Gareth Cockerill and the Point of Hebrews 11

I’m working up a paper on ‘The Story of Israel in Hebrews 11’ and one of the preliminary matters I’m trying to get a handle on is the point of the chapter. That is, before I can say anything about how Hebrews tells Israel’s story, I need to figure out what the author’s trying to do with his ‘catalogue of heroes.’ I was doing a bit of reading in Gary Cockerill’s (magnificent) new commentary and came across an article he’d published about this very issue. In it, he suggests that Hebrews 11 is about encouraging ‘resurrection faith,’ based on its references to resurrection in vv. 17–19 and v. 35. To prove his point, Cockerill argues for the centrality of these two references in the chapter’s structure. Here I’d simply like to summarize his argument and pass it along for consideration.

The centrality of vv. 17–19. Cockerill suggests that vv. 17–19 stand at the center of the chapter’s first major section (vv. 3–31). He begins by arguing that vv. 17–19 climax the ‘Abraham’ section of the ‘Abraham and Moses’ narrative, extending from vv. 8–31. Seven examples of faith are associated with both ‘heroes’—four directly related to the individual and three with their progeny/followers—and, for each, the fourth example (Isaac’s sacrifice, vv. 17–19; Passover, v. 28) acts as a climax. Each concludes the focus on the individual himself, each involves a sacrifice and each results in deliverance from death. Beyond this, Cockerill insists that vv. 17–19 climax the ‘Canaan and Egypt’ section (vv. 8–27) of the ‘Abraham and Moses’ narrative (vv. 8–31), a section Cockerill distinguishes from the ‘Exodus and Conquest’ material (vv. 28–31) within this same larger narrative. Here he notes that vv. 13–22 are situated between chiastically-parallel statements in vv. 8–12 and vv. 23–27 (v. 8//v. 27; vv. 9–10//vv. 24–26; and vv. 11–12//v. 23) and, moreover, that vv. 17–19 form the center of these bracketed verses, since vv. 13–16 and vv. 20–22 are parallel. Finally, Cockerill suggests that vv. 3–7 and vv. 28–31 are also parallel, which, of course, would further underscore the centrality of vv. 8–27 and, thus, vv. 17–19. He admits, however, that this suggestion rests on only one clear parallel, namely vv. 7 and 28.

The centrality of v. 35. Cockerill suggests that v. 35 stands at the center of the chapter’s second major section (vv. 32–38). He argues that the section divides, after an introduction (v. 32), into two ‘catalogues’—a catalogue of triumph (vv. 33–35a) and a catalogue of suffering (vv. 35b–38)—that the two catalogues, each comprising three parts, are chiastically-related (vv. 33abc//vv. 37d–38; vv. 33d–v. 34ab//v. 37abc; and v. 34cde//v. 36), and, therefore, that v. 35, with its ‘resurrection faith,’ stands at the center of the chiasm.

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Writing Advice from a Well-Known Author

CSLewisWritingAtDeskDuring his lifetime, C. S. Lewis (1898–1963) received thousands of letters from young fans who had read the Chronicles of Narnia and wanted to connect with the author. One such fan was an American girl named Joan Lancaster, who wrote to Lewis in June of 1956. We don’t know exactly what Joan wrote in her letter, but Lewis’s reply is one of the many letters preserved in his book Letters to Children (63–65). (As a side note, if you begin reading this little book you probably won’t put it down until you reach the last page. Lewis’s graciousness and creativity in these letters is quite refreshing. For a university professor, he treated children rather well.)

In his reply to his young admirer, Lewis talked about the nature of language and writing. He said that in his view “good English” was basically “whatever educated people talk,” and that this would necessarily vary depending on region and time. More significantly, he offered her five suggestions about how to become a better writer. Reading these, I realized that most of us could benefit from the advice. Here are Lewis’s suggestions with a little commentary added:

  1. Always try to use language so as to make quite clear what you mean and make sure your sentence couldn’t mean anything else.

In other words, be clear. If what you write could be misunderstood, it probably will be. When writing a term paper, article, or book review, try to have someone read what you’ve written aloud to you. Does it sound right? Did the reader stumble over certain sentences because he or she couldn’t tell where the emphasis belonged?

  1. Always prefer the plain direct word to the long, vague one. Don’t implement promises, but keep them.

A helpful book in this regard is William Brohaugh’s Write TightIf you have a tendency to blow past page limits when writing, you need to read this book. Long words don’t necessarily make a writer sound intelligent, in fact, sometimes quite the opposite. Regardless, you should be writing to communicate something, not to prop up your self-image, and good communication is usually direct and appropriately concise.

