read the entire table of contents over at the WTS webpage by clicking on the PDF preview of the book. There you can see just what has gone into each page of this "colossus" (Packer's word). The only thing that seems to be missing is church testimony to the inerrancy of Scripture prior to Calvin and Luther, but I suppose there's always room for a second volume! I do not have this book (yet), but I plan to get it. WTSBooks is currently selling it at an introductory discount of 45% off.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Sinclair Ferguson's Case for Cessationism

Sinclair Ferguson, in his classic book The Holy Spirit speaks of a case for cessationism. Here I will attempt to simply summarize his arguments, though one could hardly do better than to read the book for themselves.

1) Noting the long stretch of time between the early church and the new modern manifestations associated with a historical renewal of the gifts, Ferguson says that "Restorationism provides no generally convincing theological explanation for the disappearance of certain gifts during the greater part of the church's existence" (italics original, 223). He says that considering the Spirit is sovereign in the administration of his gifts (Heb. 2:4), it is spiritual and theological hubris to simply say that the gifts disappeared because of a lack of faith in God's people.

[Aside: Warfield's lectures on this subject have long been pointed to as demonstrating that no Scriptural case for cessationism can be made, but Ferguson is adamant that those lectures were historical, not Biblical in their focus. Ferguson also points out, helpfully, in this section of his argument that "it is a logical fallacy to hold that the proof of the negative on its own ('no text in the New Testament teaches cessation') establishes an alternative positive ('the New Testament teaches continuationism')" (224). So even if someone demonstrates that there is no NT text teaching cessationism, it isn't enough on its own.]

2) Continuationists tend to assume that "the unusual and miraculous are biblically normal and normative and therefore naturally continue." He goes on to show that the unusual and the miraculous have always been just that - unusual. These manifestations tend to coalesce around periods of new revelation, the dawning of new epochs of God's redemptive-historical purpose. "Without this perspective, some biblical miracles would be trivial and almost on the level of magic tricks" (224). He points to the floating axe head in 2 Kings 6:1-5 and the coin in the mouth of a fish in Mt. 17:27.

Crucially, Ferguson also notes that "signs and wonders" are spoken of as "signs of a true apostle" (2 Cor. 12:12), and on the flip side, the activity of Satan is characterized by "false signs and wonders" (2 Thess. 2:9). "Signs and wonders" are consistently appealed to as a sign of Prophetic and Apostolic attestation (Acts 2:22, 43; 4:30; 5:12; 6:8; 14:3; 15:12; Rom. 15:12, 19). There is an intimate connection between "signs and wonders" and the presence of the Apostles or their delegates (note in Acts 15:12 that the signs and wonders were done "through them [Paul and Barnabas]"). Or in Hebrews 2:4, "signs and wonders" are spoken as a means of demonstrating the authority of those who brought the Gospel. "Here," says Ferguson, "apostolic ministry and special confirmations of it are inextricably linked together...The primary function of these gifts itself suggests their impermanence" (225). And so we see what I think is the core of Ferguson's case for cessationism: the function of the spiritual gifts was to confirm, in an era of change and uncertainty, the authority of the Apostles and the truth of their message. This purpose is no longer necessary. Ergo, the purpose of these gifts has passed its time.

3) Ferguson spends some time discussing 1 Cor. 13:10. In his discussion, he points out that cessationists have classically understood the passage as saying that "when the perfection comes" or "completion comes" refers to the New Testament canon, which of course, will mean the end of prophecy and tongues. Ferguson recognizes that this is a view of the passage that the majority of scholars reject. Ferguson says that if this passage teaches what the cessationist says it teaches, then the issue is "settled." However, if the cessationist interpretation that this refers to the canon of Scripture is wrong (and the continuationist is right about this passage), it still does not mean that continuationism is true.

Even a moderate continuationist like D.A. Carson admits that these words don't "necessarily mean that a charismatic gift could not have been withdrawn earlier than the parousia [return of Christ]." Ferguson also says that many cessationists do not hold the above referenced classic interpretation of 1 Cor. 13:10 and that their cessationism does not hang on this passage. Richard Gaffin, for example, does not see the close of the canon as what is in view here, but rather, the return of Christ. Gaffin argues, on the contrary, that it is "gratuitous" to argue from this passage "that the gifts mentioned continue until the parousia." It's not that this passage teaches either cessationism or continuationism, but rather, says Gaffin, in this passage, Paul "has in view the entire period until Christ's return, without regard to whether or not discontinuities may intervene during the course of this period, in the interests of emphasizing the enduring quality of faith, hope, and especially love (vv. 8, 13)" (228). In the end, Ferguson suggests that if the NT does not give a definitive statement either towards continuationism or cessationism then, "the function of these gifts will determine their longevity" (229).

