Month: March 2013

parroting bad theories

Per my usual morning routine, and because I am not able to take classes anymore, I was listening to a lecture by a professor at Westminster Theological Seminary, who will remain anonymous (to protect the guilty). The course, for the past 7 seven lectures has been rather good, and I anticipate its continued goodness for the remaining 17. We’ll see how it goes.

This morning’s lecture dealt with the twin topics of revelation (not the book of) and eschatology–two topics that often grab my attention. To begin the lecture, the professor (we’ll call him, “Bob”) recapped some of the previous discussions in order to show their relevance for the current one. In the midst recapping, “Bob” raised the point about names having “significant, historical, redemptive connotations”, and that sometimes names are purposefully changed by God to reflect this reality. Moreover, the name-change signals something about the person, namely: that person is now going to be used by God in the unfolding of God’s redemptive plan.

In an effort to illustrate (or even prove) his point, “Bob” listed off some key biblical figures where he sees this purposeful name-changing thing taking place–e.g. Abram –> Abraham.¹ And then it happened. I feared it would the moment he started this line of argument, and he proved my fears correct. He mentioned the apostle Paul as an example! I nearly came out of my skin, which would be a bit gross. And messy to clean up. I have heard and read this (bad) theory many times,² and each time it provokes the same response–i.e. the coming of the skin thing. I say it’s a bad theory because it is simply not true, let alone consistent with the biblical text. And “Bob”, being a systematic theologian, should know this–i.e. he should know better.

The only passage in the NT that refers to Paul as having another name is Acts 13.9. It is true that up to this point, he has been called, “Saul” and after this point he is referred to as “Paul” (excepting Acts 22.7 and 26.14). I’ll grant that, but only that. But nothing in the text suggests either 1) that the name was changed from Saul to Paul as a result of a direct encounter with God or with some divine, redemptive-historical assignment,³ or 2) that “Paul” was not already a name by which he was known. In fact, the text simply reads: “But Saul–who [is] also Paul–being filled with the Holy Spirit…” (Σαυλος δε ὁ και Παυλος πλησθεις πνευματος ἁγιου…). Nothing about a name-change. Only that he had another name.

If such a name-change took place, as “Bob” and others parrot, and if such a changing is ordinarily linked with some divine encounter and/or redemptive-historical commissioning, then we would expect to see the Saul-Paul shift taking place after Acts 9.19 and not nearly 4 chapters later. But we don’t. And we don’t see it because it ain’t there, and it ain’t there because “Paul” was always one of his names, given to him at birth. Some 30 years prior.

¹ This theory begins to fall apart when we consider the names of Moses, Jeremiah, Isaiah, and even James (the brother of Jesus). All of these men retained their (original) names despite encountering God and/or being given specific divine commissions.
² Augustine seems to one of the earliest to suggest it (see Sermons, 225). After that, it can be found in the works of scholars, pastors, church-goers, and even skeptics–e.g. J. Stow, Reflections on the Epistles of St Paul (1847), 318; C.J. den Heyer, Paul (2000), 27; M. Dimont, Jews, God, and History (2004), 141; B. Organ, Is the Bible Fact or Fiction? (2004), 48; A. Scheil, The Footsteps of Israel (2004), 224; J. Carter, Faith (2008), 300; D. Ridges, Your Study of the New Testament (2008), 26.
³ Adolf Jülicher already made this point–see Introduction (1904), 34.

two similar quotes…

or two writers recognizing the importance of a singular point?

When commenting on a statement put out by “The Bible Literacy Project”, Joel Green says:

Encouraging study about the Bible in public schools , this document sketches possibilities for curriculum related to the Bible and literature, the Bible and history, and the Bible and world religions. As important as this project might be on its own terms, this is not reading the Bible as Scripture. . . . [T]he slogan that has driven critical study of the biblical materials–“Read the Bible as you would read any other book”–however helpful and well-intentioned, cannot on its own promote a reading of the Bible as Scripture. This way of engaging the Bible cannot sustain the people of God. This motto, I will argue, is not so much inappropriate as it is inadequate. It is not even the most important, first step to be taken.

