Some Thoughts on Books on Biblical Theology

The following was written in response to a seminary 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.
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.  That said, there is a lot of useful material here.  He is not as dense as Hamilton which makes him easier to use for undergrad students.
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 Biblical Theology 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 grammatical 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 by 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, especially their “New covenant”).  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.
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 extend the spiritual temple via major figures (Noah, Abraham, the nation of Israel).  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 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” as he has it) can take center stage.
Graeme Goldsworthy – According to Plan
Very well written BT from the perspective of covenant theology.  Goldsworthy is worthy 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 get 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.
Oh, and…
T. Desmond Alexander, et al. (eds) – New Dictionary of Biblical Theology
Begins with several weighty introductory essays, all of which ought to be read.  Then moves through the biblical books, generally with great competence (though premillennialists will have to move more carefully).  Then there is a large section dealing with the topics raised by BT.  Definitely slanted towards covenant theology, but broad enough to be of real help to everyone.  A great standby.

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.

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

I have been made aware that a group of New covenant theologians have discussed some my list of forty arguments for not reading the New Testament back into the Old Testament.  I intend to write a Response soon.  But I thought it worthwhile to repost the original list.  I have yet to encounter a serious attempt to refute these Reasons.

Introduction

It seems to be almost an axiom within contemporary, evangelical Bible interpretation that the New Testament must be allowed to reinterpret the Old Testament. That is, the New Testament is believed to have revelatory priority over the Old Testament, so that it is considered the greatest and final revelation. And because the NT is the final revelation of Jesus Christ, the only proper way to understand the OT is with the Christ of the NT directing us. Though proponents of this hermeneutic may define “reinterpret” with slippery words like “expansion” or “foreshadowing,” they are still insisting the OT can be, and in some cases, should be, reinterpreted through the lens of the NT.
Not unusually the admission is made that the original recipients of the OT covenants and promises would not have conceived of God fulfilling His Word to them in the ways in which we are often told the NT demands they were fulfilled. This belief in the interpretative priory of the NT over the OT is accepted as “received truth” by a great many evangelical scholars and students today. But there are corollaries which are often left unexplored or ill-considered. Did the prophets of the OT speak and write in a sort of Bible Code which had to be picked through and deciphered by Apostolic authors resulting in hazy allusions and unanticipated concretizations of what seemed to be unambiguous language? Did God speak to men in times past in symbolic language so that we today could unravel what He really meant? Doesn’t this strongly imply that the OT was not really for them, but for us?

Here are forty reasons (there could be more but it’s a good number) why a student of the Bible should not adopt the common tactic of reading the New Testament back into the Old, with the resultant outcome that the clear statements of the Old Testament passages in context are altered and mutated to mean something which, without universal prevenient prophetic inspiration, no Old Testament saint (or New Testament saint who did not have access to the right Apostolic books) could have known.

In presenting these objections to the reinterpretation of OT passages by favored interpretations of the NT I am not throwing down the gauntlet to anyone. If someone wishes to respond to these objections I would be fascinated to read what they have to say. But no one is under pressure to agree with me. However, I hope these forty reasons will be given thoughtful consideration by anybody who comes across them.

I believe, of course, that the NT does throw much light upon the OT text. But it never imposes itself upon the OT in such a way as to essentially treat it as a sort of ‘palimpsest’ over which an improved NT message must be inscribed. By way of illustration, there are huge ramifications in making a dubious allusion in John 7:38 to Zechariah 14:8 a basis for a doctrine of the expansion of the spiritual temple over the face of the earth. Such a questionable judgment essentially evaporates huge amounts of OT material from, e.g., Numbers 25; Psalm 106; Isaiah 2; 33; 49; Jeremiah 30-33; Ezekiel 34; 36-37; 40-48; Amos 9; Micah 4-5; Zephaniah 3; Zechariah 2; 6; 8; 12-14; and Malachi 3, as well as all those other passages which intersect with them. I believe that the cost is too high as well as quite unnecessary.