  1. Never use abstract nouns when concrete ones will do. If you mean “More people died” don’t say “Mortality rose.”

Sometimes abstract nouns are needed, especially in academic papers. But when they are not, using them just adds another layer between the writer’s mind and that of the reader. 

  1. In writing, don’t use adjectives which merely tell us how you want us to feel about the thing you are describing. I mean, instead of telling us a thing was “terrible,” describe it so that we’ll be terrified. Don’t say it was “delightful”; make us say “delightful” when we’ve read the description. You see, all those words (horrifying, wonderful, hideous, exquisite) are only like saying to your readers “Please will you do my job for me.”

In grammar school you were likely taught to use lots of adjectives in order to make your writing more interesting. You were taught wrong. Whether you are writing fiction or prose, don’t pile on the adjectives. Instead, use strong nouns and verbs to communicate what you mean.

  1. Don’t use words too big for the subject. Don’t say “infinitely” when you mean “very”; otherwise you’ll have no word left when you want to talk about something really infinite.

More generally, don’t misuse words. Lewis uses the example of “infinitely.” The word I see (and hear) misused the most is “literally.” E.g., People say that they “literally died of laughing.” Unless you’ve figured out a way to communicate from the grave, you shouldn’t use this phrase. Make sure you are using the right word in the right place. Check a dictionary or usage guide if you’re not sure. The best long-term solution to the problem of misusing words is to read a lot of good literature. Good writers can help their readers become better writers.

A lot more could be said, but a wordy post about good writing would be rather ironic. If you are interested in improving your writing, a great little book to check out is Doug Wilson’s Wordsmithy: Hot Tips for the Writing Life. In about 120 pages, Wilson provides more advice about how to write well than most of us will ever be able to implement—though it wouldn’t hurt to try.

Posted in Book Review, Church History, Language | 1 Comment

Cultural Fundamentalism or Cultural Evangelicalism?

Over the past decade it has been popular to distinguish between “cultural fundamentalism” and “historic fundamentalism.” Cultural fundamentalism is regarded by its critics as very, very bad. It consists of folksy/outdated traditionalism that has drifted from its quaint, innocuous origins and has entered a bitter, skeptical stage of life—complete with theological errors of a sort that typically attend aging, countercultural movements. Historic fundamentalism, which focuses more on basic theological issues, fares a little bit better, but only a very little bit. Critics puzzle over those who accept this label, marveling that anyone would risk associative guilt by lingering near those nasty cultural fundamentalists: “Why not get with the program,” they ask, “and become a conservative evangelical?”

Part of the reason, I would venture, is that conservative evangelicalism itself appears, to all but those blinded by its euphoria, to be yet another cultural phenomenon—a new iteration of a broader movement (evangelicalism) that, let’s face it, has a track record easily as jaded as that of fundamentalism. True, the conservative evangelicals of today are a bit more conscious of theology and mission (that’s how the life cycle of ecclesiological “movements” begins), and their culture is more up-to-date; but it’s just a matter of time until the present iteration of evangelicalism grows old, propped up only by the same nostalgia that today keeps Billy Graham crusades and Bill and Gloria Gaither homecomings on cable TV (except that these will be replaced, for a new generation of elderly evangelicals, with John Piper recordings and Keith and Kristyn Getty sing-alongs that allow folks to relive the glory days).

Last week Darryl Hart, a notable critic of conservative evangelicalism (a.k.a. the “New Calvinism” and “Young, Restless, and Reformed” movements), wrote a scathing exposé of today’s culture-heavy evangelicalism. Speaking specifically to his own confessional concerns, he made the obvious point that the major attraction of the “New Calvinism” and the “Young, Restless and Reformed” movements wasn’t primarily theological (the “Calvinism” and “Reformed” part) but cultural (the “New, Young, and Restless” part). Calvinism, he observed, has been faithfully preserved for centuries in confessional churches (like the OPC of which Hart is a part) that guarded it far more carefully than the confessionally unconstrained evangelicals ever could. No, the major attraction of the “New Calvinism,” Hart opined, was that it offered something that the Old Calvinism didn’t, viz., “the sorts of celebrity, technology, mass crowds, and enthusiasm upon which the young sovereigntists thrive.” The “Gospel Allies” (a derogatory label Hart uses for the conservative evangelical movement) deliberately denigrate the Old Calvinists for one prevailing reason: They’re not new. And since they’re not new, they have little appeal for the young and restless crowd. The “Gospel Allies,” on the other hand, stay new by brokering alliances with cool, edgy, avant-garde, and (mostly) Reformedish celebrities like Driscoll, McDonald, and Mahaney, who, granted, might fall over the edge with which they flirt—but it’s worth the risk.

