Uncategorized

Some Thoughts on Books on Biblical Theology

The following was written in response to a teacher who wanted to know my opinion on Biblical Theology texts.
My Thoughts on Biblical Theologies
 
The first thing to say is that the definition of Biblical Theology is elastic.  We have an idea of what it is but perhaps because of the various ways of actually doing it the works on BT can look quite different.  For that reason i have tried to include a few varieties in my list, although some of them may not qualify within stricter criteria.  I tried to think about how I teach BT and choose accordingly.
James M. Hamilton – God’s Glory in Salvation through Judgment
This highly competent and dense book is one of the best new entries in the genre.  He takes a historical approach, moving book by book through the Bible.  He imparts a lot of information along the way.  Hamilton’s thesis is that the recurring pattern of God’s glory in salvation through judgment is the center of BT.  I do not agree.  This is what I think we should expect from the economy of god’s providential working in a fallen world, but it scarcely supplies a goal for God’s plan.  My chief issues with it are that he resorts to typology far too often (but see his What is Biblical Theology? and you will see why – btw, I don’t like that book), and he minimizes covenants to the point of near exclusion.  In fact, he minimizes themes like “kingdom” too, so I couldn’t make this my first or second choice.  it would be good as a survey of the Bible so long as other works balanced it out.
Thomas R. Schreiner – The King in his Beauty
A similar book to the above with many of its shortcomings, although Schreiner focuses on Christ which gives it a little more interest and less repetition of a theme a la Hamilton.  Still, Schreiner’s insistence on reading the OT in light of the Cross skews his reading of the OT.  The Prophets cannot be fairly treated from the vantage-point of Calvary.  Still, there is a lot of useful material here.  He is not as dense as Hamilton which makes him easier to use for undergrad students.
Miles V. Van Pelt (ed.) – A Biblical-Theological Introduction to the OT
I include this because it has aroused attention and because it merges BT with introduction.  there are some very competent entries in the book (e.g. by Currid, Timmer, VanGemeren, Belcher), but there are some duds (e.g. Pratt).  The editor has not made the authors follow the same basic plan, which greatly reduces the book’s value.  All the author’s are Reformed covenant theologians.
*Walter Kaiser – The Promise-Plan of God
For me, this is perhaps the best BT to put into the hands of the student.  Kaiser’s proposed unifying theme of “promise” has been criticized (e.g. by J. Sailhamer), but it has the merit of at least listening to the text as it unfolds, rather than reading the Bible backwards like the Reformed works tend to do.  Kaiser can find basic unity between the Testaments at the hermeneutical level rather than at the symbolical level, which is a plus.  While I do not hold to promise theology I do find it easy to navigate my way through the book while gaining a good understanding of progressive revelation pertaining to important themes.  Another little qualm is that Kaiser’s sources are sometimes dated.
*Charles H. H. Scobie – The Ways of Our God
A huge, thorough book structured on a broad thematic approach.  Conservative though moderately critical, Scobie mainly interacts with mainline scholarship.  For this reason he is very useful for the grad level student.  I have a soft spot for this book and return to it a lot.  Recommended for in-depth study of BT.  A great teacher’s resource.
Daniel P. Fuller – The Unity of the Bible  
Written clearly with useful insights, Fuller’s book goes its own way.  He’s a bit idiosyncratic, being classic premil but also critical in places.  The NT portion mainly deals with certain questions thrown up the the OT.  A book that influenced John Piper.
*Willem VanGemeren – The Progress of Redemption
A “Vossian” treatment of the subject by a well respected OT specialist.  He studies the biblical story in twelve “epochs.”  Pitched at about the beginning grad level this book is the best Reformed presentation of BT in my opinion. Because the author is balanced I would have little difficulty using this as a text for an advanced class, even though I would qualify it here and there.
George N. H. Peters – The Theocratic Kingdom 3 vols
Enormous, insightful and ponderous, with a dash of eccentricity (though nothing harmful), these volumes repay careful study.  Unfortunately, Peters adopts a question and answer method which makes him exhausting to use.  This is a shame because he is a pious writer and an often lucid theologian.  Very God centered.  Few have read him through.
C. Marvin Pate, et al – The Story of Israel
An undergraduate text written by six authors, but with surprising cohesion.  Its central motif is “sin-exile-restoration” a little bit like Hamilton, but more thematically balanced.  Designed for classroom use.  Includes a helpful chapter on “Second Temple Judaism”.  Critical in a few places.
Alva J. McClain – The Greatness of the Kingdom
A cross between Biblical and Systematic theology, this classic is worth considering because of its well executed plan.  For those who think “the mediatorial kingdom” (the kingdom theme mediated by man and the God-man) is central to the Bible storyline this is a great book.
*Michael J. Vlach – He Will Reign Forever
More intentionally a BT than McClain’s book, this welcome work is an easy to follow Dispensational text well suited for the classroom.  Raises good points while not always having time to deal with them thoroughly.  In fact, if I have a criticism of this fine book it is that it is not as detailed as I would have liked.
Peter J. Gentry & Stephen J. Wellum – Kingdom through Covenant
An influential work by two Baptist scholars holding to New Covenant Theology (which is basically CT with the three theological covenants replaced by other theological covenants).  Purports to be a via media between Dispensational and Covenant theologies but isn’t.  My impression of the book is that it flatters to deceive.  The exegetical chapters are really extended diversions from the main plot.  The authors presuppositions are evident, which is helpful, but they pretend to be unbiased.  Still, for the grad student this book does provoke much thought.
G. K. Beale – A New Testament Biblical Theology
A mammoth work aimed at providing a penetrating case for amillennialist eschatology based upon the concept of a “cosmic temple” principle extending from Eden into the wild creation, interrupted by the Fall, but kept on track by repeated attempts to the spiritual temple via major figures (Noah, Abraham, the nation of Israel) until finally the last Adam, Jesus Christ inaugurates the “New creation” in his death and resurrection and second coming work.  Very speculative when all is said and done.  Methinks when the dust is settled many will see just how much of Beale’s grand narrative is built on supposition.  For such a huge book the interaction with other points of view is disappointingly minimal.
Geerhardus Vos – Biblical Theology
Difficult to read (is there a dutch writer who is not?, this is still a valuable study of reformed covenant theology from a master at his trade.  Vos is a brilliant man, which is why he should be read even when one takes issue with him (which I do frequently).  Incomplete, but important.  Students should also get Redemptive History and Biblical Interpretation, which is a fine collection of Vos’s essays on the subject.
O. Palmer Robertson – The Christ of the Covenants
I cannot get on with Robertson.  His treatment of the covenants (which boils down to “the covenant”) is so theologically predetermined that I find him irritating to read.  I don’t agree with his definition of covenant.  Nor do I accept his ridiculous view that “land” is not a central covenant concept.  A classic CT exercise in flattening out the biblical covenants so that the covenant of grace (or “redemption”) can take center stage.
Graeme Goldsworthy – According to Plan
Very well written BT from the perspective of covenant theology.  Goldsworthy is good because he tells you he is spiritualizing, reinterpreting, and reading the Gospel into the OT.  He majors on the big picture, which means that the details in the OT glossed over with the rhetoric, but this is the place to go if one wants to see the broad sweep of Reformed BT.  An additional plus is that Goldsworthy bolsters his doctrine of revelation with Van Tillian presuppositionlaism (without employing the jargon).  His “Goldsworthy Trilogy” is written in the same way; self-evidently reading the NT back into the Old.
Finally…
Scott J. Hafemann & Paul R. House (eds.) – Central Themes in Biblical Theology
A collection of articles on matters like atonement, the Day of the Lord, People of God, etc., worth getting because the scholarship is good.  I found House’s treatment of “the Day of the Lord” very good.  He helpfully draws together the various uses of the term and shows that it is not a technical way of speaking (few terms in Scripture are).  Dempster’s essay on “The Servant of the Lord” is very well done.  Elmer Martens on “The People of God” highlights the fact that God’s people are an “alternative community” which needs to be heard today.  Roy Ciampa on “the History of Redemption” is very good, even for someone, like me, who departs from his conclusion.  Hafemann’s article on “The Covenant Relationship”, is definitely a worthwhile survey of recent proposals alongside helpful scriptural observations, even while I found myself writing question marks on every other page.

