Book Reviews

Review of ‘Can We Trust The Gospels?’ by Peter J. Williams

A review of Peter J. Williams, Can We Trust The Gospels? (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2018), 153 pages, pbk. 

This excellent little book by the English biblical scholar Peter J. Williams (not to be confused with the apologist Peter S. Williams) is a readable and informative introduction to some of the main questions people have about the four Gospels.  In eight tightly argued but entertaining chapters Williams, who acts as principal of Tyndale House, Cambridge, dispels common myths and furnishes many enlightening facts about Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, avoiding dogmatic overreach but still making a very solid case for their trustworthiness.

Williams’ first chapter surveys external sources such as Tacitus, Pliny the Younger, and Josephus to corroborate many features in the Evangelists.  Tacitus reported on the “vast multitude” of Christians in Rome in AD 64, the year of the great fire (23).  Since there is a distance of over 2,000 miles between Rome and Jerusalem, this testifies to the extent to which the new Faith had spread throughout the Roman Empire in Apostolic times.  Incidentally, such witnesses as Tacitus seem to give the lie to the more conservative estimates for the extent of Christianity in the first centuries (cf. also 27).  These non-Christian sources also confirm the execution of Jesus in the time of Pontius Pilate.

A real reature of this chapter, which continues throughout the book, is the way Williams appeals to common sense and reasonable expectations to make  his points.  For instance, on page 34 the author observes,

Skeptical readers…might naturally assume that these beliefs [i.e. about the virgin birth] arose through exaggerations over time as word of Jesus as Messiah spread.  The problem with this is finding a context in which such embellishments could spread…According to 1 Corinthians 9:5 (written ca. AD 56) not just one brother, but “brothers” of Jesus traveled with their wives, spreading the Christian message.  This suggests a situation in which the sprouting of novel beliefs about the family origins of Jesus would have been hard.

Notice here how Williams allows for the force of the unbeliever’s argument (“might naturally assume”) while giving an answer which is scriptural and provides food for thought.  This ability of the writer to converse with those dubious of the Bible’s claims provides a model for effective communication with unbelievers.

The second chapter, “What Are the Four Gospels?” identifies them as ancient biographies, early in date, and surprisingly many (four) for an ancient figure (39-41).  It deals with why the Gospel of Thomas is not on a par with the biblical Gospels, and the important matter of the the traditional authorship of the Gospels (43).

Chapter three asks whether the authors got their geographical and cultural facts right, while the next chapter explores the fascinating subject of “Undesigned Coincidences” in the four Gospels, utilizing Lydia McGrew’s recent work on the subject [Hidden in Plain View].  By this term is meant the converging of independent details in different authors which complement and reinforce one another, but without any clear signs of interaction between the sources.  Examples include the way personality traits are noted by Luke and John in separate incidents concerning the sisters Mary and Martha (88-89), or Jesus asking Philip where to buy bread (Jn. 6).  This looks like a random enquiry until we read John 1:44 and Luke 9:10, which informs us that Philip was from the town of Bethsaida, which is close to where the miracle was performed (92-93).

Chapters about whether we still have Jesus’s words; if the the text of the Gospels has been changed (a particular strength of Williams), and contradictions follow.  All are good, especially the first two, although I would have like a little more interaction with alleged contradictions; a few more examples would have helped.

The final chapter is titled “Who Would Make All This Up?”  He begins the chapter with a typically sensible statement:

There are many particulars in the Gospels that the authors would be unlikely to have invented.  Although one can usually think of complex reasons why someone might invent them, those are not the simplest explanations.  The simplest explanation is that these reports are true. (121)

In this chapter the author tackles miracles and the Resurrection, before reaching his conclusion – that the Jesus presented in the Gospels and predicted in the Old Testament is who the Gospels claim He is.  The NT does not simply say that Jesus died, but that He was buried.  Who would bury a convict who had been crucified?  Answer, Jews!  They would make sure that people were buried (133).  And then there are the resurrection appearances.  In a terrific passage Williams sums up the all the varied details of those appearances (134).

Scholarship has well established the strong links between Second Temple Jewish belief and the emergence of Christianity from its milieu (see e.g. Larry Helyer, Exploring Jewish Literature of the Second Temple Period).  On the back of this Williams comments,

One can make a good argument that the concept of the bodily resurrection of one person in advance of others would have been very odd within Judaism, and therefore it is unlikely that early Christians would have invented it in an effort to continue the Jesus movement after the death of their leader. (135).

The apologetic method employed could best be described as evidentialist, but since the writer is clear that he is presenting a case for the trustworthiness of the Gospels this should not be seen as a flaw.

In summary, Can We Trust The Gospels? is a fine book which packs a lot of important information within its brief compass.  It deserves a very wide readership and would be an excellent gift for any growing Christian or non-believer with an openness to its message.

This book was provided to me by the publisher without any obligation to give a positive review.

A Review of ‘Darwin Devolves’ by Michael Behe

Review of Michael Behe, Darwin Devolves: The New Science About DNA That Challenges Evolution (New York: HarperOne, 2019), 342 pages, hdbk. 