With that introduction in mind, here, then, are my forty objections for consideration:

1. Neither Testament instructs us to reinterpret the OT by the NT. Hence, we venture into uncertain waters when we allow this. No Apostolic writer felt it necessary to place in our hands this hermeneutical key, which they supposedly used when they wrote the NT.

2. Since the OT was the Bible of the Early Christians it would mean no one could be sure they had correctly interpreted the OT until they had the NT. In many cases this deficit would last for a good three centuries after the first coming of Jesus Christ.

3. If the OT is in need of reinterpretation because many of its referents (e.g. Israel, land, king, throne, priesthood, temple, Jerusalem, Zion, etc.) in actual fact refer symbolically to Jesus and the NT Church, then these OT “symbols” and “types” must be seen for what they are in the NT. But the NT never does plainly identify the realities and antitypes these OT referents are said to point towards. Thus, this assumption forces the NT into saying things it never explicitly says (e.g. that the Church is “the New Israel,” the “land” is the new Creation, or the seventh day Sabbath is now the first day “Christian Sabbath”).

4. Furthermore, this approach forces the OT into saying things it really does not mean (e.g. Ezekiel 43:1-7, 10-12).

5. It would require the Lord Jesus to have used a brand new set of hermeneutical rules in, e.g., Lk. 24:44; rules not accessible until the arrival of the entire NT, and not fully understood even today. These would have to include rules for each “genre”, which would not have been apparent to anyone interpreting the OT on its own terms.

6. If the OT cannot be interpreted without the NT then what it says on its own account cannot be trusted, as it could well be a “type,” or even part of an obtuse redemptive state of affairs to be alluded to and reinterpreted by the NT.

7. Thus, it would mean the seeming clear predictions about the Coming One in the OT could not be relied upon to present anything but a typological/symbolic picture which would need deciphering by the NT. The most clearly expressed promises of God in the OT (e.g. Jer. 31:31f.; 33:15-26; Ezek. 40-48; Zech. 14:16-21) would be vulnerable to being eventually turned into types and shadows.

8. It would excuse anyone (e.g. the scribes in Jn. 5:35f.) for not accepting Jesus’ claims based on OT prophecies – since those prophecies required the NT to reinterpret them. Therefore, the Lord’s reprimand of the scribes in the context would have been unreasonable.

9. Any rejection of this, with a corresponding assertion that the OT prophecies about Christ did mean what they said, would create the strange hermeneutical paradox of finding clear, plain-sense testimony to Christ in the OT while claiming the OT cannot be interpreted without the NT. One could not maintain this position without calling the whole assumption under review.

10. The divining of these OT types and shadows is no easy task, especially as the NT does not provide any specific help on the matter. NT scholarship has never come to consensus on these matters, let alone “the common people” to whom the NT was purportedly written.

11. Thus, this approach pulls a “typological shroud” over the OT, denying to its Author the credit of meaning what He says and saying what He means (e.g. what does one make of the specificity of Jer. 33:14-26 or Zeph. 3:9-20?).

12. If the Author of the OT does not mean what He appears to say, but is in reality speaking in types and shadows, which He will apparently reveal later, what assurance is there that He is not still speaking in types and shadows in the NT? Especially is this problem intensified because many places in the NT are said to be types and shadows still (e.g. the Temple in 2 Thess. 2 and Rev. 11).

13. This view imposes a “unity” on the Bible which is symbolic and metaphorical only. Hence, taking the Bible in a normal, plain-sense should destroy any unity between the Testaments. What we mean by “normal, plain-sense” is the sense scholars advocating this view take for granted their readers will adopt with them, which we would identify as “literal.”

14. However, a high degree of unity can be achieved by linking together the OT and NT literature in a plain-sense, even though every question the interpreter may have will not be answered. Hence, this position that the NT must reinterpret the OT ignores or rejects the fact that, taken literally (in the sense defined above) the OT makes good sense. But in ignoring this truth, Christians may pull down upon themselves the same kind of accusations of defensive special-pleading which they accuse religions like Islam and Mormonism of using.