So what comes next? Well, if history is our guide, the generational cycle of cultural ecclesiology will soon move to its next phase, what I call ecclesiastical “niche-making.” The fundamentalist version of this is well documented. The 1940s and 50s revivalist culture (the best snapshot of which is found in its music) was all new and fresh and culturally edgy in its day. But now it is the realm of churches populated by 80-year-olds who can’t figure out why there are no “young people.” It’s happening again with the Patch the Pirate generation. Patch and Company were all the rage in the 1980s and early 1990s, but now they’re old news. Still, by publishing their magnum opus, Majesty Hymns, a coalition of Patch-culture churches lives on, populated mostly by those who were parents of small children during the 1980s. Now they’re beginning to wonder why the “youth group” is so small.

But evangelicalism is no different. Visit the various evangelical churches in your neighborhood and you’ll find Gaither churches, romantic but theologically vacuous churches from the golden age of CCM, and now Getty/Townend/SG churches (hint: this is where that missing generation has gone). I have little doubt that this cycle will repeat, because there is little in place to break the cycle. The pattern for all of these groups has been to push the cultural envelope until they create their niche, then settle down to enjoy it.

The possible conclusions, then, appear to be twofold: some churches will (1) do nothing and become culturally backward, ingrown congregations that reminisce together until they eventually die of old age, while others will (2) transition to the next cultural cycle and thrive for another 25 years or so. But is this the way it’s supposed to be? I think not.

The answer, I would suggest, is faithful ministry in confessionally bounded churches committed more to the spirituality of the church than they are to the socio-political and cultural relevancy of the church. By striving, self-consciously, to be as culturally transcendent as possible, I would argue, we can cultivate timeless, transgenerational bodies that do not need to reinvent themselves every quarter century to remain solvent. It will not be easy—after all, culture has told us for a hundred years that this is not the way church is done. But it’s definitely worth the effort.

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Can Christianity Be Good If It’s Not True?

http://1.bp.blogspot.com/-z8mR-Z5qyjo/UybkjvWVV6I/AAAAAAAAAAA/Qifa3zuM1h4/s1600/true%2Bor%2Bfalse.jpg

In 1768 the French Enlightenment philosopher Voltaire wrote: “If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him.” Voltaire was not trying to denigrate Christianity. Rather, he was arguing for the social benefit of belief in God. He thought that belief in God helped provide incentive to people to live morally and helped establish social order and justice. Thus, if God did not exist, it would be better for society to convince people that God did exist.

There are a growing number of atheists in our day who are clamoring for the abolishment of religion. The late Christopher Hitchens was a leading voice in this movement, and he did not hide his contempt for Voltaire’s sentiment. “Though I dislike to differ with such a great man, Voltaire was simply ludicrous when he said that if god did not exist it would be necessary to invent him. The human invention of god is the problem to begin with” (God is Not Great, 96).

In response to these calls for the abolishment of religion, some are continuing to argue that religion, though perhaps (likely?) false, is still good. Thus, much of the discussion has moved past the question of whether or not Christianity is true to whether or not Christianity (and religion more broadly) is beneficial. Where should Christians side in this debate? Should we tout the idea that religion has tangible benefits even if it is false?

One of the central tenets of the Christian faith is that Jesus is alive today—He rose from the dead. This historical event has been both questioned and affirmed for centuries. A couple of years ago, we held a lecture for our campus ministry at Wayne State University on whether or not Jesus rose from the dead. During the Q&A session afterward, a young lady—after stating that she was a Christian—asked whether or not it really mattered. Is anything changed if Jesus did not rise from the dead? Even if Jesus didn’t rise from the dead, isn’t Christianity still good?

In Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, he addresses an issue related to that question. Some in Corinth were denying the Apostolic teaching of the resurrection of the dead. In confronting this error, Paul considers the consequences if Jesus did not rise from the dead.

And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. 15 We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified about God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. 16 For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised. 17 And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. 18 Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. 19 If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied. (1 Cor 15:14-19)

What if Jesus did not rise from the dead?

The first consequence Paul mentions is that the preaching of the gospel would be empty. If Paul were to talk with the preachers in churches all over America who do not believe Jesus rose from the dead but still “preach” each Sunday, he would tell them it would be better if they just went fishing or golfing on Sundays. There is no truth to the message being preached if Jesus did not rise.

Some in our day might respond that the objective reality of Jesus’ resurrection is insignificant. What really matters is that we believe he is alive in our hearts! But Paul next states that our faith is empty if Jesus did not rise. The Christian faith is not about wishful thinking. It’s not hoping something is true in spite of the fact that it probably isn’t. It’s about trust in a person and what that person did. If that person did not do what he claimed, then the faith is empty.