Ferguson also points out that in the time of the Reformation, the Roman Catholic church began to demand miracles and signs to show that the message of the Reformers was true. Calvin's response, paraphrased by Ferguson: "The new covenant was attested by the outpourings of the miraculous. This is adequate testimony. We have no novel message; we need no novel outpouring of the miraculous" (229).

[Aside: Others also point to 1 Cor. 4:1-8 and Eph. 4:7-13 as proof texts to argue that the gifts ceased with the Apostles, though Ferguson does not give these passages more than a brief mention in his treatment.]

4) Ferguson then turns his attention to the difficulties presented by tongues-speaking in the post-Apostolic age. He argues that the most natural reading of the tongues phenomena is "speaking of foreign languages. But contemporary glossalalia is not normally identified with the speaking of foreign languages." Aside from 1 Corinthians, Ferguson notes a deafening silence (especially where one might expect much needed discussion of it in the Pastoral letters) regarding the tongues/prophecy phenomenon. An argument from silence isn't conclusive, but Ferguson also says that it does demonstrate an apparent "shift in orientation which had already taken place from the immediacy of tongues and their interpretation to the teaching of the apostolic tradition" (230).

Ferguson points out that, regardless of the continuationist insistence that modern prophecies are not authoritative or binding, in the NT era, tongues that were interpreted were regarded as "revelation" (1 Cor. 14:6). "When interpreted, therefore, tongues-speaking is the functional equivalent of prophecy and is revelatory in nature." And this gets to what Ferguson calls the "storm center" of the current debate: new revelation, regardless of its form, "principally undermines the sufficiency of Scripture, and becomes de facto the dominant factor, at least at certain points, in the canon by which the individual lives." Ferguson introduces this category of another sort of canon - the canon of experience, or to use Ferguson's phrase, "The canon of life," saying "Is it not, therefore, special pleading on the part of evangelicals to claim that prophecies received by them function in an altogether different way?" It absolutely violates the reformation principle of the sufficiency of Scripture, which says that "no additional revelation is needed by the church or the individual."

It's at this point many modern continuationists are going to feel Ferguson is talking past them. "You keep identifying tongues speaking as prophecy, but you ignore the fact that we've defined the word 'prophecy' down to something the Hebrews would never have recognized! We define prophecy the way the Hellenists would have. Stop equating prophecy in the modern era with prophecy in the OT." Ferguson actually deals with this earlier in the book (pages 214-221). Needless to say he hardly finds Grudem's insistence that Agabus is a false prophet (in the OT sense) but a true prophet (in the Hellenist sense) appealing or coherent, especially within the context of a religious movement that was so concerned to show its OT bona fides.

Ferguson points out Grudem's own suggestion that "Thus says the Lord" could be dropped and replaced with "I think the Lord is suggesting something like..." instead (Grudem, The Gift of Prophecy, p. 113). This would help the confusion between cessationists and continuationists in at least this one area, suggests Grudem. Certainly, says Ferguson, the language of "prophecy" is confusing. But Grudem doesn't go far enough. "No level of prophecy in Scripture is introduced by 'I think the Lord is suggesting something like this.' To speak thus is not to speak prophecy at all. The recognition that this is not prophecy in any biblical sense would solve the difficulty without any danger of the quenching of the Spirit which restorationists so fear" (italics original, p. 232).

Ferguson does give a pattern for understanding the biblical concept of illumination and argues that illumination of Scripture by the Spirit is not the same thing as revelation, nor should it be called "prophecy" (nor do cessationists insist on calling it prophecy), but that is beyond the reach of what I was originally trying to do when I began this précis.

Ferguson concludes his discussion with these excellent and well-balanced words:
No right-thinking Christian would deny that God continues to be active in the world, to do wonderful things for his people, and especially to answer their prayers in keeping with his promises. It is still appropriate for the sick not only to consult a doctor but to 'call the elders of the church to pray over him and anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord.' The promise remains that 'the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well;  the Lord will raise him up' (Jas. 5:14-15). People continue to be healed by God - through, above and even against means. Indeed, writes John Owen, 'It is not unlikely but that God might on some occasions, for a longer season, put forth his power in some miraculous operations.' It would, however, be a mistake to draw the conclusion from this that such events are normative or that in these events individuals are receiving again the coronation gifts of Penetecost. It is misguided to think that we ought to try to categorize every element of contemporary experience in this way. To attempt to do so would be tantamount to assuming that we are able systematically to analyze and categorize all the events and experience which constitute the providences of God (p. 235).