15. Saying the types and shadows in the OT (which supposedly include the land given to Israel, the throne in Jerusalem, the temple of Ezekiel, etc.), are given their proper concrete meanings by the NT implies neither the believer nor the unbeliever can comprehend God’s promises solely from the OT.

16. Thus, no unbeliever could be accused of unbelief so long as they only possessed the OT, since the apparatus for belief (the NT) was not within their grasp.

17. This all makes mincemeat of any claim for the perspicuity of Scripture. At the very least it makes this an attribute possessed only by the NT, and only tortuous logic could equate the word “perspicuity” to such wholesale symbolic and typological approaches.

18. Thus, the OT is deprived of its own hermeneutical integrity. This would render warnings such as that found in Proverbs 30:5-6 pointless, since the meaning of the OT words must be added to in order to find their concrete references.

19. A corollary to this is that the authority of the OT to speak in its own voice is severely undermined.

20. In consequence of the above the status of the OT as “Word of God” would be logically inferior to the status of the NT. The result is that the NT (which refers to the OT as the “Word of God”) is more inspired than the OT, producing the unwelcome outcome of two levels of inspiration.

 

“A Possible Problem with Your Reasoning”

I am in the middle of several things right now, but I had the idea of rehearsing a recent interchange with some CT’s and adding a few reflections.  I think it typifies what I tend to run into when trying to communicate my reservations about CT.  I kick it off with a remark made by my main interlocutor about God’s way of communicating.  He declared that,   

God may do other than what the original audience understood. God’s promises will be fulfilled exactly in the way He intended.

I replied with: “Well, that’s the trouble isn’t it? If God raised expectations in the OT which He didn’t intend to carry through, doesn’t that make Him an ambiguous communicator at best (recall Jer. 33:17-26!), and disingenuous at worse?

I then added:

What inside line does —— have that our understanding of God’s promises in the NT won’t be “other” than what we are led to understand? And how are we to put faith in the words?”

My CT interlocutor came back with (numerals and highlighting added):

To suggest that someone’s position you disagree with makes God disingenuous seems desperate. To imagine that every audience understood God’s intentions is naive.  (1) The first disciples of Jesus after three years with Him didn’t get it. (2) There’s only trouble if one is looking for expectations which weren’t the intention of the original author. Did God raise expectations or did the audience? God doesn’t carry out everyone’s expectations. (3) We know for a fact that the Jews of Jesus day had expectations they read into the prophecies. Jesus overturned them and clarified them as did the apostles. Many in His day were looking for a restored national kingdom. Jesus inaugurated His kingdom according to His Father’s will not according to human expectations.  (4) As I said, God may do more than what was understood or expected. God’s promises to us now may be “other” than what we understand. They may be more. They won’t be less.

My reflections:

(1) What is it that Jesus’ disciples didn’t get?  According to the Gospels it was that He would have to die (e,g, Mk. 9:31-32; Matt. 16:21-24; Lk. 9:44-45), NOT that the kingdom, when it came, would be other than a literal restored nation of Israel.  There’s no hint of that.  Not a sausage.  Somebody’s ignoring the context.

(2) He dodged my question by pretending that it was the recipients’ fault that they had false expectations from God’s words.  This would imply also that their faith was false and misguided.  They believed the wrong thing!  But if God wanted us to have faith in Him, how else could He ensure it apart from communicating with words that would guarantee our trust was in the right thing?  If He promised over and over that Israel would be redeemed and restored to their land, which would become like Eden; where Christ would reign from Jerusalem, and God’s sanctuary would be a magnet for all peoples (cf. e.g., Isa. 11; Jer. 33; Ezek. 36-37; Zech.14), wouldn’t that be what was to be believed?  In what world would we be expected to believe anything else?