On Not Conflating the Old and New Testaments with the Old and New Covenants

This is an older post acting as a stop-gap until I can get my laptop fixed.  The computer I’m using is so slow that this post should be considered a near miracle.

Everybody knows it.  The Bible is composed of two parts: what we have come to call the Old Testament and the New Testament.  Too, most people understand that by the Old Testament we mean the 39 books of the Protestant Bible.  These are the same books which in a different arrangement and enumeration make up the 22 books of the Tanakh or Hebrew Bible.  In similar fashion the New Testament is the name given by Christians to the 27 “Apostolic” books written before the close of the First Century A.D.

What fewer people know is that these designations for the two parts of the Bible are not themselves found in the Bible.  Nowhere in the 66 books is there a reference to the number of books or the specific contents of the Bible.  As if anyone needed to be told, the Table of Contents at the front of our Bibles is not itself a part of the Bible.

We cannot go into it much here, but the tradition of referring to the two parts of the Bible as the two “Testaments” comes from a time after they were all written.  As Bernhard Anderson observed,

The covenant motif is employed significantly in both the letters of Paul and in the Epistles to the Hebrews.  Eventually the custom arose of referring to the apostolic writings of Christianity as the New Covenant (Testament) and the canonical writings of Israel as the Old Covenant. –  “The New Covenant and the Old,” in The Old Testament and Christian Faith, ed. Bernhard W. Anderson, 225-226.

The first known occurrence of this designation is found in ca. 170-180 in the work of the second century writer Irenaeus in his Against Heresies 4.28. 1-2.  But it is seems probable that the Greek designation diatheke (“covenant” or “Testament”) for old and new collections of biblical books was at that time quite new and not widely accepted.  The same cannot be said of the covenants (berith) of the Tanakh, our “Old Testament.”  These covenants were crucial parts of “the Law and the Prophets” long before the Apostles started writing.

These facts need to be well digested by all students of the Scriptures.  To repeat, when we speak of the books of the Bible as “the Old and New Testaments” we are simply using a tried and trusted term which arose after the Canon was completed.  It is not the way the Bible refers to itself.  When the Bible employs this term (diatheke) it is referring, not to the Canon, but to specific historical agreements between God and men.

A corollary to this is to say: when the books we call the “Old and New Testaments” refer to the “Old Covenant” and the “New Covenant” they are not referring to the 39 books and 27 books in the Biblical Canon, they are speaking of certain actual biblical covenants which are revealed and expounded within the books of the Bible.