The author of this new book is well known for his earlier works Darwin’s Black Box and The Edge of Evolution.  In the former book Michael Behe argued that biological systems, more especially the molecular makeup of incredibly complex structures in the cell, could not have arisen via evolutionary pathways.  Natural selection and mutation were simply not capable of building the city-like features that had only recently been discovered.  Nor could evolution explain how these structures (like the bacterial flagellum) be constructed as functioning wholes by the processes available to it.  The “irreducible complexity” of the structures meant that everything had to be put together at once in just the right way so that the molecular machine would work.  Not only this, but in The Edge of Evolution Behe showed that the assembly system of the flagellar itself, with its instructions, had to be in place all at once in order for the machine to be constructed.  As he notes in an appendix at the end of Darwin Devolves,

Twenty years on, there has been a grand total of zero serious attempts to show how the elegant molecular machine might have been produced by random processes and natural selection. – Darwin Devolves, 287 

The main argument of The Edge of Evolution was that the mechanism of evolution was competent to account for developmental changes up to the level of class, but could go no further.  Since that book was published and new research such as he mentions in the present book has come to light Behe has revised that estimate down to the level between family and genus (Ibid, 155-156).

The Thesis: Survival through Devolution 

And so we come to Darwin Devolves.  Using the most up-to-date research, among which is the ongoing 25 plus year old lab experiment with E. coli of Richard Lenski, the sequencing experiments of Joseph Thornton, and the extensive work of Peter and Rosemary Grant with “Darwin’s Finches’ on the Galapagos Islands, Behe arrives at the conclusion that it is overwhelmingly more common for living systems to fix a problem by deletion than by making something new.  He illustrates it this way,

Suppose you lived in a crude walled area on a hillside.  Persistent heavy rains have recently led to water accumulating inside the walls and rising at a rate of a foot per day.  You, who are under 6 feet tall, have less than a week to solve the problem before you drown.  One possible solution is to build a mechanical pump to eject the water [from accumulating debris]… A possible solution is to simply forego repairing one or a few of the small holes in the wall on the downhill side of your compound that form by accident everyday, allowing the water to flow through.  Of course the second course of action is the only realistic one.  You have an urgent problem that needs to be solved right now…

    Now suppose ten years have passed.  One day, quite by accident, pieces of debris that could be made into a pump fall into your compound… But what purpose would a pump now serve?… The need for a pump has long since passed, so you throw away the unnecessary junk. – Ibid, 247

In similar fashion, damaging a gene can ensure the survival of the organism.

The book demonstrates that this is in fact the way things go in the real world (as opposed to the simulated world often relied upon by the scientist).  In fact, the book opens up with the case of the polar bear, which is of the same genus as the brown bear.  Adapting to the new colder environment it (somehow) found itself in, “Ursus maritimus has adjusted…mainly by degrading genes that its ancestors already possessed.  Despite its impressive abilities, rather than evolving, it has adapted predominantly by devolving”. – Ibid, 17

It appears then that, “Darwinian evolution proceeds mainly by damaging or breaking genes, which, counterintuitively, sometimes helps survival.” – Ibid, 37 (emphasis in original).  Moreover, because of their economy and utility, these degraded genes will be positively “selected” and will therefore spread. (cf. 183-187).  This comes with a cost: the more information is lost, the more limits are introduced to what an organism can do (i.e. how it can “evolve”).     

Behe spends several chapters going over the most recent accounts within evolutionary science that actually challenge neo-Darwinian theory.  These are necessary, but I found them to be a little tedious.  The results of these approaches have been unspectacular.   

More interesting are his discussions of Lenski’s important long-term experiment (172-179).  When all is said, the author contends that after 50 thousand generations and counting, “it’s very likely that all of the beneficial mutations worked by degrading or outright breaking the respective ancestor genes.” (179).

Chapter 9 is called “The Revenge of the Principle of Comparative Difficulty.”  Behe raised this issue earlier on (27-29).  He defines it thus:

If a task that requires less effort is too difficult to accomplish, then a task that requires more effort necessarily is too. – Ibid, 28

Behe says that most of Darwin’s defenders are blissfully ignorant of this principle, which is why they make such wild and extravagant claims for evolution.  Referring to his earlier discussion of the findings of Joseph Thornton’s groundbreaking work on steroid receptors (206-213), he quips,

Perhaps you have read that Darwin’s theory also explains politics, the law, literature, music, love, the universe – even mind itself.  It just has trouble accounting for a disulfide bond. – Ibid, 245   

In the last chapter Behe allows himself a little more freedom to emote.  He addresses the the now common dogma that the mind does not in fact exist, and that all our thoughts, our beliefs, our memories, our aspirations, our knowledge, are merely the result of firing of neurons.  This of course is absurd, for science extinguishes itself in such a idea.  But anything to avoid purpose!  That is the enemy.  Purpose points to a Purposer, and that won’t do at all!  The specimens of daft quotations from evolutionists in this chapter is something to take in.  One is reminded of the biblical truth that the sinful mind is a sophisticated God-avoidance mechanism.  Behe pushes back on this foolishness:

A basic aspect of reason is our ability to recognize the existence of other minds.  If we lose confidence that we can perceive the work of another mind through the purposeful arrangement of parts, we are stuck in a solipsistic universe… – Ibid, 274-275

Darwin Devolves contains much else which is worthy of attention.  Behe only writes books when he thinks he has something important to say.  He does here!