Notice the example I gave: I said “recall Jer. 33:17-26!”  If God did not mean exactly what He said in this passage, how could anyone be sure He means anything He says anywhere?  Indeed, isn’t that the very conclusion God wants us to come to after reading the passage? If someone will answer, “of course not, He meant that all of this is fulfilled in the Church”,  then the burden of proof has to be on them to explain how God did not raise false expectations.

(3) Notice the dogmatism here.  The expectations of the Jews about the kingdom were wrong.  Jesus set up the kingdom according to the Father’s will but not according to the expectations of the Jews.  Okay, but who raised the expectations?  That the Jews didn’t have it all right is clear (especially their need of righteousness).  But they had a lot right, and nowhere in the NT are we told that Jesus inaugurated the promised kingdom.  In fact, the Lord often talked about the kingdom as future.

Do you have expectations that your sins will be utterly wiped away and you will be given a glorious body and everlasting life?  Who raised those expectations?  Did you?  Did God? How do you know you have eternal life?  Is it not by trusting that God means what He said in the words you are trusting?

(4) For sure God may do more than we expect, but can He do completely differently than what He leads us to expect?

Another CT chipped in with this objection:

(1) Didn’t Jesus, make clear in John 16:25, that he said these things in figures of speech.  (2) They were still expecting him to setup the kingdom at this time (Acts 1:6). (3) They studied, carefully and they still did not understand how Christ’s promises and covenants would be fulfilled (1 Peter 1:10-12).

(4) Is not the purpose of prophecy and promises, not that we fully understand them today, but that when they are fulfilled, we can validate them against the Word of God?  

(1) John 16 has nothing to do with the kingdom.  This is textual transplantation at its worse.

(2) Yes, the disciples were expecting the kingdom, since Jesus had been teaching them all about it (Acts 1:3).  But they asked about the time when He would set up the expected kingdom.  Jesus only corrected them on the timing, not on the expectation.  The inference made by CT that they were mistaken in their understanding of the kingdom finds no foothold in Acts 1.

(3) I Peter 1 is not about the promised kingdom.  Again a text is being misused.

(4) The irony of this statement was entirely lost on my opponent.  How can any “fulfillment” be checked against the Word of God if the words of the original prediction do not match it?  Isn’t that precisely the problem CT interpretation raises?  The point is, the original words of the prophecy can’t be used to verify the fulfillment because it was “fulfilled” differently!

As I said in a comment (slightly edited): “how can one test a prophet whose “prophecy” turns out to be “fulfilled” in a way totally different than the words he used in the prediction?  How can the tests of a true prophet be of any use? In fact we can go further. What is the use of even declaring that such and such will happen if it all turns out so utterly differently?   The OT Prophets might just as well have said nothing for all the use it was.” (more…)

Replacement Theology: Is it Wrong to Use the Term? (Pt.9)

Part Eight

This is the final post in this series, the purpose of which has been to ask whether “replacement theology” and “supercessionism” correctly describe what some theologies, covenant theology especially, do with the nation of Israel and its OT promises in teaching fulfillment through “transformation” into Christ and the church.  I am not saying that every CT (or NCT) will want to see themselves undercover of these names, only that the names fairly describe this aspect of the way these good people interpret the NT’s use of the OT.

We have seen that replacement theology exists.  I have shown that some CT’s actually use the term “replace” (or “supercessionism”) to describe their approach in their own works, and that they recommend books that unashamedly use it.  More anecdotally, I have encountered this opinion many times in conversations.

Of course, replacement theology is not confined to orthodox Reformed covenantalism, but they are the ones whose books and lectures I know best.  In this tradition, it is common to view the history of Israel as primarily a structural learning device; a tool for teaching the Christian church through narrative and type; a “means to an end” as R. Scott Clark put it.