Many today would point to the value of moral instruction that religion provides. But Paul next states that he and the other apostles are liars if Jesus did not rise from the dead. He and the other apostles have been preaching that God raised Christ from the dead, and if He did not then they have been lying about God. They have been testifying falsely against him. If they’ve been lying about God, why would we trust them on what they have to say about moral issues? (Or why would we trust Jesus on moral issues when He said He would rise from the dead?) Here’s some valuable advice you may want to tuck away: you don’t want to get your ethical instruction from someone who has been lying about the central part of their message!

But isn’t there still a personal, psychological benefit from believing in Christianity even if it is not true? Paul points out that our faith is of no value if Jesus is still dead. Whereas before Paul says our faith is empty, here he says it is futile or worthless. It’s incapable of accomplishing anything for us.

The reason our faith is futile is because it is not intended to provide a psychological benefit but to deal with our problem of sin. Jesus, as a sinless person, died to pay the penalty for our sins. The resurrection is God’s public display of approval of Christ’s payment for sin. But without the resurrection the payment was not accepted. If Jesus did not rise from the dead then his death was simply for his own sin—just like everyone else who has ever died.

If our sin has not been dealt with, then there is no hope of escaping death. If we are still in our sins, death is not simply falling asleep in Christ but is really the end—eternal separation from God.

Paul concludes by declaring that, if Christ is not raised, Christians are the most to be pitied. He is not simply saying that Christians are to be pitied because they expected heaven but didn’t get it. Christ’s resurrection has bearing on our current lives. It frees us to willingly sacrifice for the sake of God and others (cf. 1 Cor 15:30-32). But if Christ is not alive, there is no point in living a sacrificial life for others. We might as well simply live for ourselves.

Paul does not believe that the Christian life has meaning in itself if Christ is not risen. Christians are a bunch of fools if Christ has not risen! But as Paul points out in the next verse: “But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead” (1 Cor 15:20). Christianity is worthless if it is not true. But Christianity is true, and the truth of Christianity is infinitely good.

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Book Giveaway Winner

The winner of our recent book giveaway was Chris K. in Clarkston, MI. His copy of Four Views on the Apostle Paul is in the mail. Congratulations, Chris. And thanks to all who participated.

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Book Giveaway: Four Views on the Apostle Paul

Four Views on the Apostle PaulHopefully, at this point in the summer you’ve made a pretty good dent in your summer reading list. We’re looking to add one more title to that list, and we’re going to give a free copy of Four Views on the Apostle Paul (Zondervan, 2012) to someone who comments on this post.

In order to enter the drawing, you need to leave a comment below telling us the author and title of the best book you’ve read this summer (outside the Bible). The book can be fiction or non-fiction, academic or popular, long or short. It doesn’t matter. To be entered, you only need to tell us the title and author, but if you really enjoyed the book and want to tell us why, that would be great too.

The deadline to be entered in the drawing is 11 pm (EST), Wednesday, August 13.

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The Obedience of the Gospel

It’s no secret that I have an abiding interest in the place and function of sanctification in the life of believers. The journey that began for me as a doctoral dissertation answering the Keswick model of sanctification that has historically punished dispensational fundamentalism has taken a new twist in recent years as a new threat has emerged within conservative evangelicalism: the gospel-driven sanctification approach most vividly seen in the writings of Tullian Tchividjian, but certainly not restricted to his sphere of influence.

In ultimate terms, I am not opposed to the label “gospel-driven” as applied to sanctification. My tension with the contemporary use of this label by those in the “contemporary grace movement” (as it is now being labeled in some Reformed circles) is that it restricts the gospel, in varying degrees, to Christ’s accomplishment of justification for us while giving scant attention given to Christ’s accomplishment of regeneration in us. As such, “gospel-driven” sanctification becomes, to a greater or lesser degree, an exercise in recalling Christ’s righteousness imputed in justification (with an attendant abhorrence of all that smacks of “doing” or “rule-keeping”) rather than as a disciplined cultivation and exercise of Christ’s righteousness imparted in regeneration. This is an irregularity of no small concern.

The Great Commission knows nothing of this irregularity. Its burden is not only to secure professions of faith, but to create Christ-followers who are baptized into local church communities and then “taught to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matt 28:20). In short, the Gospel includes teaching new believers to keep God’s rules, both cultivating virtue and extirpating sin. This very compact expectation represents, I think, the very essence of sanctification, and it is a part of the Great Commission. Obedience is not, to be sure, necessary to salvation, but it is, most emphatically, necessary of salvation. So necessary are obedience and good works in the Christian religion that the Scriptures can say, “Without holiness no one will see the Lord” (Heb 12:14). The burden of this statement, which dominates several whole books of the NT canon (James, 1 John, and 2 Peter), informs us that obedience is important to God. As Rick Phillips has recently (and very carefully) explained, The Gospel Includes Sanctification (read the whole thing—he says things so very much more clearly than I). But let me take his statement one provocative step further: if the Gospel includes sanctification/regeneration (and I think Pastor Phillips is correct in affirming this), then to the degree that gospel presentations suppress/omit these ideas, they risk altering the Gospel into something other than what the Bible claims it to be. And that is a very, very big deal.