The book is jargon-free, except on those occasions when it is necessary to name something.  As readers of Behe will know, he has an enviable ability to turn a phrase, and great felicity with illustrations.  Being a young-earther, I do not endorse every position of the author, but this book is recommended.

A Review of J. P. Moreland, “Scientism and Secularism”

A Review of J. P. Moreland, Scientism and Secularism, Wheaton: Crossway, 2019, 222 pages, pbk

J. P. Moreland is a seasoned Christian philosopher who has provided the Church with some very good tools in defense of the Faith and the Christian Worldview.  He has been Professor of Philosophy at Biola for many years.  This timely book is most welcome as it engages one of the most pernicious false ideas that has arisen from man’s innate hatred of God (Rom. 1:18-25).

Scientism is essentially the belief that only science, especially the hard sciences, can give us solid knowledge of the world.  Although many of its advocates do not come right out and say it in such blunt terms, that is their faith.

Moreland refers to  “hard scientism” and “soft scientism”, the difference between them being that the softer variety allows that other fields of study may have something to say, but nothing as authoritative as the pronouncements of “science.” (29-30).  This belief in the magisterium of the lab coat has come about because of a shift in the “plausibility structure” in the society (32-33).  The organized and heavily guarded groupthink that permeates school and university curricula and the media.  Behind this is the ever-potent force of people not wanting God to be there. (191-194).

In the third chapter the writer relates how the universities were transformed into bastions of secularism, and this was chiefly done by the acceptance of scientism.  This shift did not occur because of evidence.  “Rather, it was merely a pragmatic sociological shift.” (48. Italics are the author’s).

The short fourth chapter is entitled “Scientism Is Self-Refuting.”  This little chapter is important because it not only shows that self-refuting stahttps://drreluctant.wordpress.com/2014/11/03/further-thoughts-on-the-call-to-the-ministry/tements are necessarily false (51), but that scientism is ironically not even a scientific position.  Scientism is “an epistemological viewpoint about science; it is not a statement of science.” (52, cf. 57).  From this position Moreland shows that philosophical presuppositions (say, about the nature of truth) are necessary before any science can get underway (ch. 5).

Unsurprisingly, Moreland spends time on the matter of consciousness and mental states.  Consciousness is and always will be a first-person phenomenon.  Neurologists depend upon the honest reports from the subject to gather their data (86-90).  But of course many neuroscientists have bought into physicalism, wherein the human being is viewed simply as the accumulation of active molecular parts – a machine (90-105).

Further chapters engage the Hawking/Mlodinow thesis that everthing came from nothing (ch. 10).  He takes several shots at methodological naturalism (121, ch. 13), includes a fine section on Fine-Tuning (143-149), and near-death experiences (92-94), and useful chapters on the integration of Christianity and Science (chs. 14 & 15).

The book does not analyze secularism as such.  It’s main aim is against the rampant scientism in our culture and to help Christians understand and critique it.  He rightly inveighs against “using watered-down, intellectually vacuous, simplistic preaching that is always applied to a parishioner’s private life while failing to deal from the pulpit with the broad cultural, intellectual, and moral issues facing us all” (39-40).  There is a helpful bibliography of recommended books at the end.

Scientism and Secularism sometimes seems to lack the cut and thrust of more polemical works, but it is recommended reading for anyone who wants to be conversant with a culture saturated with the canons of irrational scientism.

Review: ‘The Old Testament’ by Richard Hess

A review of Richard S. Hess, The Old Testament: A Historical, Theological, and Critical Introduction, Grand Rapids: Baker, 2016, xiv + 801 pages, hdbk

Richard Hess is an Old Testament professor at Denver Seminary who has distinguished himself with a brace of high quality studies and commentaries.  These include a notable Commentary on Joshua in the Tyndale series, and a book on Israelite Religions.  This work of Old Testament introduction competes with the works of Hill & Walton, Longman & Dillard, Arnold & Beyer, as well as older books by Gleason Archer and R. K. Harrison.

In The Old Testament Hess reviews each book of the Hebrew Bible providing an outline, an overview of the contents, a helpful section on “Reading” each book, which is divided into “Premodern” and critical readings; the latter being particularly useful.  There is then a section on “Gender and Ideological Criticism,” Ancient Near Eastern and Canonical context, Literary structure, Theological themes, and a brief annotated bibliography.  Overall, the style is highly readable and informative.  The chapters are enhanced with black and white  charts, diagrams, maps, photos, and insets focusing on pertinent topics.

The author’s survey of the contents of each book provide a good summary of what one will find when reading through the Bible.  This can serve as a reminder of the main events and persons, especially in the longer books.  The section on “Reading…” will assist any student trying to pick their way through the way the different critical approaches have looked at the texts.  What this does is give the gist of a critical approach, which may have some insight, while revealing its sometime basis in unbelief.  This part of the introduction serves as a good check on ones hermeneutics.