Thursday, October 24, 2013

The "Hot Mess" of Modern Day Prophecy

I'm glad that Stephen Altrogge wrote his latest blog post over at The Blazing Center. The post is titled "How the Heck Does Modern Day Prophecy Work?" and the reason I appreciate the post is not that I am a Charismatic and want to know the best way to hear from the Lord. I am decidedly un-Charismatic and already know how to hear from the Lord (hint: the Spirit working through the Word). The reason I appreciate the post is that it is absolutely clear, and to a fault. I say to a fault because the post makes plain the agonizingly obvious problems with a form of prophecy in a protestant context that insists on retaining the principles of sola scriptura.

"Prophecy Is Not New Revelation About God"
Altrogge is trying to be balanced. He insists, in order to safeguard sola scriptura, that "Prophecy is never, ever, ever new revelation about God." Commendable. But what is it, then? Altrogge: "[M]odern day prophecy is God-given insight into specific circumstances which could not be known otherwise and which in turn enables a person to bring God’s word to bear on those circumstances."

Notice that he says it is not new revelation about God. But it must be new revelation from God. As I understand it, men like Wayne Grudem don't even like using words like "revelation" to refer to these "insights," (he insisted on this, repeatedly, in a public debate with Richard Gaffin some years ago) and one could certainly understand why. In a protestant, sola scriptura context, if you say that you've received new revelations from God, you're going to get punched in the nose by Martin Luther (with every other non-Anabaptist, Marcionite, or Montanist standing in line behind him). If you try to stop them by saying, "No, no, no... I did receive a new revelation from God, but it wasn't about Him, it was about me," they're still probably not going to pull their punches.  Altrogge is being careful, but not careful enough. And even if I try to be charitable and say, "Okay, it's not 'revelation,' I'll just call it 'insight' for the sake of discussion," this doesn't seem to help things much. After all, he's still hearing new words that were "not known otherwise" (how is this not Ἀποκάλυψις?) from a God who has already given his moral will and committed it absolutely and infallibly in the writings of the Apostles and Prophets. The maneuvers in place here to safeguard sola scriptura are absolutely inadequate.

What's The Point?
But even the practical results of this sort of attempted half-measure prophecy end up being impractically unhelpful. He gives the example of a woman who had a vision, and the vision ended up showing Altrogge, during a particularly difficult and tumultuous period, that "God will lead us one step at a time exactly where we need to go." Now, I am happy that Altrogge found something helpful or edifying on a personal level from this, but I am absolutely confused how someone would not learn the same principle from Scripture? Or from common experience? This woman did not need to come to them with the authority of God behind her for them to know that God doesn't tell us everything we need to know at once. The Bible says "thy word is a lamp unto my feet," not that it is a lamp unto "the road that leads ever onward." My point here is not to demean this person or the value that hearing this had for Altrogge, but simply to say that if this is the best that "modern day prophecy" can do for the church, then it would be better to just learn Scripture better (reading Deut. 29:29 ought to do the job) or pick up Poor Richard's Almanac once in a while. He even seems to understand this in a later section of his post when he says, "I don’t make major life decisions based on prophecy, I make major life decisions based upon the Bible." What good is a prophecy that you can't even take seriously? I mean, seriously!

"Prophecy Is Not Infallible"
Elsewhere, he speaks of the fact that prophecy is not infallible. He says that "If a person prophesies something which contradicts the clear revelation of God’s word I immediately discard it as false." That's a great principle. But what about prophecies that don't clearly contradict God's word? I remember clear as day, I had a friend who played for me a cassette tape of a recording from his church. In this recording, a "prophet" was speaking a prophecy over my friend and his wife. Their marriage was on the rocks. She had cheated on him, he had tried and tried to repair their marriage for years, and they needed encouragement. I listened to the audio of this prophecy, and this man, claiming to speak for God, told them that God was going to draw them back together and that God was going to repair their marriage and use her to minister to women all over the world. It has been 12 years since that prophecy. They are divorced, he is remarried, living on the opposite side of the country from his ex-wife, and she is carrying on a decade-plus long affair with a married man. The prophecy could not have been more wrong. He is remarried. Their marriage is over. In Israel they would have thrown rocks at that "prophet" until his brain stopped telling lies. What good is simply holding a prophecy up to Scripture in order to decide if it is true or not? Here's the answer: It isn't. Simply not contradicting Scripture is not the same thing as speaking truth on behalf of God.