The reason we Protestants tend to diminish the importance of obedience is, of course, the real and vital concern that we might communicate to an unbeliever that one’s obedience contributes to one’s justification. This is a devastating error, and we rightly want to avoid it at all costs. And so, we reason, if introducing regeneration/sanctification/obedience in a Gospel presentation might confuse an unbeliever about the means of justification, then we may dispense with these topics as matters of secondary importance: it’s more important, after all, to get people saved than it is to get people holy. But this is a very anthropocentric sentiment that flies in the face of Christ’s earthly mission. Christ came not only to rescue his people from the guilt of sin, but also from the power and practice of sin—he came to destroy the works of the evil one and to create a heaven that is scoured free not only of guilt, but of all unrighteousness (see, e.g., 1 John 3:5–8; Rom 6:1–14; Acts 28:16; etc.).

I remain mindful that the “movements” from which many of us and many of our churches have emerged have emphasized obedience and rules to excess, and I cannot condone this. Still, we err mightily if we adopt the binary approach that sees libertinism as the only remedy for legalism. There is an excluded middle here that we badly need to discover.

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A New and Legitimate Way? David Moffitt’s Reading of Hebrews

Earlier this summer I had a chance to read and review a new and increasingly-influential book on Hebrews by David Moffitt, assistant professor of NT at Campbell University Divinity School. The review’s slotted to be published in the Fall edition of Trinity Journal. Here, however, I wanted to post a lightly revised, pre-publication version, principally because I think the book’s fundamental thesis is just plain wrong. I’ll explain why. But, first, a summary.

Summary. Moffitt tries to overturn two common assumptions in Hebrews’ scholarship. Against those who argue that (1) Jesus’ resurrection is unimportant for Hebrews and (2) Jesus’ resurrection has been conflated with his exaltation, he insists that Jesus’ resurrection should be distinguished from his exaltation and that Jesus’ resurrection stands at the center of Hebrews’ theology. He supports this intriguing thesis with three arguments.

First, he argues that Jesus’ human presence in heaven is what makes him greater than angels, which, therefore, presumes his bodilyresurrection (and ascension). The argument of Heb 1 turns, in other words, on ontology: the son, as an exalted human, is greater than angelic spirits. The focus on Jesus’ humanity in Heb 2, then, is less on humiliation than it is on eligibility and eschatology. The son became “like his peers” and, thus, eligible for the sort of eschatological exaltation described in Heb 1 and anticipated, according to Heb 2, in Ps 8. Second, Moffitt argues that Jesus’ qualification for priesthood—his perfection—required his resurrection. After all, Jesus’ appointment as heavenly (Melchizedekian) priest (Heb 8:1–2, 4) required death (Heb 2:9–11; 5:8–10) and an “indestructible life” (Heb 7:16). Jesus perfection, therefore, “st[ood] between [his] death and elevation to the heavenly priesthood” (p. 199). Third, Moffitt argues that Jesus’ resurrection, rather than his death, is at the center of Hebrews’ atonement theology. Hebrews, he insists, consistently presents Jesus’ offering as taking place inheaven, not on earth (e.g., Heb 9:11–12, 23–25), and Jesus’ offering as his offering of his resurrected, not bloody body (e.g., Heb 10:5–10; 13:12). Were it otherwise, the author’s Day-of-Atonement typology would be undone. Hebrews would bring to the center—sacrificial slaughter—what Leviticus leaves on the periphery. Jesus’ death, instead, serves as a model of exemplary suffering and, moreover, as a necessary, if still preparatory step for his (heavenly) atoning work (p. 294).