I shall bypass the “Gender” sections for the moment and move to the sections on context.  These pull together the author’s long associations with cultural and archaeological backgrounds and present them in clear terms for the reader.  Hess also shows an ability to fit each book into the wider canonical whole; a knack that will be appreciated by preachers.

For me the most useful parts of the book are the “Literary Readings” and “Theological Perspectives” sections.  Hess discusses form and stylistic features, often noticing things in passages like the grouping of sayings around a theme or person, or the presence of a theme at strategic points.  The theological units summarize both important authorial preoccupations (e.g. key themes, words, and persons, etc.), and developing motifs (although there is some crossover with other sections).

A good example of the books’ usefulness would be the chapter on Deuteronomy.  As well as providing a history of the critical approaches to the book, Hess shows that Deuteronomy’s suzerain-vassal treaty format is integral to its interpretation, and he manages to do this without being boring!  The pages covering “Theological Perspectives” are extremely good.  Hess gives attention to the covenant, the Ten Commandments, and to the Shema while explaining how these influenced Jewish self-understanding thereafter.  Deuteronomy is a book where issues such as gender and justice can be discussed, and the treatment of these issues is well done here.

This brings me to the sections entitled “Gender and Ideological Issues.”  Sometimes (actually quite often) there is not much to say under this heading and we find the author dealing with apologetic matters (e.g. in tackling the Sheffield and Copenhagen schools in 1 & 2 Kings).  In general I have to say that I found these sections heavy going.  Is the Bible really concerned with the sort of gender identity politics and argumentation of the beginning part of the the 21st century?  Feminist interpreters don’t read the Bible as a normative revelation from God to them.  They read it for case studies and to find platforms for their worldly interpretations.  The fact is that every book in the Bible was written by a man, not a woman.  And although there are many women who are vital to its stories (e.g. Eve, Sarah, Hannah, Naomi, Esther, etc.), their stories are told by God through men of God.  Hence, searching out women’s perspectives in a Book like the Bible seems to me to be both an exercise in futility and a distraction from the purpose of the revelation.  The Old Testament comes to us all as persons, not as special identities.

All in all Richard Hess has given the evangelical world a very good book of Old Testament introduction.  While using it extensively for several months it has grown on me more and more.  I recommend it for its excellent presentation of a great deal of helpful conservative information and its economy of style.  While I will not be throwing out my R. K. Harrison, I do think this is the best contemporary work on the subject I have encountered.

 

 

 

 

 

A Review of ‘Israel, the Church, and the Middle East’

A review of Israel, the Church, and the Middle East: A Biblical Response to the Current Conflict, edited by Darrell L. Bock & Mitch Glaser, Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 296 pages, paperback.

This compendium of new essays follows the only occasionally stellar The People, the Land, and the Future of Israel, edited by the same two men.  This book marks Israel’s seventieth anniversary.  It is divided into four parts, Biblical Foundations, Theology and the Conflict, Yeshua in the Midst of the Crisis, and Current Challenges to Peace in Israel.

This book takes a good look at these four issues through the various viewpoints of the authors.  There are few weak contributions (e.g. a surprisingly tame essay from Bock), the general standard is high.  Here are my thoughts on a few of the articles:

First, Richard Averbeck’s opening piece on the biblical covenants starts things off well.  He is clearly uncomfortable being identified either as a covenant theologian or as a dispensationalist, but he has no time for replacement theology (22).  More notable to me though was this line:

The system of theology known as “dispensational theology” describes the historical biblical covenants as subsumed under a set of dispensations in God’s program… (22)  

I have been saying the same thing for many years, but who sees it?  Well, at least one other man does!  The covenants are right there for all to see and read about.  The dispensations are nowhere near as prominently set out.  But dispensations are allowed to define the system instead of the covenants nonetheless.  The essay includes some good interaction with crucial chapters in Genesis relating to the Abrahamic covenant (i.e. chs. 12, 15, 17, & 22).  He shows how the land promise is just as permanent as the seed promise.  He also rightly notes that the Davidic covenant “adds a dynastic element to the covenant program.” (32).

I did not agree with everything in the article.  For instance Averbeck’s simple definition of a covenant as “a solemn and formal means of establishing a relationship” (24), badly needs another definition; that of “relationship.”  Some covenants in the Bible only establish a relationship in terms closer to “you stay away from me and I’ll stay away from you” (e.g. Gen. 21).  Moreover, God’s covenants incorporate great promises, so that it is well to include that when discussing Divine – human covenants.  Finally, the solemnizing oath is crucial.

Covenant also receives plenty of attention in Mark Yarbrough’s analysis of the Bible Story in chapter 3.  He warns of just seeing the Big Picture without the important details.  I thought he made some good points.  My one major disagreement is that Yarbrough refers to Gentile believers as “spiritual Israel” based upon Galatians 3:29.  Paul does not use that language.