A Third Kind of Replacementism

What is engendered by this is an elevation of the NT above the OT, even though the NT relies on the OT in large part for its validation.  A dual-level understanding of revelation is created in the mind (often as not it goes unnoticed), wherein the voice of the OT is always recirculated through the voice of the NT.  This fosters a third variety of replacementism, this time involving the original voice of the OT in its context.  That voice is stifled and re-transmitted through a particular understanding of the NT and its function.  What results is what OT scholar John Sailhamer called a “devaluation of the Old Testament.”  He reminds us that,

We must remember that those who first saw Jesus did not have a NT version of Jesus to compare with the OT.  They had only the version of Jesus they knew, or knew about, to compare with the OT.  Their comparison was later enshrined textually as the NT against the background of the OT.  It was the end result of much reflection on the meaning of the OT Scriptures not the NT. – John H. Sailhamer, The Meaning of the Pentateuch, 555

Additionally, the dissemination of the writings of the NT has often not been given much thought by those whose theological picture is informed by a hermeneutical determinism (i.e. the OT is interpreted through the NT) which was quite impossible for first century Christians.  Put bluntly, these saints did not have a NT to interpret the OT with!  What the most fortunate of them did have was a Gospel or two and several letters.  But this was comparatively rare.

Another by-product of this is what R. Kendall Soulen has labelled “Israel-forgetfulness”.  In his own words,

To recall, the model’s foreground is the sequence of episodes that constitute the standard model’s overarching plot: God’s creation of Adam and Eve for the purpose of consummation, the fall, redemption in Christ through the church, the final judgment and final consummation.  Although the model’s foreground is by definition not identical with the model as a whole, it does depict how God’s consummating and redemptive purposes engage humankind in universal and enduring ways.  The foreground can therefore be said to encapsulate what the standard model depicts as theologically decisive for a Christian reading of the Bible.  The difficulty, of course, is that the foreground wholly omits the Hebrew Scriptures with the exception of Genesis 1-3. – R. Kendall Soulen, The God of Israel and Christian Theology, 49

Put more simply, by only requiring a minimal grounding in the soil of the OT because of the perceived superiority of the NT, the “standard model” (i.e. supercessionism) forgets about God’s enduring commitments to Israel in the OT, and by the adoption of typological understandings of that relation, feels no need to find its roots in those commitments.  The resultant theology will be actual, conceptual or “original voice” replacementism.  That original voice is a covenantally supported voice, and formal covenants of the kind God made with Noah, Abraham, Phinehas and David are not subject to change, “expansion”, “transformation”, and certainly not “transferal.”  Once set down and sealed by a solemn oath, they are hermeneutically fixed forever.  It is this very fixity which, I hold, provides the basis for biblical interpretation.  Since these covenants are in the OT, the NT cannot (and I argue does not) reimagine them in any way.

I should add here that Dispensationalists normally would never follow me here, and I would never follow them in their advancing of “stewardships” above covenants.  This is a big reason why I call myself a Biblical Covenantalist.

Matthew 21:43

Several times we have seen that Matthew 21:43 is used by CT’s to teach that God has done with Israel as a nation, and now the “kingdom” is given to the church.  Within such an interpretation there is no wiggle-room for saying the church expands Israel or grows out of it.  The “kingdom” is given to another “nation.”  There is no organic identity between the one nation and the one that replaces it.  G.K. Beale, for instance, in his interpretation of Matthew 21:41, employs Matthew 21:43 to mean that,

Jesus… interprets this to mean that ‘the kingdom of God will be taken away from you [Israel] and given to a people, producing the fruit of it. – A New Testament Biblical Theology, 673. (N.B. The insertion of [Israel] is by Beale).

Speaking of the same text on page 680 he writes of Jesus, “rejecting ethnic national Israel as God’s true people.” Furthermore, he interprets the stone cut out without hands, which smashes the image in Daniel 2 as smashing, “the ungodly nations, which also includes Israel.” (682).  In Part Two I cited Greg Durand using Matthew 21:43 this way. In Part Four Hans LaRondelle was shown using it the same way. (more…)

Replacement Theology: Is it Wrong to Use the Term? (Pt.8)

Part Seven

My stated intention in these posts is to try to settle whether or not it is proper to speak in terms of theologies of supercessionism or replacement theology.  It is not my design to argue for the opposite view (which I have done many times before).  I am coming towards the end of my article, with probably one post left to go.  I said that I wanted to take a look at two OT passages to discover how those holding to one or more forms of supercessionism handle them.