Critique. Moffitt’s thesis, while nicely argued, is nevertheless untenable, primarily for two reasons. First, Moffitt’s understanding of Jesus’ priesthood is reductionistic. Moffitt forces precision where Hebrews simply will not allow it. Hebrews—however frustratingly—never gives us a clear idea when Jesus became a high priest. While it could suggest that Jesus’ priesthood began only after his resurrection (Heb 7:16) or only once Jesus entered heaven (Heb 8:4), it could also suggest that Jesus’ crucifixion—his voluntary death—was itself a priestly act. After all, while one might, with Moffitt, separate sacrificial slaughter from atonement, no one—especially anyone familiar with the Day-of-Atonement ritual—would suggest only the latter was a priestly activity (see, e.g., Lev 16:11, 15). Second, Moffitt’s understanding of atonement is reductionistic. Whether or not sacrificial slaughter—death—is less central to atonement than the presentation of blood/life can presently remain an open question. Neither Hebrews nor the OT, however, will allow death to function simply as the preparation for atonement, which is to say, as simply the preparation for the atoning manipulation of blood in God’s presence. This sort of conclusion would make nonsense of those instances in the OT where atonement is secured by death alone, without any reference to the Levitical cult, much less to the ritual manipulation of blood (see, e.g., Exod 32:30–32; Num 25:13; 35:33; Deut 21:1–9; 2 Sam 21:3ff. et al.) or, related, to those cultic contexts which accent the atoning value of some ritual element other than manipulation (see, e.g., Lev 1:4; 4:26). Moffitt’s reading, moreover, is also out of step with a more traditional and, arguably, convincing reading of Lev 17:11, which emphasizes death—life given in the place of another’s life—rather than life released and, therefore, available for atoning purgation. Much the same, in fact, could be said for Hebrews, which stubbornly refuses to view Jesus’ death as simply preparatory for and, thus, “peripheral” to atonement (cf. p. 276). Rather, it is Jesus’ death itself that restores humanity’s lost glory (“because he suffered death,” Heb 2:9), frees humans from the devil’s grip (“by his death,” Heb 2:14), and provides the forgiveness necessary for the inauguration/mediation of the new covenant (“now that he has died as a ransom to set them free from…sins,” Heb 9:15; et al.). None of this, of course, requires a metaphorical reading of Jesus’ archetypical blood ritual, which is to say, none of this undercuts Moffitt’s more fundamental point about the literal nature of the Day-of-Atonement antitype. What does, however, is Hebrews’ one explicit reference to Jesus’ resurrection in 13:20. There the author says that Jesus was raised because of the efficacy of his covenant-inaugurating—and, thus, atonement-securing—death (“through the blood of the eternal covenant”). In other words, Jesus’ death—his blood—had atoning virtue prior to his resurrection and, thus, prior to the moment at the center of Moffitt’s thesis.

In sum, in an attempt to interpret Jesus’ priesthood consistently and his atoning presentation non-metaphorically, Moffitt has overcooked his evidence and, thus, misread Hebrews. Hebrews simply will not allow Jesus’ sacrifice to be separated from his priestly, atoning work.

Posted in Biblical Theology, Book Review, Exposition | Tagged , , , | 10 Comments

The Christian Life Is No Picnic

Eusebius, Church HistoryEusebius of Caesarea (c. 260–c. 340) is generally considered the church’s first real historian. Although he provides invaluable insight into the history and workings of the early church, Eusebius is often criticized for his selective record and especially for his rather generous depiction of Emperor Constantine (c. 272–337). Shortly after the emperor’s death, Eusebius wrote a panegyric in which he described Constantine in very positive terms while omitting some of the more negative details about his character and domestic life. In addition to his book on Constantine, Eusebius also wrote several other works including an account of the church’s first three centuries titled Church History. This too was not strictly speaking a critical work, but it is the earliest chronological description of the church in this period which is still extant. Without it, we would be much the poorer.

In his Church History, Eusebius covers the time from Christ to Constantine. He describes the persecution which many early believers faced at the hands of Roman authorities. He tells of Ignatius of Antioch the early second century bishop who was martyred in Rome and “became food for wild animals because of his witness to Christ” (3.36). He records the conflict which surrounded the various heresies which the early church was forced to confront and the difficulties which notorious heretics caused within the church (e.g., 4.7; 5.14–20). And he recounts some of the terrible events which took place during the Diocletian persecution of his own day (8.1–13).

In describing the persecution which some second-century believers faced, Eusebius preserves the following account from the church in Gaul:

In addition to all this, on the last day of the games Blandina was again brought in, with Ponticus, a lad of about fifteen. Each day they had been led in to watch the torturing and were urged to swear by the idols. Furious at their steadfast refusal, they showed no sympathy for the boy’s youth or respect for the woman but subjected them to every torture. Ponticus was heartened by his sister in Christ and bravely endured each horror until he gave up his spirit. Last of all, the blessed Blandina, like a noble mother who had comforted her children and sent them on triumphantly to the king, rejoiced at her own departure as if invited to a wedding feast. After the whips, the beasts, and the gridiron, she was finally put into a net and thrown to a bull. Indifferent to circumstances through faith in Christ, she was tossed by the animal for some time before being sacrificed. The heathen admitted that never before had a woman suffered so much so long.