Michael Rydelnik’s oddly titled “The Hermeneutics of the Conflict” is extremely good.  It is long enough for him to address several points, such as the clarity of the promises in the OT, the understanding of those promises in the NT (with its seeming lack of interest in the land promise), and the misuse of some NT texts to “expand” that promise.  He forthrightly says that analogies by supercessionists which try to make God more generous than His original promises by expanding them not only fail, they illustrate “betrayal.” (75).  I think he’s right, which is why expansionist explanations often neglect to switch out the promisees in the way supercessionism teaches.

Craig Blaising is arguably one of the most nuanced theologians writing today.  His piece entitled “A Theology of Israel and the Church” is a welcome inclusion.  It serves as a promo piece for “Redemptive Kingdom Theology”, AKA Progressive Dispensationalism, (87 n. 7).  Blaising is always worth reading, and I liked his essay.  However, his treatment of the Church as a communion of ethnes for future kingdom development left me wondering whether PD sometimes makes the Church look like a placeholder for God’s kingdom plans for Israel and the nations.  Despite his appeal for clarity (100), I found myself with some weighty questions at the end of this essay.

Mitch Glaser provides a useful look at the politicized side of supercessionist theology by focusing on the work of the pro-Palestinian Kairos document.  His piece dovetails well with Craig Parshall’s analysis of the UN’s hypocrisy over the rights of Israel as a nation in the book’s penultimate chapter.

I will mention only one more essay here, which is Michael Vlach on “Israel and the Land in the Writings of the Church.”  Vlach identifies four factors which steered the early church in the wrong direction on this issue (121-122).  The first was the almost universal Gentile complexion of the Church.  Second was the fate of Jerusalem and the land after the revolts of 70 A.D and 135 A.D.  Third was the pragmatic theological turn that became replacement theology.  Finally, the hermeneutical guardrails were erected largely through allegorization.

Nevertheless, there are many examples of “restorationism” throughout the periods of Church History.  Vlach furnishes many examples to show that Christians have not all wrested the promises to Israel out of their hands.

The book closes with data from a Lifeway Survey on Evangelical attitudes toward Israel and the Jews.  Good indices are also on hand.

I liked this book a lot.  I think it stuck to its task well and should be seen as a reliably informative defense of the nation of Israel in Scripture.  It is a worthy gift from evangelicalism to the beleaguered nation.

Review of ‘He Will Reign Forever’ (Pt.4)

This is the final installment of my review of this book

Part Three

As he moves through the Book of Acts the author addresses the main kingdom passages only.  An author must be selective with his material, so the relatively brief look at Acts is no mark against the book.  In fact, due to his ability to sum things up quickly and accurately Vlach can pinpoint the salient passages and continue into the Pauline corpus.

That said, he manages to dwell on the really crucial texts.  He says, for instance, “Acts 3:19-26 is a strategic passage for the kingdom program.” (421).  And he has spent 7 pages getting to that conclusion.  He not only exegetes Acts 3:19-21, he demonstrates Peter’s compliance with expectations raised by the Old Testament.  He then mentions how Acts 3:25 cites Genesis 12:3 and 22:18 to prove that Israel – representatives of which the Apostle is speaking to – is still the same national entity as was envisaged in the Abrahamic covenant (420-421).

Any worthwhile account of the kingdom in the New Testament has to tackle James’s use of Amos 9 in Acts 15:16-18.  Does James reinterpret the prophet the way amillennialists insist he does?  Vlach says there is a partial fulfillment of Amos because now Christ has come Gentiles are invited to God through Him. “The point of Amos 9:11-12 is this – a restored kingdom of Israel under the Messiah results in blessings to Gentiles.” (424 italics original).  However, Amos 9:13-15, which refers to the restoration of Israel in the future, are not quoted by James (425).  Partial fulfillments of OT prophecies ought to be expected because of the space between the two comings – something which was far from clear in the OT.

Entering upon Paul’s epistles, the first thing Vlach does is to set out the fourteen references to the kingdom.  In dealing with each one the constant theme is the futurity of the kingdom (433).  A crucial passage is 1 Corinthians 15:20-28, and Vlach pays ample attention to it (436-444).  Here the author’s exegetical and analytical skills are fully utilized to prove, I think conclusively, that Paul assumes an intermediate kingdom reign of Christ on earth before He delivers up the kingdom to the Father.  I shall not go into detail here, but his handling of the epeita… eita formula (with reference to 15:5-8), the use of Psalms 110 and 8, and the fact that Christ must reign “until” show the necessity of the premillennial view.

When coming to the great eschatological section in Romans 9 through 11, one could have wished that more space had been allotted to the Apostle’s argument.  Three pages is not enough, and it amounts to the most disappointing part of an otherwise excellent book.  This was surprising to come across, and perhaps a second edition could improve on the deficiency?  What is said is right enough, but since the Olive Tree metaphor especially is subjected to inattention and misreading I really hoped for a thorough analysis of the passage.

The chapter which follows (ch. 30) deals with “The Kingdom in Hebrews”.  The Book of Hebrews is turned this way and that depending on the propensities of interpreters.  But just read “on its own” so to speak, it is an exceedingly prophetic type of literature.