–Joel B. Green, Seized by Truth: Reading the Bible as Scripture (2007), 2

When commenting on the significance of studying the NT in Greek, Randolph Tasker says:

the writings of the New Testament are for the most part not “literature” in the sense in which we apply that word to secular writings; and the attempt to promote the reading of it by presenting it as though it were “literature” in this sense is doomed to failure. The Gospels are meant to be read, and perhaps ought only to be read, because they contain a gospel, to accept which is man’s greatest need. If we want “literature” of an aesthetically satisfying nature, we must turn our attention elsewhere.

–R.V.G. Tasker, The Nature and Purpose of the Gospels (1944), 108

quote of the day (or why Santayana is still right)

Thus, eagerness on the part of the cities to receive marks of imperial favour, the desire of wealthy natives to attain the only form of public honour open to them, and the greed of the common people for sports and games, all combined to buttress the worship which the authorities had adopted as an instrument of government. But this was a way of expressing gratitude and admiration which the followers of Jesus could not take. The claim that was made on behalf of the emperor was irreconcilable with the sole right of Christ to the worship of men. Gradually it would come to the knowledge of the citizens that there was a sect in their midst that refused to join in the emperor-cultus. Astonishment would give place to anger. Every consideration that increased the enthusiasm of the citizens for the worship would make the attitude of the Christians more obnoxious in their eyes. The refusal would be construed into disloyalty; and both priests [of the emperor-cultus] and people would take every means in their power to overcome an obstinacy which would not only appear unreasonable and ungracious, but which might have the effect of making the city’s loyalty suspect in high quarters. The whole resources of the community would be employed to compel that conformity to the established usage which was not rendered voluntarily.

— J.T. Dean, The Book of Revelation (1915), 14

“old” vs. “new”

Early this morning, about half of the fence that divides our back garden from our neighbors’ collapsed. A couple of months ago, we thought this might eventually happen because of the poor state of the support posts–i.e. they were rotted out near the ground. Given that poor state and the 30+mph winds early this morning, the collapse was no real surprise. Unfortunate and slightly inconvenient, but not surprising. I immediately went round to the neighbors, but no one answered–presumably because it was just after 7am–so I came back to wait for a bit before trying again.

To pass the time, and waiting for the coffee to finish brewing (a slightly uneven blend of IKEA and Peruvian), I decided to read through a recent article by Bruce Baker, entitled, “Israel and the Church: The Transcendental Distinction Within the Dispensational Tradition” (Journal of Ministry and Theology 8.2 [2004]: 57-86). It didn’t take long to realize that Baker’s article is both a polemic against Progressive Dispensationalism (=PG) and an apologetic for Classical (or “Traditional”) Dispensationalism (=CD), with support from Revised (or Modified) Dispensationalism (=RD). Baker’s sparing partner throughout the article is none other than Craig Blaising, a notable advocate for PG and respectful critic of CD in particular and RD in general.

Baker chooses Blaising for what appears to be a singular purpose or reason: Blaising questions the legitimacy of Charles Ryrie’s sine qua non, specifically–as the article’s title indicates–the necessary distinction between Israel and the Church as a consistent presupposition throughout the history of Dispensationalism (which ain’t very long, by the way. The house we’re in at the moment is almost as old as Dispensationalism). In particular, Blaising sees Ryrie’s presuppositions as reflective of RD and not those held within either CD or PD. Thus, for Blaising, the problem is that Ryrie takes his (later) definition and applies to the whole of Dispensationalism as though it is universally valid and/or representative. Baker’s article, so far as I have read, essentially argues: “Nuh-uh.” I’ll have to wait to see how Baker justifies his argument in full, seeing that I have not yet finished reading it.