I’m sorry to hammer away at this but there’s a very good reason for it.  Unfortunately, in certain Christian circles theology has overwhelmed history.  Sometimes theologies confuse the matter further.  For example, some time ago I responded to a web article with the title, “The Continuity of Theological Concepts: A New Covenant Reading of Old Covenant Concepts.”  The main thesis of the piece is summed up in this statement:

“Old Testament saints had a “two-age” view of history—the age in which they lived and the age to come. The age to come anticipated the advent of the Messiah and the Day of the Lord in which God’s people would be delivered and His enemies would be judged. The age to come was depicted in terms that related to the age in which they lived though the seed of old covenant concepts blossoms into the unforeseen beauty of new covenant realities.”

In reading this article it quickly became apparent that the writer was equating the “New Covenant” with the New Testament and the “Old Covenant” with the Old Testament.  Thus, by “new covenant realities” he meant “the ‘realities’ revealed in a newly envisaged way by the New Testament.”  When this move is made, it is inevitable that the New Testament will be viewed as synonymous with the “New Covenant,” and that the Old Testament will be viewed as equating to the “Old,” that is to say, “Mosaic Covenant.”

This confuses things which ought to be kept separate, and for these reasons:

1. The Old Covenant referred to in 2 Cor. 3:14 and the “First Covenant” referred to in the Book of Hebrews is clearly the Mosaic Covenant (the Law) and not the entire OT Canon.  The Old Covenant that is referred to as “tablets of stone” in 2 Cor. 3:3, which is the Sinaiitic Covenant received by Moses (3:7-15), has been replaced with the New Covenant (3:6).

2. The “New Covenant” mentioned in the chapter cannot be a reference to the books which comprise our New Testament for the simple reason that when Paul penned 2 Corinthians in about A.D. 57 at least half of the books of the New Testament were yet to be written!

3. When one reads about the contrasts between the “first covenant” and the “new covenant” in Hebrews it is clear that the former is equated with Moses’ Law (Cf. Heb. 7-10), which is inferior to the “better covenant” (7:22) and is “growing old and is ready to vanish away” (8:13).  This type of language cannot be used of the relation of the Old Testament books to the new Testament books.

4. Likewise, the “New Covenant” in either Testament is the universal and unilateral means whereby the other Biblical Covenants are realized and fulfilled.  It is not the same as the New Testament Canon.  To cite one example, Christ’s words at the institution of the Lord’s Supper (Lk. 22:20) would have been incomprehensible to the disciples if such were the case, because it was a real blood covenant, not the group of books which recorded it.

Despite this, the error has been included in the NKJV’s translation of 2 Corinthians 3:14:

But their minds were blinded. For until this day the same veil remains unlifted in the reading of the Old Testament, because the veil is taken away in Christ.

This interpretative translation appears to have been given credence because it provides a “proof-text” of sorts for a Canon-making process in the first century.  Handy as this might be for evangelicals it is not what the Apostle himself had in mind!

Forty Reasons for Not Reinterpreting the OT by the NT: The Last Twenty

The First Twenty

21. Saying the NT must reinterpret the OT also devalues the OT as its own witness to God and His Plans. For example, if the promises given to ethnic Israel of land, throne, temple, etc. are somehow “fulfilled” in Jesus and the Church, what was the point of speaking about them so pointedly? Cramming everything into Christ not only destroys the clarity and unity of Scripture in the ways already mentioned, it reduces the biblical covenants down to the debated promise of Genesis 3:15. The [true] expansion seen in the covenants (with all their categorical statements) is deflated into a single sound-bite of “the Promised Seed-Redeemer has now come and all is fulfilled in Him.” This casts aspersions on God as a communicator and as a covenant-Maker, since there was absolutely no need for God to say many of the things He said in the OT, let alone bind himself by oaths to fulfill them (a la Jer. 31 & 33. Four covenants are cited in Jer. 33; three in Ezek. 37).

22. It forces one to adopt a “promise – fulfillment” scheme between the Testaments, ignoring the fact that the OT possesses no such promise scheme, but rather a more relational “covenant – blessing” scheme.

23. It effectively shoves aside the hermeneutical import of the inspired inter-textual usage of an earlier OT text by later OT writers (e.g. earlier covenants are cited and taken to mean what they say in Psa. 89:33-37; 105:6-12; 106:30-31: 132:11-12; Jer. 33:17-18, 20-22, 25-26; Ezek. 37:14, 21-26). God is always taken at face value (e.g. 2 Ki. 1:3-4, 16-17; 5:10, 14; Dan. 9:2, 13). This sets up an expectation that covenant commitments will find “fulfillment” in expected ways, certainly not in completely unforeseeable ones.

24. It forces clear descriptive language into an unnecessary semantic mold (e.g. Ezek. 40-48; Zech. 14). A classic example being Ezekiel’s Temple in Ezek. 40ff. According to the view that the NT reinterprets the Old, it is not a physical temple even though scholars across every spectrum declare that a physical temple is clearly described.

25. It impels a simplistic and overly dependent reliance on the confused and confusing genre labeled “apocalyptic” – a genre about which there is no scholarly definitional consensus.

26. It would make the specific wording of the covenant oaths, which God took for man’s benefit, misleading and hence unreliable as a witness to God’s intentions. This sets a poor precedent for people making covenants and not sticking to what they actually promise to do (e.g. Jer. 34:18; cf. 33:15ff. and 35:13-16). This encourages theological nominalism, wherein God’s oath can be altered just because He says it can.