Jeremiah 31:31-37

The first passage is the famous New covenant prophecy in Jeremiah 31:31-34.  It involves a prediction of cleansing and salvation for Israel and Judah and their reunification.  The passage is repeated in Hebrews 8:8-12.  But attached to the original prophecy is a crystal clear guarantee that if man can tinker with the ordinances of creation,which stand fast (Psa. 33:9), “then the seed of Israel shall also cease from being a nation before Me forever.” (Jer. 31:36).  That sounds like a rock solid affirmation of the perpetuity of the existence of Israel as a nation!  

But God then underscores the promise by speaking of His secret counsels (cf. Deut. 29:29) in establishing the dimensions of the heavens and earth, and stating that if human beings can fathom them then Israel as a distinct people will be cast off for their disobedience (31:37).  Yet this is exactly what several of the writers I have quoted have claimed.

How do covenant theologians (whose theology is usually identified with replacementism), deal with verses 35 to 37?

Gary DeMar writes,

Jeremiah’s prophecy was given more than 2500 years ago. Prior to 1948 and after A.D. 70, Israel had not been a nation. So we have a few interpretive choices regarding the Jeremiah passage: (1) God lied (impossible); (2) the promise was conditional (not likely); the promise was postponed (always the dispensationalist answer and untenable); (4) or the fulfillment was fulfilled in the new nation that grew out of the New Covenant made up of Jews and non-Jews(most likely). Consider what Jesus tells the religious leaders of His day:

“Therefore I say to you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a nation, producing the fruit of it. And he who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; but on whomever it falls, it will scatter him like dust. When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard His parables, they understood that He was speaking about them” (Matt. 21:43–45). – https://americanvision.org/5657/the-charge-of-replacement-theology-is-a-cover-for-fuzzy-theology/

DeMar ignores the details of the vow God made and moves straight to sort through the alternatives as he envisions them, using Matthew 21:43-45 to transform the unconditional language of continuity (remember Jer. 33:37) into conditional language threatening termination.  The NT is brought in to nullify the solemn vow of God in the OT.  Is that how Scripture should be used to interpret Scripture?  One might employ a little irony here by pointing out that if one waits long enough God will change the apparent meaning of what He has said, no matter how strongly it was put, and the expectations will change along with it.  As Michael Brown has observed in his commentary on “Jeremiah” in the revised Expositor’s Bible Commentary, this dissolves any fixity of meaning in Divine Revelation.  Can Jeremiah 31 really be redirected by Matthew 21? or is DeMar guilty of trivializing a Divine pledge?

Notice the equivocation on the word “nation” in DeMar.  When he writes of a “new nation” growing out of the New covenant does he reference the promise of national and ethnic permanence which accompany it?  He does not.  Israel the nation becomes “Israel” the “nation.”

Jeremiah 33:14-26

As if to drive His covenant dependability home, this long section, which begins with a prediction of the Messianic rule from Jerusalem (not New Jerusalem) over a righteous earth, proceeds with a promise that the Davidic covenant and the ministration of the Levites (doubtless related to the covenant with Phinehas in Num. 25:10-13) will continue (33:17-18).  This is followed by avowals of fidelity to the Davidic covenant and the Priestly covenant based on God’s constancy to the Noahic covenant (cf. Gen.8:21-22) and then the creation ordinances (Jer. 33:19-22).

What appears next is most informative for our discussion:

Have you not considered what these people have spoken, saying, ‘The two families which the LORD has chosen, He has also cast them off’? Thus they have despised My people, as if they should no more be a nation before them. – Jeremiah 33:24

In replacement theology, the very thing that is at issue is the continuance of Israel as a nation.  And that is what this form of theology denies!  Another instance of this is when John Frame expressly says that through unbelief Israel “lost its special status as God’s elect nation.” – The Doctrine of God, 49 n. 3.