In his handling of the epistle Vlach investigates two questions: the kingdom passages and the use of Psalm 110:1, 4.  He concludes that,

Christians currently are looking for the world to come (2:5) and the city to come (13:14).  Jesus is currently exercising His priestly role from the right hand of God but is waiting for the day when He will reign as messianic King, putting His enemies under His feet (Heb 10:12-13).  The kingdom has not arrived yet but it will come in connection with divine judgments to come (12:26, 28).  But like Abraham, Christians are looking for the coming heavenly Jerusalem, a literal city that will exist on the earth. (467)

Whether one agrees entirely with the author’s understanding of “the heavenly Jerusalem” the chapter is well argued.

(more…)

Review of ‘Mark Through Old Testament Eyes’

A Review of Mark Through Old Testament Eyes by Andrew T. LePeau, Grand Rapids: Kregel Academic, 2017, 352 pages, paperback 

This book by series editor Andrea LePeau is the first in a set of volumes that will explore the influence of the Old Testament upon the writers of the New Testament books.  This influence, it is believed, is not only in the way in which certain passages are quoted and used in the New Testament, but also how minds stocked with Old Testament stories, texts, and theology brought that multi-layered influence into their books through structure, allusion, typology and motif.  Especially important to this point of view is the way the Hebrew Scriptures are employed to point to Jesus Christ as the fulfillment of Israel’s hopes.

LePeau can turn a phrase and his work is very readable and easy to follow.  He is well read and he brings much to his task, though the book is not designed to be academic.  The book includes a running commentary with notes on backgrounds and Old Testament motifs and allusions interspersed.  Generally speaking he has done an excellent job with the commentary part of the book.  This (major) portion alone ought to recommend the book to preachers and teachers.

Going back to the premise of the series, the first thing which came to mind when I read the title and the way LePeau understands it was the question of whether this will indeed be a commentary on how the Old Testament effected the inspired writers (25), or whether it will be a work more about how the way the New Testament authors supposedly used the Old Testament.  The former understanding places the spotlight on the expectation taught in the Scriptures (e.g. Matt. 19:28; Lk. 1:31-33; 54-55; 68-74; 19:11; Acts 1:6; 26:7); the latter on a brand of theological interpretation.

I have to admit that as my eye passed over the list of contributors to this series I was not encouraged.  The names I read all believe that the Old Testament needs to be read in light of the New Testament in order to be rightly interpreted.  What this actually means is that a particular understanding of the New Testament is being read back into the Hebrew Bible so that the prophecies and promises found therein are reformulated so as to be fulfilled at Christ’s first coming and in the Church.  Gary Burge, for example, who will produce the Galatians and Ephesians volume, is a sure-fire bet to teach a reinterpretation of the Prophets and a “kingdom-now” supercessionist eschatology.

In his introduction LePeau likens the incorporation of Old Testament elements into Mark to the way directors include allusions to other films and directors in their movies.  I think this is an unfortunate illustration, for the movies themselves can be perfectly well understood without the allusions being seen by the viewer.  This is in fact what I think is often the case with the New Testament books.  If the reverse is the case, and these pointers are essential to the right comprehension of a New Testament book, then we are in the position of having to say that the real meaning of these books is at least partially hidden; or was until the recent work of men like Richard B. Hays (e.g. Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels), or Joel Marcus (The Way of the Lord), uncovered them.  I am very uncomfortable with that, firstly because if you take this view then you are saying something about the clarity of Scripture; that it has been pretty unclear for millennia.  You cannot effect the clarity of Scripture without meddling with the sufficiency of Scripture.  Second, I firmly believe that both Testaments are understandable as they are without searching out deeper meanings.

As an example, LePeau believes that Mark is alluding to Exodus 23:20 in Mark 1:2.  I do not.  Neither do I believe that just because John the Baptist was a wilderness dweller that we should automatically recall the Exodus.  While I certainly hold that Jews could recall a context or verse from its half-mention, that does not mean the full context or verse is intentionally being referred to.  What the text is saying in context is the prime determiner of meaning, not a motif or type that a scholar thinks is the actual meaning.  An instance of this is the Table (6.1) on page 127 where supposed parallels between Mark 6 and Psalm 23 are drawn.  He veers into allegory in the process.  I am thoroughly unconvinced.  He really has to push the boat out a long way to find connections.  This sort of motif-finding is misleading, and it detracts from what Mark is actually saying. (more…)

“Leaving Mormonism” – A Review

I was sent this book (and another that I must review soon) before Christmas and the publisher, quite understandably wishes me to review it.  I am very happy to do so since this is a fine resource

A Review of Leaving Mormonism: Why Four Scholars Changed Their Minds, edited by Corey Miller & Lynn K. Wilder, Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 311 pages, paperback, 2017

This book is an great idea.  Four former Mormons with academic credentials and a passion for the truth write about why they left Mormonism and add a critique of it from their own perspectives.  Each writer communicates clearly.  None is mean spirited in their criticism of their former belief, though all are keen to inform readers not only of the errors of the Latter-Day Saints; errors which lead to a particular worldview, but also of the chameleonic nature of Mormon teaching as it seeks to adapt to criticism and exposure.