27. Since interpreters in the OT (Psa. 105:6-12); NT (Acts 1:6); and the inter-testamental period (e.g. Tobit 14:4-7) took the covenant promises at face value (i.e. to correspond precisely to the people and things they explicitly refer to), this would mean God’s testimony to Himself and His works in those promises, which God knew would be interpreted that way, was calculated to deceive the saints. Hence, a “pious transformation” of OT covenant terms through certain interpretations of NT texts backfires by giving ammunition to those who cast aspersions on the God of the OT.

28. The character of any being, be it man or angel, but especially God, is bound to the words agreed to in a covenant (cf. Jer. 33:14, 24-26; 34:18). This being so, God could not make such covenants and then perform them in a way totally foreign to the plain wording of the oaths He took; at least not without it testifying against His own holy veracious character. Hence, not even God could “expand” His promises in a fashion that would lead literally thousands of saints to be misled by them.

29. A God who would “expand” His promises in such an unanticipated way could never be trusted not to “transform” His promises to us in the Gospel. Thus, there might be a difference between the Gospel message as we preach it (relying on the face value language of say Jn. 3:16; 5:24; Rom. 3:23-26), and God’s real intentions when He eventually “fulfills” the promises in the Gospel. Since it is thought that He did so in the past, it is conceivable that He might do so again in the future. Perhaps the promises to the Church will be “fulfilled” in totally unexpected ways with a people other than the Church, the Church being just a shadow of a future reality?

30. Exegetically it would entail taking passages in both Testaments literally and non-literally at the same time (e.g. Isa. 9:6-7; 49:6; Mic. 5:2; Zech. 9:9; Lk. 1:31-33; Rev. 7).

31. Exegetically it would also impose structural discontinuities into prophetic books (e.g. God’s glory departs a literal temple by the east gate in Ezekiel 10, but apparently returns to a spiritual temple through a spiritual east gate in Ezekiel 43!).

32. In addition, it makes the Creator of language the greatest rambler in all literature. Why did God not just tell the prophet, “When the Messiah comes He will be the Temple and all those in Him will be called the Temple”? That would have saved thousands of misleading words at the end of Ezekiel.

33. It ignores the life-setting of the disciples’ question in Acts 1:6 in the context of their already having had forty days teaching about the very thing they asked about (“the kingdom” – see Acts 1:3). This reflects badly on the clarity of the Risen Lord’s teaching about the kingdom. But the tenacity with which these disciples still clung to literal fulfillments would also prove the validity of #’s 23, 26, 27, 28 & 32 above.

34. This resistance to the clear expectation of the disciples also ignores the question of the disciples, which was about the timing of the restoration of the kingdom to Israel, not its nature.

35. It turns the admonition to “keep” the words of the prophecy in Revelation 1:3 into an absurdity, because the straight forward, non-symbolic understanding of the numbers (7, 42, 144000, 1260, 1000, etc) and persons and places (twelve tribes of Israel, the Two Witnesses, the Beast and False Prophet, Jerusalem, Babylon, New Jerusalem, etc.), which is in large part built upon the plain sense of the OT is rejected in favor of tentative symbolic/typological interpretations. But how many people can “keep” what they are uncertain is being “revealed”?

36. It makes the unwarranted assumption that there can only be one people of God. Since the OT speaks of Israel and the nations (e.g. Zech. 14:16f.); Paul speaks of Israel and the Church (e.g. Rom. 11:25, 28; Gal. 6:16; 1 Cor. 10:32; cf. Acts 26:7), and the Book of Revelation speaks of Israel separated from the nations (Rev. 7), and those in New Jerusalem distinguished from “the kings of the earth” (Rev. 21:9-22:5), it seems precarious to place every saved person from all ages into the Church.

37. In reality what happens is that the theological presuppositions of the interpreter are read into the NT text and then back into the OT. There is a corresponding breakdown between what the biblical texts say and what they are presumed to mean. Thus, it is the interpretation of the reader and not the wording of the biblical text which is often the authority for what the Bible is allowed to teach.

38. This view also results in pitting NT authors against themselves. E.g. if “spiritual resurrection” is read into Jn. 5:25 on the rather flimsy basis of an allusion to Dan. 12:1-2, that interpretation can then be foisted on Rev. 20:4-6 to make John refer to a spiritual resurrection in that place too. Again, if Jesus is said to refer to His physical body as “this temple” in Jn.2:19, then He is not allowed to refer to a physical temple building in Rev. 11:1-2. This looks like what might be called “textual preferencing.”

39. This view, which espouses a God who prevaricates in the promises and covenants He makes, also tempts its adherents to adopt equivocation themselves when they are asked to expound OT covenantal language in its original context. It often tempts them to avoid specific OT passages whose particulars are hard to interpret in light of their supposed fulfillment in the NT. What is more, it makes one overly sensitive to words like “literal” and “replacement,” even though these words are used freely when not discussing matters germane to this subject.

40. Finally, there is no critical awareness of many of the problems enumerated above because that awareness is provided by the OT texts and the specific wording of those texts. But, of course, the OT is not allowed a voice on par with what the NT text is assumed to make it mean. Only verses which preserve the desired theological picture are allowed to mean what they say. Hence a vicious circle is created of the NT reinterpreting the Old. This is a hermeneutical circle which ought not to be presupposed because it results in two-thirds of the Bible being effectively quieted until the NT has reinterpreted what it really meant.