For now, I simply want to mention two small(ish) parts of Baker’s argument that seem a bit troublesome. First, while Baker might be able to make a case for key Dispensational presuppositions being consistently held (e.g. the Israel-Church distinction), he cannot escape the fact that such a case only works for the history of Dispensationalism. His case does not apply to and/or work for the 1800+ years that precede the emergence of Dispensationalism. At best he could appeal to Marcion (c.85–c.160 CE), who did advocate a clear separation between Christianity and Judaism, but much bigger problems arise by making such an appeal. Or Baker might follow the line of argument proffered by John Walvoord, who said: “the development of the most important doctrines took centuries” (The Rapture Question [1957], 52). However, and leaving to one side its inherent presumptions, that argument amounts to nothing more than special pleading.

And second, via Ryrie, Baker relies on Lewis Chafer–one of the early proponents of Classical Dispensationalism in the US–in order to prove the historical continuity within Dispensationalism about the Israel-Church distinction. What troubles me is that Baker emphasizes Chafer’s remark about “partial dispensationalists”–i.e. those who see God as carrying out a single plan–and says Chafer uses this “label” to describe those who adhere to Progressive Dispensationalism. Two problems here: 1) Chafer does not do that, because he can’t, because PD did not emerge until the early-1980s and Chafer died in 1952; and 2) by saying Chafer does do this, Baker becomes guilty of the very thing that Blaising criticizes Ryrie doing–i.e. applying a later definition to the whole of a system.

not a knockout punch; more of a glancing blow

In what little spare time I have at the moment, I’ve been slowly working through 2 Thessalonians, especially the eschatological section of 2Thess 2.1-12. This portion of the letter has been a veritable hotbed of debate, although for various reasons. On one extreme, since the work of Schmidt (1801), furthered by Kern (1839) and Baur (1845), most critical scholars see it as evidence that Paul did not compose the letter.¹ On another extreme, since (at least) the work of Scofield (1909), furthered by a number of Dispensational writers since then, many evangelical scholars see this passage as evidence of Paul’s knowledge of what will take place at the eschaton.

Both of these perspectives have their merits (and faults) and both should be examined carefully and honestly by all who engage with this letter. Since Paul Foster recently addressed the issues in the first extreme (see “Who Wrote 2 Thessalonians? A Fresh Look at an Old Problem,” JSNT 35.2 [2012]: 150-75), and since I agree with most of what he argues, there is no need for me to enter into that discussion. Instead, my concern here is with the second extreme, specifically the kind of knowledge that Paul had about the eschaton and the reasons why he says what he does.

I make this my focus partly because David Dean (tenuously) argues for Paul’s knowledge of these events as being chronological in nature, and it was this chronological knowledge that he imparted to the Thessalonians during his brief sojourn.² That seems to handle the “kind” question. With regard to the “reason” question, Dean sees this imparting of chronological knowledge as necessary for a right understanding of the eschaton–particularly the timing of the (so-called) “rapture.” Specifically, for Dean, the “rapture” takes place before all of the other events described and Christians can rest assured that the other events have not taken place because the “rapture” has not yet happened.

Dean makes this argument on the basis of what he sees Paul saying in 2Thess 2.1-12. By way of summary: after stating the concern (cf. 2.1-2)–i.e. a faulty teaching concerning the return of Christ–Paul exhorts the Thessalonians to remain true to what they know (cf. 2.3a). He then launches into what appear to be “signs” that will precede Christ’s return (cf. 2.3b-12)–e.g. the apostasy, the revelation of the man of lawlessness, the removal of the evil that prevails, the defeat of the man of lawlessness at Christ’s return, and judgment.³ In fact, the logical and syntactical construction of the Greek reveals a necessary causal relationship between the “signs” and Christ’s return. Paul’s remarks, therefore, could be seen as endorsing a chronology.

However, I am not so sure that Paul’s knowledge is necessarily chronological–in the strict detailed sense that Dean proposes. Specifically, I do not see Paul saying: “Before the return of Christ happens: first, there will be ‘the apostasy’; second, there will be the ‘unveiling of the “man of lawlessness” ‘; third, this ‘man’ will oppose God and exalt himself over all gods; fourth, he will take ‘his seat in the temple of God’ and claim to be God; fifth, that which prevails will be revealed and then taken out of the way; sixth, the ‘lawless one’ will be defeated by Christ; etc.” Paul’s language in this text does not come across as being that precise.