Corey Miller’s chapter, “In Search of the Good Life” asks whether experiencing the good is objectively possible under Mormon teaching.  His answer begins with his personal testimony of being a Mormon with descendants reaching all the way back to acquaintances of Joseph Smith himself.  His essay deals with the nature of Mormon testimony and the difficulty of achieving “salvation.”  Miller is a philosopher and has provided excellent notes to go with his essay, even briefly outlining Alvin Plantinga’s response to de jure objections to Christian faith in his Warranted Christian Belief (70 n.41).

The next chapter is by LaTayne Scott, “I Was There, I Believed.”  She has been given enough room to write a long but interesting chapter consisting, as all the contributions do, of her testimony and an analysis.  Scott’s testimony is eloquently written and of real help for someone trying to understand the grip that Mormon culture exerts upon its members.  Of particular help in this chapter is the way the author persuades the reader to look upon Mormonism as a worldview with its distinctive (and false) approach to truth.

Lynn Wilder’s piece includes her discomfort at encountering many contradictions concerning things like racism and polygamy.  There is also her son’s story, wherein he was challenged while on mission to read the New Testament.  Upon returning to testify he got up and confessed that a person needed Jesus and Him alone (163).  This son, Micah, begged his parents to simply read the NT like a child would.  Wilder read John’s Gospel and her eyes began to be opened, though not for some time did she and her husband leave the fold (in 2008).  The “reasons” part of her article details numerous social problems with Mormonism, again focusing on racism and polygamy, but expanding on each.

The last of the four writers is the scientist Vince Eccles.  He became a rebel against religion after learning about his divorced mother’s being judged for some of her choices.  He writes about his fascination with parts of the Bible (e.g. Matthew and Exodus) and his investigations into the reliability of the Scriptures, but he does hold to a non-literal reading of the early chapters of Genesis, and to theistic evolution, and there are certainly one or two liberal-critical influences upon him.  He records crises of faith which even had him contemplating becoming an orthodox Jew.  He also seems to have universalist leanings.  Of the four authors in the book I felt Eccles was the least satisfying.  In fact, even though his essay is of interest, I think it was a mistake to include him in the book.

Miller and Wilder complete the book with a chapter on the New Atheism.  They inserted this chapter because many ex-Mormons become disillusioned and fall pray to the arguments of these people.  It’s a nice bonus at the end of the book.

This is an absorbing book, written with head and heart.  I liked the first two contributions to be the most helpful; the one by Eccles was a disappointment.  I think the book, Eccles’ chapter apart, is a very good buy.

Review of ‘He Will Reign Forever’ (Pt.3)

Part Two

This is the third part in what has become a four part review of this book.  I think the work is important enough as a Dispensational Biblical Theology to merit a piece of this length.  I hope you will agree.  

As Vlach entered upon the New Testament I was curious how much space he would devote to developing the message of Jesus in its pre-Pauline context.  That is to say, I wanted to see if he would trace the teachings of Jesus from its grounding in the prophetic expectations in the Old Testament and its effect upon Jewish hearers in the first part of the first century A.D.  I was not disappointed.

The author chooses the Gospel of Matthew as his frame of reference for understanding the kingdom aspect of Christ’s mission.  This was a natural enough choice, although the present reviewer is also a fan of the speeches in Luke-Acts for this purpose.  Of course, the selection of Matthew in no way eliminates interaction with the other Gospels, and Vlach picks up on some of the main kingdom emphases in Luke, especially the crucial Parable of the Nobleman in Luke 19:11-27(e.g. 357-360).  About 150 pages of He Will Reign Forever are set aside for the Gospels.  This allows Vlach to make the important textual and theological connections between the Old Testament and the New Testament around the Person of Jesus Christ and His kingdom understanding.  The work done in these chapters supplies the basic proof for the underlying accuracy of the book’s hermeneutical consistency.  At the risk of annoying some readers, this sort of work does not need to be done by those who automatically spiritualize the text whenever it threatens to unravel their view that Christ and the Church are what it’s all about.  Again, it is worth noting the clever use of non-evangelical scholarship to drive home the fact that the author is not making his points because of some blind allegiance to Dispensational requirements, but because this is what the text of Scripture itself is saying.

Jesus’ identification with Israel is seen as a main emphasis of Matthew 2 (262). The author handles the Hosea 11:1 quotation in two ways; first via reference to corporate solidarity, but then also by noting the probable source of the allusion to Numbers 23 and 24; a position vigorously argued for by the late John Sailhamer (263-264).  From there the “kingdom is at hand” passages in Matthew 3 and 4 are handled in chapter 16.  I fully concur with this quotation:

According to Matthew 5:5 kingdom blessings include inheriting the land, which is a physical blessing.  The view that Jesus is presenting a spiritual kingdom only appears more in line with a Platonic dualism between spirit and matter than a biblical worldview. (270, and something he returns to quite frequently in Part Three of the book).     

Along with rejecting the spiritualizing view of the kingdom Vlach is also unpersuaded by the prominent “already/not yet” so prevalent today, saying “it does not do justice to the full package of kingdom blessings presented by John and Jesus at the time of their pronouncements.” (270 my italics. cf. 271). 