Another problem with this principle that prophecy is not infallible is in the principle itself. Just say it out loud: "Prophecy is not infallible." The principle is not "We don't always know, perfectly whether God is speaking in a particular instance." The principle is that "prophecy is not infallible." Think about it: "Words from God can be wrong." And then he does the same thing I have heard Wayne Grudem say: that Agabus made a false prophecy in Acts 21:10-12. This is a nightmarishly uncharitable reading of Agabus' prophecy. It is far more charitable to understand Agabus' words as being a conditional prophecy (of which there is certainly precedent in Scripture) and not a wrong prophecy from a true prophet (of which there is certainly no precedent in Scripture).

Another problem with this principle is that it posits Agabus as using this newer form of "fallible prophecy" before the Apostolic era of spiritual gifts has ended. Even Altrogge sees a difference between prophecy "back then" and "modern day prophecy." And yet he is treating Agabus, in his failed prophecy, as if he were a modern prophet coming up to someone after church for a word of "insight." Agabus is called "a prophet," not merely an average Christian who sometimes gets a bit of insight here and there. As mentioned before, for a prophet to prophecy wrongly would have meant getting stoned (and not in the Bob Dylan sense of the word). We know when the food laws were done away with (Acts 10), but when does Altrogge (or Grudem for that matter) think the bar for prophecy was dropped so embarrassingly low?

Concluding Thoughts
I like Altrogge. I read his blog. I prayed for him during his transition from being a pastor. I care about him and respect him. But let's face it: this modified form of prophecy that has been toned down to conform with sola scriptura is an inadequate half-measure. It neither benefits the church, has precedent in Scripture, nor safeguards the sufficiency of Scripture. In fact, in order to establish its own precedent it has to say that God can inspire wrong prophecy.

Monday, October 7, 2013

A Proposal for Evangelicalism's Disaffected Deviationists

I try not to obnoxiously post giant block quotes here at Bring the Books very often. However, one of my recent pet projects has been addressing disillusioned former evangelicals who think they see something ugly in the religion they used to love. I try to be winsome and friendly. Granted, my message has largely been to tell these critics, "Physician, heal thyself!"which doesn't do much for mending fences, I'll freely admit.