Review: ‘The Spirituality of Paul’ by Leslie T. Hardin

Leslie T. Hardin, The Spirituality of Paul, Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 2016, 190 pages.

This book is written in a lively and engaging style by a professor of New Testament at Johnson University in Florida, an institution connected to the ‘Stone-Campbell’ Restoration Movement. The University’s Statement of Faith expresses clearly the major bone of contention between Restorationist churches and Evangelical churches:

Faith, repentance, confession of faith in Jesus, baptism (immersion) and prayer are for the remission of past sins, and faith, repentance and confession of sins and prayer are for the remission of the erring Christian’s sins (Acts 8:22)

This is not salvation by grace alone through faith alone!  “Campbellites” (if I may employ the term without trying to be inflammatory), believe that one must be baptized in order to receive the Holy Spirit.  Quite what Kregel Publications thought they were doing by issuing a book from such a source is beyond me.  This is not to say that the book is not without merit, nor indeed that the author should be ignored, but Christian publishers owe it to their readers to inform them about the authors they publish.  The statement reproduced above teaches a conditional or ‘maintained’ state of forgiveness.

Another feature of The Spirituality of Paul that raises some concern is Hardin’s endorsement of the ‘New Perspective on Paul’.  Citing E.P. Sanders he writes:

Jews believed they were saved by grace, and (as much research has borne out for us) maintained their status in the covenant by doing works of piety and holiness which upheld the covenant and demonstrated to the world that they were holy… Therefore, when Paul speaks about “works of the law” he’s primarily referring to Jewish traditions… The context makes more sense now in Ephesians, … that “it is by grace you have been saved…not by [Jewish-style holiness works]”… (36-37 Emphasis in original)

In the book Hardin covers various spiritual characteristics (e.g. devotion to Scripture, prayer, discipleship, evangelism, holiness), in an easy to read personal style.  Some readers (myself included) will not warm to Hardin’s approval of Richard Foster (14), but then again, they will appreciate the author’s candidness about the struggle of prayer (53-55).

The book is well informed and does contain good insights.  I like that he deals soberly with the miraculous and experiential aspects of day-to-day spirituality in Jesus and Paul (17-20), although I do wish he had refrained from calling these experiences by the term “ecstatic”, which is misleading.  There is a particularly good treatment of speaking in tongues in the chapter on Spiritual Gifts (esp. 131-134) and a fine chapter on the “value” of Christian Suffering.

Part of me wants to recommend The Spirituality of Paul, and the mature believer would find much of benefit in it.  But its author’s views on the role of baptism and the New Perspective persuade me to caution people about the book.

This book was provided by the publisher

 

“The Kingdom of Speech” by Tom Wolfe

A review of The Kingdom of Speech by Tom Wolfe.  Audiobook read by Robert Petkoff, 2016.

This little book by the novelist and contemporary commentator on modern culture Tom Wolfe is worth the attention of anyone interested in the enigma of language.  An enigma it is, more especially if one does not understand language as God ordained.  Wolfe would appear to be an example of this point of view.

So if Wolfe does not connect language to the Creator, but rather sees it as an artifact, an invention of man, what use is this book to the Christian reader?  My answer is in two halves.  In the first instance Kingdom of Speech is a good book because Wolfe puts his finger firmly (and repeatedly) on the problem of incorporating the realities of speech within the confines of evolutionary grand narratives, whether Darwinian or neo-Darwinian, it makes no difference, since he shows how all its champions come up empty-handed.  He shows further, with the assured poise of a well-read researcher, and in entertaining prose that the problem of accounting for speech has eluded and is eluding the brightest of the “brights” from Darwin down to Chomsky.  That story itself is worth getting the book for.

But an added feature is that in posing the problem, the author presents the enormity of the task for the evolutionary purists, and while doing so spells out the “achievement” that language and speech is.  Alongside of this there are diverting examinations of the sort of conformity-at-all-costs peer pressure which has been exercised within the academy since before the publication of the Origin of Species.  One more exposure of how utterly fallacious the picture of how cool and disinterested the scientific establishment has always been is always to be welcomed.

But the second part of my answer sounds a note of caution.  While Wolfe is rightly dismissive of the usual accounts of human speech in evolutionary dogma, he replaces it with Daniel Everett’s view of language as artifact, which, though an improvement, is nonetheless unsatisfactory.

The book can be roughly divided between the compelling story of Charles Darwin and Alfred Russell Wallace, which is the most entertaining part of the book, and the more contemporary tale of the supremacy of the armchair linguist Noam Chomsky and the rise of the young field-hardened pretender, Everett.  Wolfe is well aware that Chomsky is a patron saint of progressives as well as of the scientific who’s who, and he unleashes both barrels of his furious irony upon him (for those of you who cannot get enough of this cruel pursuit, may I recommend the appropriate essays in David Berlinski’s Black Mischief).

He contrasts Chomsky’s ivory tower approach to his subject with Everett’s more down to earth empirical studies.  Everett lived and worked among an obscure Amazonian tribe called the Piraha (pronounced Pea-de-hah) for many years.  These people have an accentuated view of present experience; they are the ultimate empiricists.  Everett, who went there as a missionary, lost his faith when he couldn’t provide evidence to the Piraha which they could comprehend, of Christ’s existence (of course, the reality of Christian truth claims, along with very many other things – like the year 1564, or tomorrow, or the existence of Antarctica -, cannot be decided within the limits of a strict empiricism, unless one has been to the Antarctic!).