Not even this was enough to satisfy their maniacal cruelty. Goaded on [by Satan], they threw to the dogs those who had been strangled in jail, watching day and night that we did not tend to them. Then they threw out the remains left by the beasts and the fire, torn and charred, while a military guard watched the heads and trunks of the rest for many days, denying them burial. Some gnashed their teeth at them; others laughed and jeered, glorifying their idols for punishing their foes. The more moderate, with little sympathy, taunted, “Where is their god?” and “What did they get out of their religion, which they preferred to their own lives?” (5.1).

At times Eusebius’s account is quite interesting, and in many places, such as this, it is quite troubling. One of the great values of Eusebius’s record is that it reminds us that the Christian life bears more resemblance to a battlefield than it does to a park intended for family picnics. Eusebius and the experience of many early Christians illustrates the fact this world is not our home; everything we see here will ultimately burn. Thankfully, the believer’s hope lies not in this world, but in the next.

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Basic Library Booklist

For a number of years the Seminary faculty has produced the Basic Library Booklist. It is updated every few years, and you can find the 2014 edition here. The Booklist has been specifically designed to answer the question of which books are the best on a particular book of the Bible or theological subject. In the case of commentaries, best means those that are the most helpful in exegesis and exposition, as well as understanding the overall argument of a book. The books are listed in order of importance. The first book listed is the one that should probably be purchased first, though it is doubtful that one commentary would be sufficient for adequate sermon preparation.

Besides commentaries the Booklist also rates books in systematic theology, historical theology, and practical theology. Check out the Booklist and let us know what you think.

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Does God have blood?

Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood—Acts 20:28

What does Paul mean in his speech in Acts 20 when he says that God purchased the church with “his own blood”? God doesn’t have blood. He’s a spirit. In fact, it’s precisely because God doesn’t have blood that God the Son became incarnate. Otherwise the human problem of sin and death could not have been solved. So, what is Paul saying here? Let me try to untangle this one by offering three of the more plausible solutions, one text critical and two interpretive.

A text-critical option. One solution to the problem is found in a handful of important manuscripts that read “church of the Lord” instead of “church of God.” For a list, see the online apparatus of NA28 here. As most recognize, however, the manuscript evidence for this alternative reading is pretty evenly matched with the manuscript evidence for the reading followed above by the NIV. What tips the scales away from this solution, then, is the internal evidence, principally two considerations. First, neither Paul nor any other NT author (incl. Luke) uses the phrase “church of the Lord.” Most often the NT refers to the “church of God” (11x) or to the church of a particular region (“of Galatia”) or city (“of the Thessalonians”). The closest the NT comes to the “church of the Lord” is Paul’s reference in Rom 16:16 to “all the churches of Christ.” Of course, all this could suggest that a scribe changed an original “of the Lord” to “of God” to match the NT’s normal idiom. What points against this, however, is the intrinsic difficulty of the resulting phrase, “the church of God, which he purchased with his own blood.” It seems to me (and others) that a scribe would more likely go against the NT standard idiom than introduce such a difficult theological concept. Thus, “church of God” is the more difficult reading and, as a result, explains the existence of the alternative reading and should be preferred. In other words, the text-critical solution probably won’t work.

Two interpretive options. First, the communicatio idiomatum. This option suggests that Paul uses a quality or property of one of Jesus’ natures—the “blood” of his human nature—to describe or predicate his other nature—his “God”-hood (i.e., God’s blood). In theological discussions, this is known as (one version of) the communicatio idiomatum, the “communication of properties.” This solution to Acts 20:28 has been, as far as I’m able to tell, the standard way of explaining the text throughout Christian history. For a couple high-powered examples, see Calvin’s note here and Jaroslav Pelikan’s note here (pp. 221–22). The trouble with this reading, however, is that it is out of step with the NT. Elsewhere the NT never conflates Jesus’ two natures in this way. While it predicates of the one person what is true of both natures, it stops short of predicating of either nature what is true only of the other (cf., e.g., Harris’ note here). (Luke 1:43 is no exception. On this text, see, e.g., Bock’s comments here.)

Second, a term of endearment. This options suggests that what Paul means here is that God purchased the church with the blood of his Own. That is, “own” refers not to God’s own blood but rather to the blood of God’s Own, which is to say, to Jesus. Thus, the idea would be similar to what we find in, e.g., Eph 1:6 when Paul talks about Jesus as “the beloved” or in Acts 3:14 when Peter calls him “the righteous one.” What points in favor of this option, moreover, is that elsewhere in the NT when “own” is used adjectively (i.e., “God’s own blood”), it’s not often found in the word order used in Acts 20:28. That is—and this one’s for the Greek students out there—it occurs 68x in the first attributive position (art. + adj. + subst.) and only 4x in the second attributive position (art. + subst. + art. + adj.), the position it’s found in here. Added to this, “own” is used substantively in the NT (i.e., “blood of his Own”), and in literature contemporary with the NT, it’s used substantively as a term of endearment (see, e.g., MM here).