But I read someone like Rachel Held Evans (whom I see as fairly representative of disaffected neo-evangelical types), and I see so much frustration with the shallow, the simplistic, the thoughtless, the "get your ticket punched" form of Christianity that has come to define what might be called the conservative wing of evangelicalism. In my frustration, I remain irresistibly convinced that the Reformed tradition presents a fantastic (I am not claiming perfect) alternative to the ugliness of modern evangelicalism, but I know those aren't pleasant options for someone who doesn't have a high view of Scripture or a traditional appreciation of gender roles in the Church. Regardless, as I was reading in one of J.I. Packer's books, I found an interesting discussion of the very audience I've been thinking of. Here is what he has to say:
I turn finally to those whom I call disaffected deviationists, the casualties and dropouts of the modern evangelical movement, many of whom have now turned against it to denounce it as a neurotic perversion of Christianity. Here, too, is a breed that we know all too well. It is distressing to think of these folk, both because their experience to date discredits our evangelicalism so deeply and also because there are so many of them.
Who are they? They are people who once saw themselves as evangelicals, either from being evangelically nurtured or from coming to profess conversion within the evangelical sphere of influence, but who have become disillusioned about the evangelical point of view and have turned their back on it, feeling that it let them down.
Some leave it for intellectual reasons, judging that what was taught them was so simplistic as to stifle their minds and so unrealistic and out of touch with facts as to be really if unintentionally dishonest. Other leave because they were led to expect that as Christians they would enjoy health, wealth, trouble-free circumstances, immunity from relational hurts, betrayals, and failures, and from making mistakes and bad decisions; in short, a flowery bed of ease on which they would be carried happily to heaven - and these great expectations were in due course refuted by events. Hurt and angry, feeling themselves victims of a confidence trick, they now accuse the evangelicalism they know of having failed and fooled them, and resentfully give it up; it is a mercy if they do not therewith similarly accuse and abandon God himself. Modern evangelicalism has much to answer for in the number of casualties of this sort that it has caused in recent years by its naivety of mind and unrealism of expectation.
 What readers might find most interesting is that this was not written last year, it was not written five years, or even 15 years ago. This book is A Quest for Godliness (p. 32-33), and it was published 23 years ago. 23! I recall seeing Rachel Held Evans say in her CNN editorial that young people are leaving the church in droves now because "we millennials have highly sensitive BS meters" and to that I say, "Every generation thinks that it has a working B.S. meter. There is still nothing special about the young people who are burning out and leaving evangelicalism for a 'new kind of Christianity'." That doesn't mean, however, that there isn't legitimacy to any of the complaints. I'm not saying that at all. Personally, I like the olive branch that Packer offers.
Here again the soberer, profounder, wiser evangelicalism of the Puritan giants can fulfill a corrective and therapeutic function in our midst...What have the Puritans to say to us that might serve to heal the disaffected casualties of modern evangelical goofiness? Anyone who reads the writings of Puritan authors will find in them much that helps in this way. Puritan authors regularly tell us, first, of the mystery of God: that our God is too small, that the real God cannot be put without remainder into a man-made conceptual box so as to be fully understood; and that he was, is, and always will be bewilderingly inscrutable in his dealing with those who trust and love him, so that 'losses and crosses', that is, bafflement and disappointment in relation to particular hopes one has entertained, must be accepted as a recurring element in one's life of fellowship with him.
Packer goes on to argue that the maturity and spiritual care that one finds in the Puritans (whom he likens to Redwoods in the forest of theology) provide a badly needed counterpoint to what he has accurately called "modern evangelical goofiness." (And if it was goofy 23 years ago, what would he call it today, I wonder?) What can be done to convince the "disaffected deviationists" that the Reformed tradition contains the antidote to the nightmarish, saccharine, shallow, self-centered religion that is being presented as "evangelicalism" today? Well, they could start by reading the Puritans for themselves and breathing the old, stiff, strong air that blows down from the branches of these giant Redwoods in the theological forest of history.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Why Did God Forbid Blending Threads?

Mark Driscoll has attempted to briefly answer a very pressing and important question that should be on the radar screen of each and every Christian. The post is titled "Does God hate cotton blend T-shirts?" and deals with the prohibition against mixed threads in Deuteronomy 22:11 and Leviticus 19:19.
Deuteronomy 22:11: “You shall not wear cloth of wool and linen mixed together.”
Leviticus 19:19: Nor shall you wear a garment of cloth made of two kinds of material.”
Driscoll, in his post, deals very superficially with the above question and basically ends up appealing to the classic three-fold division of the law: civil, ceremonial, and moral and says, "These laws are no longer binding on us because Jesus is our priest, temple, sacrifice, cleanser, and so forth." Period. End of discussion. Now, for my own part, I agree with Driscoll's conclusion. The ceremonial law was done away with in the coming of Christ (WCF 19.3). However, readers of his post will still not be any closer to understanding the prohibition under discussion than when they first began.

Just as with Driscoll, my own interest in this prohibition relates to a renewed contemporary (albeit superficial) fascination in these prohibitions by skeptics. One skeptic, for example, says "There is nothing in the Christian bible to suggest that this portion of Leviticus is any less serious than the part about homosexuality. And yet, the inescapable conclusion is that wearing clothing made of linen-wool blends is wrong in the same way homosexuality is wrong." Richard Dawkins, similarly, alludes to this prohibition as he mocks the sort of minutiae often found detailed in the Pentateuch.

It is not only atheists and skeptics who think texts like Lev. 19:19 and Deut. 22:11 are some sort of linchpin to show the inconsistency of Christian ethics. More than ever, with the push in our society to normalize homosexual behavior, these texts are increasingly being leaned on, even within supposed Christian circles.

I wonder how much people really understand the prohibition, however. I know that in my own studies, looking for discussion of these verses in any helpful way was about as difficult as finding a sensible statement in YouTube's comments section. That is to say, these verses are often spoken of generally, even in the best commentaries (with a few exceptions).

There are several possible approaches to these passages. For the sake of simplicity, I will deal primarily with the prohibition as it appears in Deut. 22:11.