Anyway, Everett’s work threatened to overthrow the Chomskian paradigm and has therefore been vigorously opposed.  Still, the outcome of all of this is that at the time of writing, the phenomenon of speech is a mystery.

I give the book a cautious recommendation.  What it lacks is a good critique of Everett’s epistemological assumptions and any interaction with his thesis that language is just a tool for getting communication done.  As such, The Kingdom of Speech seriously lacks a proper ending.  In sum, it is entertaining, informative, iconoclastic, but without any thought of exploring the deficiencies of the feeble-looking speech as artifact thesis.  From all the eulogizing of speech which Wolfe has indulged in inside the book, this is a grave omission.

Messiah in the Pentateuch

I want to turn quickly to consider the picture of the Messiah in the story as we have it in the first five Books of Moses.  If one hesitates to bring to the Pentateuch what one already knows from the rest of Scripture, the picture of the Promised One is diminished but still of real interest.[1]

The main passages are in Genesis 3:15; 22:18; 49:8-10; Numbers 24:8-9, 17-19, and Deuteronomy 18:15-19.  These are the clearest scriptures.  Other passages, such as the offering up of Isaac (Gen. 22), and the Passover lamb (Exod. 12) are typological, but because they are types they cannot be viewed as revelatory or predictive within the framework of the Pentateuch as we have it.  We do not have information about whether the people in these stories knew and understood about the typology involved.  Even though it is fashionable in the current evangelical milieu to erect intricate whole theological structures based upon typology, this is most often done because of the retrofit-hermeneutics which reads the Old Testament in light of the New.  Since the design of this biblical theology is to conscientiously avoid doing such a thing I will be true to my persuasions and pass by typological foreshadowings.

As we have seen, the Seed of the Woman prophecy in Genesis 3:15 was aimed at the serpent, not our first parents.  It is also apparent that the curse concerns the eventual destruction of the serpent (who will later be identified as Satan) by a man (“he will crush your head”).  Hence, it is through a representative of the humanity which the serpent corrupted that his doom will be sealed.  From this text alone it is a leap to make the human Vanquisher of Satan a savior of humanity also.

The text in Genesis 22:18, which is often (though not always) taken as the place Paul appeals to for his “seed was Christ” doctrine in Galatians 3:16, is not as clear.[2]  Perhaps we would not see Christ in the story if the Apostle had not told us about it?[3]  Sailhamer calls our attention to Genesis 15:4 where God does set up a single-seed precedent (Isaac)[4].  But when all is said and done I don’t think Abraham’s willingness to offer up his son was understood at the time as being loaded with Messianic portents.

When the Lord Jesus said in John 8:58, “Your father Abraham rejoiced to see My day, and he saw it and was glad”, He was not claiming that the Patriarch foresaw Christ dying on a Roman Cross for the sins of the world.  That is not what Jesus said.  He said that Abraham knew the He, the Messiah, would come, and that this knowledge made him glad. To put it in one sentence, Abraham knew the Christ would come.  Where did Abraham get this knowledge?  Perhaps through inference?  Maybe he put together the promise of the Vanquishing Seed of Genesis 3:15 with the coming descendant who would realize the three promises within the Abrahamic covenant?  This, at any rate, is plausible.

(more…)

An Independent Land Covenant? – A Note

Bridging the portentous chapter 28 and the hopeful chapter 30, Deuteronomy 29 contains what is often referred to, especially in Dispensational literature, as ‘the Palestinian covenant.’[1]  Clearly the way the chapter begins must be taken seriously:

These are the words of the covenant which the LORD commanded Moses to make with the children of Israel in the land of Moab, besides the covenant which He made with them in Horeb. – Deuteronomy 29:1 

This “other” covenant is explicitly said to be “besides” the Mosaic covenant.  Taken in situ then there can be no complaint about distinguishing this covenant from the other covenants.  Certainly something is going on here.  Sailhamer contends that this covenant deliberately omits the necessary stipulations.[2]  If I understand him right he says this points the way to the replacement of the Mosaic practices with the coming New covenant.[3]

As I have just said, the language of regeneration is prominent in this passage.  So Sailhamer has a point.  But I prefer to see the covenant in Deuteronomy 29:1 as a reawakening of the national consciousness to the reality of the land rooted in the Abrahamic covenant but now conditioned within the Mosaic covenant.  The land is at the forefront of Moses mind but is also, of course, in the mind of all the people who are on the borders of Canaan (Deut. 29:2; 31:7; Josh. 1:11-15).  Since nothing is stated in the passage which enlarges on the land promise within the Abrahamic covenant (allowing for the promise of future regeneration which is a New covenant reality), I think the covenant in Deuteronomy 29-30 is then a case of God facing a timorous people with a restatement of the work involved in claiming the promised land.  If that is so, I think isolating a “Palestinian covenant” from the Abrahamic covenant is a little fruitless.  The stronger claim to the land is certainly in the Abrahamic covenant in Genesis 15.