In order to bring the cosmic drama between God and Satan into his discussion of the Temptation of Jesus the author deals with several Old Testament passages before tackling the Temptation itself.  He poignantly states, “The arrival of Jesus was an invasion of Satan’s empire.” (285).  He takes the opportunity to make important intertextual links in fleshing out the kingdom implications of Christ’s presence on the scene.  This gives him the opportunity to remind his reader of some of the ground already covered in the Old Testament sections.  I do wish that he had afforded himself the liberty to deal with the recent attempts of amillennial biblical theologians to quite irrationally identify “the anointed cherub” of Ezekiel 28 with Adam (281-282).

The topic of miracles is well handled in chapter 18, which focuses on Matthew 4:23-24.  I very much liked the description of miracles as “acts of restoration” (296).  That is good theology.      (more…)

Review of ‘He Will Reign Forever’ (Pt.2)

Part One

As the author comes to the Prophets, he gives his reader a summary of the overall message of Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel:

Israel was being judged and dispersed to the nations for covenant disobedience, but in the latter days Israel would be regathered and restored to her land and experience New Covenant blessings, both material and spiritual, under the leadership of the ultimate Son of David.  As a result, the nations, who will be judged for a time, will also benefit from the reign of Messiah, and the restoration of Israel and become the people of God alongside Israel in an earthly kingdom. – He Will Reign Forever, 145

This coherent statement reflects well the theological orientation of the Major Prophets, and not a few of the Minor Prophets too (e.g. Hosea, Micah, Zechariah), and represents a sort of stasis in the prophetic word whether before or after the Exilic period.  From a straight reading of these books the themes of punishment and end-time restoration under the coming King, with benefits extending out to the nations are prominent features in the Prophetic picture.  From their point of view, there is no inkling that what they had to say was communicatively in need of transformative re-readings in light of what was to come.  Although it is not his stated intent, Vlach does pause long enough to interact a little with amillennialist Sam Storms (176-177), noting in particular that as well as morphing the prophet’s apparent meaning, “this perspective underestimates what Isaiah’s audience was capable of grasping.” (177).  Indeed, some who would spiritualize the words of the Prophets sound rather patronizing in their opinions about the inability of OT saints to know the meaning of what they were hearing.

Especially notable in this section are Vlach’s explorations of particular prophetic passages.  Isaiah 2 gets an excellent extended treatment (147-154), which includes a section on whether the Church is envisaged in Isaiah 2.  Another text receiving more than usual attention is the so-called “Little Apocalypse” in Isaiah 24-27 (164-167).  Jeremiah 18 also receives welcome consideration (182-183), while certain important themes are dealt with in footnotes; for example, the throne of David (137 n.21), the role of the “law” (149 n.10), and the preservation of animals under the auspices of the covenant with Noah (158-160).

One obviously has to pick and choose when writing on the Prophets, but I think the author does enough with Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel to establish their unified “kingdom voice”.  He takes care to note that in saving the nations God does not redefine Israel (164, 170-171).  When addressing the Suffering Servant passage in Isaiah 53 he shows that the Servant is also the coming King (156).  He states,

Isaiah’s depiction of the Suffering Servant also shows that the objective basis for the kingdom of God is atonement for sin.  There is no kingdom or participation in the kingdom without the cross.  No kingdom without the cross (Col. 1:20). (156).

Here one is waiting for a New covenant section which enlarges on this important insight.  Once “the objective basis for the kingdom” is established, how does this translate into God’s obligations to His people?  What is the kingdom that they may reasonably expect to see?  The author does of course make it clear that the kingdom promises mean what they say (e.g. 160), but the objective basis is covenantal, and therefore hermeneutical.  Vlach is a theologian, and one of the best that Dispensationalism has to offer.  Perhaps I am being unreasonable, but this passage gives one an opportunity for driving home the literal cross literal crown view of prophecy at a time when evangelical writers are falling over one another trying to turn Old Testament prophets into social reformers and voices of conscience. Notwithstanding, on the next page (161) I was happy to read a reference to the “second exodus” motif which actually interprets it as a real second exodus.  And when the Servant is brought up a little further on He is seen as representative of Israel and so the guarantor of Israel’s covenant rights (169-170), not as the lone true Israelite in whom a “New Israel” can be recognized.  The intermediate kingdom is the one most often spoken of by the prophets.  Vlach is careful to notice that this kingdom will include death and sin, although not with anything like the scale and devastation seen today (e.g. 133, 173-175)

Jeremiah is a book that it is easy to get lost in, due to its arrangement and length.  The challenge for the Dispensational interpreter, for whom outlandish spiritualizing of the eschatological details is not an option, is to say enough to give a proper impression of the extremely important Christology of Jeremiah – which is virtually all kingdom oriented – while tying in the New covenant implications in which they are embedded.  Jeremiah’s position as a pre-exilic and exilic prophet must be understood, for he brings together strong Deuteronomic threads and projects them into the post-exilic era, thus showing the continuity of Old Testament prophecy better than perhaps any other book.

Again Vlach’s sense of proportion does not fail him.  His treatment of Jeremiah’s “Book of Consolation” (chapters 30 – 33) hits the highpoints, stressing in particular the “five covenants” that are brought together in this crucial section.

(more…)