1. Spiritualize It
Some commentaries, from Reformed theologians I've consulted, say that the prohibition against mixed threads is to picture Israel's own holiness. It is a way of showing that Israel's holiness is to be untainted by the nations around. One OT scholar, whom I highly respect, says that the command is literal, but that it pictures that "God has created things to act according to their natures, and they are to stay in their proper spheres." Nevertheless, the advocates of this view which I have read discuss the larger ethical message of these commandments more than the commandments themselves. They also tend not to deal with the fact that God actually commands his priests to have this same mixed fabric in their garb in Exodus 28:6, 15 and in Exodus 39:29. The priest wore a belt of mixed threads. Furthermore, Exodus 26:1-2, 7-8 commands that the curtain of the tabernacle be made from this same "forbidden" mixture of wool and linen. In my own opinion, and based on my own research, the "spiritualized" interpretation of the passage does not wrestle sufficiently with the apparent conflict between the prescribed priestly garb and these prohibitions.

Carmichael also holds to what might be called a metaphorical view. Essentially, he sees this passage specifically dealing with intermarriage of Israelites and Canaanites by way of euphemism.

2. Reject It
Some commentators, coming from a more liberal perspective than myself, follow the JEDP documentary view of the construction of the Pentateuch and say that the prohibitions of Deut. 22:11 and Lev. 19:19 are leftover vestiges of an earlier editor before the Pentateuch was finalized. They call this editor the Deuteronomist. Crediting these passages to the Deuteronomist, they say he was “unready to throw off this primitive concept” of refusing to mix unlike things. Unable to resist the urge to teach modern readers a lesson, they continue: “Unless religion does cast off such encumbrances from the dead past, progress is stifled. Ancient Egyptian religion kept its primitiveness and so was unable to achieve spiritual monotheism.” Some readers may find this line of thought compelling, but as someone who believes in the inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture, I find this approach far less than compelling. It fails to understand the Old Testament as a coherent whole.

3. Embrace It as Rejecting Prostitute Garb
Those to whom Moses is delivering these laws are only a generation removed from life in Egypt. Carmichael, in his discussion of this law, says that clothing of mixed fabrics was suggestive of Egyptian cultic prostitution which, of course, Israel was to have not even the least bit to do with. If Lambdin’s is right that these verses use an Egyptian loan word (šaʿaṭnēz), then it may just be that the word in question is referring to a way that the Israelites would have either dressed themselves, or seen their Egyptians masters dress, or might have seen cult prostitutes in Egypt dress. In this scenario, God’s command in Deut. 22:11 and Leviticus 19:19 is a polemical command intended to separate Israel from the nation that they have just left behind. The greatest problem with this view is that it does not adequately account for the legislation that requires the priests to make their garments from these same mixed threads.

4. Embrace It as Rejection of Priestly Garb for the Laity
This view says that the passage is not prohibiting mixed threads because it was the clothing of prostitutes. Nor is this prohibition merely meant to be a picture of holiness and Israel's distinction from among the nations. Rather, this prohibition had a very practical purpose. Numbers 16:1-40 records an incident when the laity sought to take priestly duties for themselves. In this view Deut. 22:11 (and Lev. 19:19) actually address a real and pressing issue: namely the temptation for the laity to resent or break down the distinction between priests and laity among the Israelites. Given this understanding of the prohibition of mixed threads, we see that God is placing barriers between the people and the Levites to keep such events as the rebellion of Korah from taking place. It is also easy to explain to the skeptic why Christians no longer observe this prohibition. Since the New Testament no longer distinguishes elders from the laity by clothing this command regarding mixed threads is no longer relevant except perhaps in terms of a persistent recognition that the Church still has leaders and elders whom the members are to submit to (Hebrews 13:17). Although there is nothing wrong with appealing to the threefold division of the law, it is often hard for skeptics to grasp (or they are unwilling to grasp) the fact that this distinction is not simply a convenient "out" for the defensive believer. If it is possible to answer the challenge without invoking the threefold division, I think it is best to do so from an apologetic (or at least from a didactic) perspective.

Just to put my cards on the table, this is the view which I find to be most compelling for several reasons:

a) It has ancient pedigree.
Jeffrey Tigay, in the JPS Torah Commentary on Deuteronomy points out that Josephus, while recognizing that the passage is difficult and not always understood, believed that "the prohibition applies to the laity, because the priests, when they officiate, do wear garments made of such mixtures" (Ant. 4.208). According to Josephus, this view of the passage goes back before his own time. And so it can safely be said that this view goes back at least a couple of millennia.

b) It accounts for the previous command for the priests to wear mixed threads.
As I mentioned earlier, the commands of Exodus 28:6, 15; 39:29 need to be reckoned with by anyone who wants to understand this command. Because God does command the mixing of threads elsewhere, we should reject the idea that God is prohibiting mixed threads in all situations in Deut. 22:11.

c) It allows for harmonization within the Pentateuch rather than disharmony.
God speaks with one voice in Scripture. He does not speak out of both sides of His mouth. We need to understand all of God's commands in relation to one another.