While it’s not a total home run, this last option is the best of a bad lot or, as my dad likes to say, it leaves the least number of questions unanswered.

Posted in Exposition, Historical Theology, Textual Criticism | Comments Off

Learning about the Past: Reading Christian Biographies

Over the past month or two, I’ve put forward a few suggested reading lists in the field of church history. These lists have included surveys of church history, books on the history of Christian doctrine, books that discuss church history in specific areas of the world, and books related to Baptist history. In this last post of the series, I am going to recommend a few Christian biographies. There are so many good biographies available that it was hard to decide which ones to mention. Below is a list of six Christian leaders from the past 500 years with a recommended biography of each. If your favorite biography doesn’t appear in the list, feel free to mention it in the comments at the end of the post.

Bainton, Here I StandMartin Luther (1483–1546) is generally credited with beginning the Protestant Reformation. He was a bold, courageous voice at a pivotal time in church history. There are many good biographies of Luther and several great ones. One of my favorites is still the classic work by Roland Bainton, Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther (1950). There are certainly a number of more detailed and more recent biographies of Luther, but in terms of spiritual encouragement and enjoyable reading, Bainton’s work remains one of the best.

Sometimes people think of John Calvin (1509–1564) and Martin Luther as being contemporaries who interacted on a regular basis. However, Calvin was a young boy living hundreds of miles away when Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door in Wittenberg, and although the two men eventually read each other’s works, they apparently never met. Luther and Calvin shared some similar goals, but they were in many ways quite different from each other. Whereas Luther was a fiery prophet of sorts, Calvin was naturally reserved, and of the two, Calvin was the more careful thinker. Like Luther, Calvin has been the subject of dozens of biographies, and there are a number of very good works on his life. One of the best biographies of Calvin was published just a few years ago. Written by Bruce Gordon, Calvin (2009) is both rigorous and readable. It’s a great introduction to a deep thinker who continues to influence large portions of the Christian church.

Many people regard Jonathan Edwards (1703–1758) as the greatest theologian ever born in America. One could argue that designation, but Edwards was clearly an important figure within the Great Awakening, and he was a profound thinker who authored a small library of influential theological works. While there are several good biographies of Edwards, George Marsden’s Jonathan Edwards: A Life (2003) stands as the definitive work on Edwards’s life and thought. At about 600 pages, this one’s a bit longer, but it is worth the effort to read. In addition to being a great study of Edwards, this book is a model of how to write an intellectual biography.

Pierson, George MullerIn contrast to Luther, Calvin, and Edwards, George Müller (1805–1898) is not usually remembered as a key figure in shaping the direction of the Christian church. He didn’t leave behind any significant theological works or begin a new school of thought within the church. What he did leave behind were thousands of children who had been cared for and taught the Scriptures in the orphanages he built west of London. And in building these orphanages, Müller also left behind remarkable evidence of God’s ability to hear and answer prayer. A. T. Pierson was a contemporary of Müller. Shortly after Müller died Pierson decided to compile a memoir of Müller for the benefit of American readers (Müller was born in Prussia and ministered primarily in England.). Pierson’s George Müller of Bristol (1899) appeared about a year after Müller died. In terms of spiritual encouragement, I can think of few better places to turn than to biographies of Müller, and in particular this one by Pierson.

James Petigru Boyce (1827–1888) is best known within Southern Baptist circles. He was a pastor, a theologian, and an educator. One of my favorite Baptist historians has written the definitive biography of Boyce. Tom Nettles’s James Petigru Boyce: A Southern Baptist Statesman (2009) is a sympathetic, well-researched study of a key leader among nineteenth-century Baptists.

The last figure I want to highlight in this post is Charles Spurgeon (1834–1892). Known as the “prince of preachers,” Spurgeon was a uniquely gifted Baptist pastor who ministered in London during the mid-to-late 1800s. A number of good biographies of Spurgeon have been written in recent years. A shorter one, and in fact the shortest book in this list, is Arnold Dallimore’s Spurgeon: A New Biography (1984). Several longer, more detailed works on Spurgeon are definitely worth reading. But this little volume by Dallimore is a good place to find a quick overview of Spurgeon’s very fruitful life and ministry.

If you are not in the habit of reading Christian biographies, I’d challenge you to try to read at least one during the second half of this year. Good biographies of imperfect but faithful Christians can be great tools for encouraging spiritual growth.

Posted in Book Review, Church History, Historical Theology | 1 Comment