Moreover, contrary to what Scofield argued (cf. notes on 2.3) and Dean rehashes, I don’t think Paul sees all of the “events” in 2Thess 2.3b-12 as reserved exclusively for the distant future. In particular, and contrary to how the NIV, TNIV, NLT, NCV, and CEV translate it, the details pertaining to the “man of lawlessness” are not waiting to be climatically revealed (cf. 2.4); Paul’s language stresses that nearly all of the details are already taking place. In other words: the “man of lawlessness” is presently opposing (ἀντικείμενος) God; he is presently exalting (ὑπεραιρόμενος) himself over all other gods; and he does this because he has already taken his seat (καθίσαι) in the temple of God and is presently displaying (ἀποδεικνύντα) himself as God. The only detail waiting fulfillment in the future is this “man” unveiling (ἀποκαλύπτω; cf. 2.3b), which Paul goes on to describe as contemporaneous with the appearance (ἐπιφάνεια) of Christ’s return/coming/presence (παρουσία; cf. 2.8). And since the bulk of what Paul says up to 2.5 is about the man of lawlessness, the reminder in 2.5 would seem to refer to that previous teaching and not Dean’s proposed chronological eschatology.

At the very least, this creates problems for the rather absurd theories of Dispensationalists like Tim LaHaye (again) and Thomas Ice (et al), who both drone on about the birth, upbringing, ethnicity, political affiliations, and identity of this “man of lawlessness”, whom they inappropriately call the “Antichrist”. Such suggestions reveal a lack of understanding of Paul’s overall meaning and his use of apocalyptic language. The contemporaneity of the “man’s” unveiling (and subsequent defeat) and Christ’s appearing also create problems for the usual (Classic) Dispensationalist eschatological “timeline”. In particular, the contemporaneity raises serious doubts about the so-called pretribulation rapture of the saints, which is based on the more troubling notion of a two-stage return of Christ. Moreover, a “rapture of the saints” or even its (supposed) timing is not even close to being Paul’s concern–either here in 2Thess 2.1-12 or the only passage in the whole of the NT that indicates something like a “rapture”: 1Thess 4.17.

As he states at the beginning of his argument, Paul’s concern (for both the Thessalonians and anyone else who might read his letter) is about faithful patience, allegiance to truth about what God has done and will do in and through Christ, and not being swept away by speculative theories about Christ’s return. You know, theories like those (explicitly or implicitly) proposed by: Joseph Smith, William Miller, Charles T. Russell (twice), later Jehovah’s Witnesses (multiple attempts), Hal Lindsey (twice), Edgar Whisenaunt (twice), John Hinkle, Harold Camping (repeatedly), etc.

¹ The letter is dislodged from Paul’s hands on account of its (apparently) different eschatology vis-a-vis that of 1 Thessalonians. Specifically, 2Thess seems to advocate a recognizable chronological sequence of events that precede Christ’s return (cf. 2Thess 2.3-12), whereas 1Thess appears to indicate that the return will be without warning (cf. 1Thess 4.13-5.11). Moreover, while 1Thess reads as though Paul sees himself as alive when Christ returns, 2Thess gives the impression that Paul is giving up on that hope. In other words: 1Thess anticipates an imminent return (i.e. in Paul’s lifetime) whereas 2Thess allows for considerable delays (i.e. well after Paul’s death). Thus, the “consensus” for how to explain these differences is that Paul wrote 1Thess and someone writing in his name penned 2Thess.
² See “Does 2 Thessalonians 2.1-3 Exclude the Pretribulation Rapture?” (Bibliotheca Sacra 168 [2011]: 196. I plan to deal with some of the finer points of Dean’s argument in a different post.
³ Props to those who recognize the variant I proposed. Don’t worry, I have reasons for doing so; I’m not just making stuff up for the Gehenna of it.