Christians, once they have a firm understanding of passages like these, will be ready to quickly, with clarity, and simplicity, answer skeptics. More and more the environment in which we live demands sound-bite answers. As soon as someone says that Christians are ethically inconsistent and bring up their polyester/cotton T-Shirt, the Christian can offer their own soundbite: "That passage in Deuteronomy is not a blanket prohibition of mixing threads all the time. Rather, it is prohibiting the average Israelite to dress like the priests. Since we don't have priests anymore and because there is no biblical command to differentiate pastors from the laity by clothing, we no longer obey this particular commandment." We obviously do still have regard for the difference between civil, ceremonial, and moral laws in the Old Testament, but in this particular case, the command is far less ridiculous or humorous than the skeptic thinks.

Monday, September 23, 2013

We Could Do With a Good Dose of Disillusionment

We love stories - it's a part of our nature. And we like stories with happy endings. A few nights ago, my wife and I watched the series finale of House. It's amazing to realize just how angry my wife, and so many other viewers would have been if the show did not conclude with a happy ending. Myself, I'm the type to enjoy a realistic ending that might have a bit of dreary, realistic humanity attached to it. To give you an idea where my tastes are, I thought the ending of Revolutionary Road was perfect.

In the same way, Christians love conversion stories. We love to hear about how God took a sinner and changed his heart and drew that person to Himself. What's not to love about it? You have what once was dead brought to life. It's beautiful, it glorifies God, and it's Biblical, to boot! The Apostle Paul spoke frequently of his own past (1 Tim. 1:13; 1 Cor. 15:9; Gal. 1:13). But how often do we reflect that our own story becomes shockingly unsexy once the dust has actually settled? I'm not saying there is not a happy ending for the saints of God, but for some it is often very long in the making.

After coming to Seminary, I made friends with a great guy who has an extraordinary conversion story (or so I'm told). My wife and I had him over for dinner one night and after some time he looked at me and said that if I was okay with it he'd rather not tell his conversion story. He explained that he had told it to so many people and that he didn't think it was good for himself or those he told it to. He'd become so saturated by his own story that those he told didn't look at him as a saint of God. They saw him as a notorious sinner first, and perhaps as a redeemed saint a distant second. And this is at a Reformed seminary where the grace of God is proclaimed weekly from the chapel pulpit and in every class. People weren't ready for the reality of this guy's old life.

Protestants, generally speaking, have a problem with the grit and the dirt and the messy reality of life. I hear all sorts of theories of why that is, but at the end of the day I think we really enjoy the world as it will be, and we want to escape from the world as it actually exists in the here and now. This sentiment may have something to do with the co-emergence of premillenial dispensationalism in the 19th century alongside of an entertainment-saturated culture of unprecedented proportions. If you compare the sort of  fiction books produced in protestant religious circles with those coming out of catholic or even humanistic ones, what one finds is a protestantism preoccupied with seeing the good in life and seeing the good that will eventually come out of life and a perspective on the other side that is either completely diversionary or else hyper-gritty in terms of the realistic approach to portraying life.

One need only compare The Lord of the Rings with the Song of Ice and Fire books that are written by George R.R. Martin (an agnostic). Protestants like The Lord of the Rings for lots of reasons relating to the high quality of the books, to be sure, but also, I think, because they are filled with people who are well-intended and who want to see good defeat evil. The Song of Ice and Fire books, on the other hand, are filled with what seems like irredeemably bad people, some (most?) of whom the reader is able to sympathize with in spite of it because of the dirt between their toes and the hunger in their bellies. Tolkien's enemies are faceless minions without names and without souls. With a couple of exceptions (one thinks of Smeagol or Denethor) the evil in LORT is kept at a safe distance while the SOIF books force the reader into the minds of the sorts of people we like to think that we are not. Why is it that we as Christians have such a problem with facing the harsher or dirtier side of reality (or if we do, we dare not tell others)? Isn't it time that we gave ourselves permission to admit that all is not roses and butterflies followed by rapturous moments of delight?