===================================

[1] Examples of this would be respected teachers like Arnold Fruchtenbaum, and Paul Benware.   Benware calls the Palestinian covenant a “sub-covenant of the Abrahamic” – Paul N. Benware, Understanding End Times Prophecy, 56.  Fruchtenbaum sees this covenant as predicting the regathering of Israel to their land after God Himself has regenerated them. – Arnold G. Fruchtenbaum, Israelology, 796-797.  Although he lists eight provisions of the covenant, he does not find an oath.  In fact, he admits that “The Palestinian Covenant is an enlargement of the original Abrahamic Covenant”, particularly the land aspect. (Ibid, 583).  In view of this the present writer prefers to see Deuteronomy 29:1-30:20 as a reiteration of the land promise within the Abrahamic covenant but now in terms of the theocracy.

[2] John H. Sailhamer, The Meaning of the Pentateuch, 403-404.

[3] Ibid, 251

The Mosaic Covenant and Other Covenants

The Mosaic Covenant as a Historical Placeholder for Other Covenants

If the commandments in the ‘Ten Words’ on Sinai (Exod. 20) and all those that followed in their train were too stringent for a fallen people to keep, at least the covenant God made with Israel, and which they voluntarily entered into (in Exod. 24), distinguished them among the other nations of the world.  It did this to the extent that they were preserved as a distinct people in continuity with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.[1]

Just as the Noahic covenant guarantees the perpetuation of the regulation and predictability of the rhythms of nature,thereby creating the stage of history for God’s program to play out upon, the Mosaic covenant acts to set the covenants with David and Phinehas within a theocratic outlook – even if both of these covenants transcend the temporary “old covenant” and are embraced by the coming New covenant.  Another way to say this is to imagine the people of Israel as connecting the Mosaic covenant to the New covenant brought upon Israel at Christ’s return (Isa. 61:2b-3; Jer. 31:31-37); a covenant that supersedes the old one, but without morphing the promises God made out of all recognition.

That preservation through the Law, even when it was being reduced to formal hypocrisy – as it was much of the time (e.g. Isa. 1:2-23; Mal. 2:10-11) – was enough to keep Israel from being absorbed into the peoples and cultures surrounding them.  The elaborate details of the Tabernacle, with its importance for ethnic and religious identity, and the whole Levitical system, served to isolate the Jews enough to keep them separate, therefore guaranteeing their continuance.  Looked at this way the covenant with Israel in Exodus and Deuteronomy served as a place-holder for the covenants to follow; the ‘Priestly’, the Davidic and the New.  Israel needed to remain a static entity so that the covenants so bound up with the nation could be fulfilled.  Not only that, but because the interests of the nation were indelibly intertwined with the Abrahamic covenant, that covenant too was secured within the continuing people called the Jews.

Future Blessing and a Palestinian Covenant?

The Book of Deuteronomy finds Israel on the verge of entering the land which God has promised them.  Up until this point the people have not distinguished themselves for their faith in God.  But the Lord is not going to remove the faith requirement out of the way.  What was true for the writer of Hebrews is true for Israel east of Jordan, “without faith it is impossible to please Him.” (Heb.11:6).  So Israel will have to face its foes; some of them (i.e. the city of Jericho – cf. Josh. 3:16; more sons of Anak – Josh. 15:13-14), look formidable.  But YHWH has promised to go before them (Deut. 1:30, 42; 20:4).  Moses reminds the people about the incident which cost the lives of twenty-four thousand people at Baal-Peor (Num. 25), and the giving of the Ten Commandments at Sinai (see Deut. 4:3-13).  Then he turns to their fortunes if they decline from the Law.  God will cast them out of the land and scatter them abroad (Deut.4:26-27)[2], but He will also do something about their plight “in the latter days” (Deut. 4:30).  The reason for this mercy is “He will not forsake you nor destroy you, nor forget the covenant of your fathers which He swore to them.” (Deut.4:31).  The “covenant of your fathers” is clearly not the Mosaic covenant which He is recalling to them.  God’s dealing with Israel is covenantally determined, but as we have seen, it is determined principally on account of the Abrahamic covenant, together with the ‘Priestly’ covenant (see below) and the covenant He will make with David. (more…)

Exodus and the Mosaic Covenant (pt.2)

Part One

Relationship

The covenant Lord comes to establish a relationship.  This relationship is not yet predicated upon the finished work of Christ at Calvary, so the judicial element demands law.  Still, it also entails the fact that the God of the Law is the God also of grace.  If He were not, there would be no hope of relationship and the covenantal purposes of God would be reduced to futility.

The laws found in Exodus through to Deuteronomy are given, for the most part, to restrain Israel’s sin and to proclaim an ethics of human value, regardless of social status, and of the unity of communal life.[1]  The commandments can be summed up in two: Deuteronomy 6:4-5 and Leviticus 19:6.[2]

The 613 laws of the Torah can be boiled down to these two, but because these two are not realizable by corrupted humans, the other 611 spell out what this means in terms of living in a theocracy.

It must be recognized that it is a mistake to conflate the Pentateuch and the Law.  The Law does not show up until we are sixty-nine chapters into the Pentateuch.  Also, the role of faith is prominent in these books[3].