Jeremiah closes off his chapter by reiterating the fixity of God’s purposes for ethnic Israel (33:25-26).  How do CT’s respond to such a God-proffered bond?  I’m afraid they regularly ignore Jeremiah 33:14-26 completely.  But there it sits, witnessing against them. (more…)

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

 

Replacement Theology: Is it Wrong to Use the Term? (Pt.7)

Part Six

Gary Burge: Replacement Theologian

The name of Gary Burge  of Wheaton College is familiar to many Christians who teach eschatology that includes the restoration of the remnant of the nation of Israel, but not for positive reasons. His positions on Israel, fueled in large part by his associations with the anti-Israel group Kairos USA, Naim Ateek, Stephen Sizer, and Pro-Palestinianism in general, hardly encourage fuzzy feelings.  On the theological front, Burge freely speaks of spiritualizing and reinterpreting Scripture.  Not surprisingly, Burge is a convinced replacement theologian.

For as we shall see (and as commentators regularly show) while the land itself had a concrete application for most in Judaism, Jesus and his followers reinterpreted the promises that came to those in his kingdom. – Gary M. Burge, Jesus and the Land, 35

In this quote Burge claims that although the land given to Israel was “concrete” for Jews in ancient times, still the OT covenant promises to Israel were reinterpreted by Jesus.  How were they reinterpreted?  In an article written for the I. Howard Marshall festshrift, Jesus of Nazareth: Lord and Christ, (edited by Joel B. Green and Max Turner), Burge enlarges on this theme.  His piece is entitled, “Territorial Religion, Johannine Christology, and the Vineyard of John 15.”  In this article Burge starts off writing about the importance of land ownership in the ancient world (386).  His introduction is a restatement of the work of W.D. Davies’ called The Gospel and the Land.  Basically, the idea is that in Jesus the “landless” become the “landed” and the other way round.  There is very little appeal to Scripture in these pages (e.g. 384-388), and what is used is misused.  But he procures a thesis:

For the most part the NT does not view The Land as the object of messianic promise.  Typically, Stephen’s speech in Acts 7 seems to reject ‘land messianism’ outright.  Revelation and salvation can be found anywhere from Egypt to Mesopotamia, according to Stephen. – Gary M. Burge, “Territorial Religion”, 388

He continues by claiming that the Land is frequently “spiritualized” (his word), giving Hebrews 4 as an example, where, as Burge thinks, the land of Canaan as a type of heaven receives such treatment (Ibid).  According to Burge,

John uses the concrete gifts of The Land (Jerusalem’s temple with its festivals, Israelite cities, and holy places) in order to show that what these places promise can be found in abundance in Christ… Jesus replaces the temple and its festivities as the place where God is revealed.  Simply put, Jesus is the new “holy space” where God can be discovered. (388).

This sets him up for his study of the Vineyard in John 15.  His approach is summarized when he says, “The crux for John 15 is that Jesus is changing the place of rootedness for Israel.” (393, emphasis in original).  This means that instead of the land of Israel being the place of “revelation and salvation” and “rootedness”, these are to be found in the “one vine growing in [God’s] vineyard” (393), therefore, “Attachment to this vine and this vine alone gives the benefits of life once promised through The Land.” (394).  From this theological springboard we are told that,

In a way reminiscent of diaspora Judaism, Jesus points away from the vineyard as place, as a territory of hills and valleys, cisterns and streams.  In a word, Jesus spiritualizes The Land. (395, emphasis in original).

No one will disagree that Jesus is the one vine through whom salvation comes, but whether this leads one to spiritualize the land (and the covenants) is another matter. Not surprisingly, Burge utilizes Mark 12:9 to teach that “Israel’s vineyard is devastated… [and] given to others” (396). (more…)

“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.