Christians are leaving the church. This is no secret. I live in my own little corner of the evangelical world where I am a conservative Westminster Standard-loving Reformed Christian whose (almost) entire base of friends "back home" are the emergent sorts who think Rachel Held Evans really "gets" them. Almost all of them at one time or another express either publicly or privately in conversations with me, just how unhappy they are with the church. But why? What is happening that is causing such frustration or disappointment? I suspect it's nothing more than the average boring stuff of life, the sin and frustrations involved in living in community with other people who have yet to experience the complete renewal of their persons.

When you go to church on a Sunday morning, you enter this room with other people in it. You often know what their shortcomings are. Or you notice that they sing off-key. Or you maybe heard the song-leader yelling at his son in the parking lot a few minutes before the service. Or maybe you saw an elder's eye wander someplace that it shouldn't during greeting time. Maybe you went into the bathroom before the service and you saw the pastor leave without washing his hands first. Maybe you went to get coffee but the creamer was all out... the sunday school teacher took the last of it. These are the sorts of raw, boring "little things" that, taken on their own are nothing, but collectively, when we think about it later, can shatter our illusions that the church is a sort of utopia. The imperfections and flaws of our neighbors and churches become apparent over time. The seams start to show.

Or maybe your problems are bigger. Maybe you think the church isn't "getting it right" on some social issue or maybe you think the church should talk about this or that a little bit less. Everybody sees things that those around them just aren't "getting right," whether it's at work, at a family reunion, or even at church.

What the church needs is not a good dose of correction on these points. Instead, it's the complainers who need something. What the complainers need is a nice, healthy inoculation delivered intravenously, the way I take my Starbucks in the morning. What we need is to experience the inevitable (if we're in the church for long enough) disillusionment, to deal with it, and then to remember that this is still Christ's bride. Stephen Nichols, in his book Bonhoeffer on the Christian Life, touches on precisely this need. Echoing the thoughts of Bonhoeffer's book Life Together, Nichols says that Christians have this tendency to approach the church with a sort of utopian dream wherein we idealize the body of Christ and see her as what she ought to be rather than as what she is. This is what Bonhoeffer refers to as a "wish dream." Says Nichols,
because of this wish dream "innumerable times a whole Christian community has broken down."... God in his grace shatters our illusions and dreams of peace and harmony...The sooner we come face-to-face with the disillusionment with others and the disillusionment with ourselves, Bonhoeffer adds, the better off we and the church are. There is a realism here that we should appreciate, and a realism that, once grasped, goes a long way in sustaining true and genuine community in the church. We come to grips with all of our own limitations and weaknesses and besetting sins. And we come to grips with the same in others - even in our leaders and heroes. Then we live in real and not ideal communities. Church is not a wish dream. We also need to jettison our misplaced zeal to see the Christian life as a wish-dream life. The Christian life, like the church, is lived in the real world. (Bonhoeffer on the Christian Life, p. 68-69)
The band Metric has a song called "Breathing Underwater," where the lead singer Emily Haines says, "They were right when they said/ We should never meet our heroes." It's a glimpse inside the mind of a person who wants to live in the "wish dream." I'm not immune to this desire to preserve the wish-dream. Earlier this year I was at The Gospel Coalition and I saw D.A. Carson and Tim Keller sitting in a pair of facing chairs in the hotel, talking. I chose not to go up to them or say anything. Why? Because I'd rather not meet two of my heroes. The conversation wouldn't go well, maybe I'd embarrass myself. Maybe they wouldn't be friendly. Maybe I was afraid of having an illusion shattered. I wish I had gone over to them, spoken to them and had the mystique dispelled just a bit. It would have been good for me.

In the same way, it was told, Shelby Foote and Walker Percy once went to visit William Faulkner in Oxford, MS. When they got to his house Percy wouldn't leave the car. He didn't want to have his wish dream shattered by actually meeting the man.

Someone needs to give Christians permission to live in the real world, not in the ideal wish-dream world that so many inhabit. I think that Bonhoeffer's notion that the wish-dream has broken down whole Christian communities might actually lie at the core of why the church sees so many critics and defectors today. The church has a new world in which it does its work in some ways, sure. But human nature is still the same. We still have the same feet of clay that we've always had. We often preach a church triumphant, but that is not what people usually see or sense. Usually people see the little failures that make up the average Christian's life. The message of grace that comes out of our pulpits, out of our seminaries, and out of our family worship times needs to be one by which our audiences are able to make sense of the pains, difficulties, muck, frustrations and realities of life without losing their understanding that a church can be triumphant without always seeming like it is.