The Mosaic Covenant is Bilateral and Temporal

The covenant at Sinai was made with the children of Israel, who agreed to live as a Theocracy under God’s rule.  The covenant relationship was predicated on holiness.  While God’s holiness describes His Being and is absolute[4], fallen humanity does not possess the quality of holiness as a personal property.  As beings we are sinful (Isa. 61:6; Eccles. 7:20; Psa. 51:5; Rom. 3:23).  This means that any holiness we might “attain” is going to have to be God-approved.  This is especially the case if God is going to dwell in our midst.  In what is called “The Book of the Covenant” in Exodus 20-24[5] Israel discovers what external holiness looks like. (more…)

Abraham. Isaac and Jacob (Pt.3)

Part Two

“Israel”

There has been quite a build up to the appearance of the word “Israel” in the first book of the Pentateuch.  When it appears in chapter 32 we get an immediate ethnic link between Jacob/Israel and the sons of Israel (32:32).  This is everywhere the understanding of the name in the Old Testament, and, we shall argue, in the New Testament also.[1]

Genesis 37 and 38 detail two inauspicious moments in the history of nascent Israel; the disposal of the hated Joseph into the hands of Midianite traders going to Egypt by his own brethren, and then Judah’s marriage to a Canaanite woman and his conjugal encounter with his, unknown to him, daughter in law Tamar.  The passage of time which must be kept in mind as one reads these episodes, plus the one concerning the rape of Dinah in chapter 34, do not augur well for the future of the tribes.  The glorious provisions of the Abrahamic covenant which was their inheritance is put in jeopardy by the sons of Jacob.  Just as with Jacob himself, this shows that the covenant could not hinge upon the characters of the men who were the recipients of it.  Redemption would need to come to the physical descendants of Israel if the full benefits of the covenantal relationship initiated by God were to come about.  But the covenant with Abraham, as the covenant with Noah, did not include soteriological provisions for the establishment of permanent satisfactory Divine – human association.  These provisions, which must affect both humanity and its created environment, are given, as we shall see, in the terms of the New covenant.  The important thing is that Israel holds an enduring place within this covenantal setup.

Joseph’s Dreams

The epic of Joseph is one of the greatest stories in all of literature.  Through Joseph’s faith and discretion and God’s providential supervenience, the prediction to Abraham in Genesis 15:13f. is set in motion.  Joseph, of course, is a Seer (cf. 1 Sam. 9:9).  His rehearsal of two dreams which God gave him only deepened his brothers’ dislike of him.

Now Joseph had a dream, and he told it to his brothers; and they hated him even more.  So he said to them, “Please hear this dream which I have dreamed: “There we were, binding sheaves in the field. Then behold, my sheaf arose and also stood upright; and indeed your sheaves stood all around and bowed down to my sheaf.”  And his brothers said to him, “Shall you indeed reign over us? Or shall you indeed have dominion over us?” So they hated him even more for his dreams and for his words. Then he dreamed still another dream and told it to his brothers, and said, “Look, I have dreamed another dream. And this time, the sun, the moon, and the eleven stars bowed down to me.” So he told it to his father and his brothers; and his father rebuked him and said to him, “What is this dream that you have dreamed? Shall your mother and I and your brothers indeed come to bow down to the earth before you?” And his brothers envied him, but his father kept the matter in mind. – Genesis 37:5-11

This vision links up with the prophecy in Genesis 15 in that it predicts the arrival of the clan of Israel “in a land that is not theirs” to begin their four hundred year hiatus out of the land (cf. Gen. 15:13).  Though no direct interpretation is given, it appears that his father and his brothers understood the significance of the dreams.[2]  The two are a pair, both featuring the obeisance to Joseph (n.b. “the sun, the moon, and the stars bowed down to me” – v.9).  This presages the eleven brothers coming down to Egypt and bowing down before the Governor-Vizier in the days of famine (42:6).  Jacob thought he and his mother would bow before Joseph, but that did not occur.  The reason being that the purpose of the dreams was to predict Joseph’s future authority, perhaps not so much to describe actual events.[3] But when Jacob came into Egypt in Genesis 46, it was Joseph who was second only to Pharaoh (41:40)[4].

The thing to be realized is that for all its strangeness, the vision was readily understandable to those to whom it came.  The “Sun” was Jacob, the “Moon” was Leah, and the eleven “stars” were Joseph’s brothers.  The vision was of Israel (cf. Rev.12:1).    It was not beyond their ability to comprehend God’s intentions.  This is an important component of revelation, for without it revelation is not really occurring.[5]  Joseph’s second vision is utilized in the last Book of Scripture.  The question which comes up then will be whether it has changed into the Christian Church or whether the actual tribes of Israel are still in view.  A lot is going to depend on the trajectory ones theology takes in the interim.

============================================

[1] See for example Carl B. Hoch, All Things New: The Significance of Newness for Biblical Theology

[2] Ross notices the scorn involved in the retort of Joseph’s brothers.  – Allen P. Ross, Creation and Blessing, 600

[3] Having said this one explanation is to interpret the “bowing down” in terms of the previous vision of Genesis 37:7-8 where only the brothers did obeisance to him.

[4] I think it is worth noting that in this verse we find the only mention of a throne in the Book of Genesis.  Additionally, explicit mentions of God and His kingdom are rare in the OT (2 Chron. 13:8; Psa. 103:19; 145:11-13).  This should at least be borne in mind by scholars who find a kingdom theme in the first Book of the Bible.

[5] One of my chief reasons for rejecting covenant theology is that its eschatology firmly focuses revelation on the Church and not to those to whom it originally was given.  To offset this problem covenant theology has often taught that the Church is in the Old Testament, in spite, as we shall see, of the fact that no Church qua the Body of Christ is possible without the resurrection of Christ.  This makes a nonsense of the idea of a God who reveals Himself in history, and also of progressive revelation.