Biblical-theology

still missing the point

I recently began reading a book by Alistair Donaldson on the problems with Dispensationalism (see pic). screen-shot-2017-01-12-at-11-20-40I’m about half-way through and it’s been a fair treatment of the subject so far; I’ll have to wait and see if these things hold true till the end. Two things have been encouraging about the book: (1) much of what Donaldson argues is in line with a number of conclusions that I’ve reached on my own on this topic; thus, it’s good to know that I’m in good company in my thinking. And (2) Donaldson clarifies a vital need when talking about Dispensationalism, and that is: most discussions tend to say, “Dispensationalism has come so far from its origins, and a number of scholars–even Dispensational ones–are showing how the classical form is no longer viable or even biblical. So there’s no real need to debate or look at the older forms of Dispensationalism.”

But the problem is, as Donaldson points out, that recognition is almost exclusively a scholarly perspective. In other words: scholars are the ones who have accepted the advances made; the classical (and even modified) form of Dispensationalism still exists and is taught in many churches, and thus still finds is way into popular Christianity. Therefore, while we are safe to exclude treatments of the older version when talking about it at the scholarly level, there is still a need to include them at the popular level. Here is a case in point:

Over at Beliefnet.com (a site that I only know about in a passing way, which is to say: I try to avoid it as much as possible), Lesli White composed an article entitled, “5 Important Facts About Jesus’ Second Coming”. Sounds intriguing, to be sure. The tagline is (an attempt to be) equally captivating: “While we don’t know every detail, The Word promises these five things will happen when Jesus returns again.” Sounds promising. Except for one thing. Some of what she lists is not what “The Word promises…will happen when Jesus returns again”, rather it’s what Dispensationalism (because of its idiosyncratic and flawed hermeneutic) promises will happen. To be sure, the general points in her list do parallel the teaching of the NT–e.g., Jesus’ coming from heaven, our complete ignorance about the timing, the return will be obvious, and the second will be different from the first. But the parallels stop there. On the surface. Once we start to dig into the specifics of her individual points, we encounter not only a Dispensationally marinated theology but also some basic problems/flaws/inconsistencies.

For example: White’s second point proceeds–without justification, mind you (but that’s the old Dispy’s MO)–with the assumption that “While the two are often confused, the second coming is not the rapture”, and then goes on to explain why the two are meant to be kept separate. Hence, White is advocating a two-stage Second Coming of Christ–one where he sort of comes back, but not really; and a second (/third), where he means it this time. Not only that, but White proceeds on the (equally unproven) assumption that “the church” is a completely separate entity in God’s salvation plan–and by that it is meant, “the church” is neither the Jews nor the Gentiles (i.e., the unbelieving world). By implication from the rest of what she says in this point, this means: at the so-called “rapture”, the church alone is rescued while everyone else is screwed and has to endure 7 years of “wrath” and “great tribulation.” Sorry, but neither of these two teachings is not found in the NT; they are especially not found in (or even supported by) texts like 1 Thess 4.13-18 or (I’m assuming she meant to write) 1 Cor 15.50-54. These ideas, however, are two of the essential pillars for Dispensationalism, so one can easily find them there. And only there.

White’s third point also has some concerns. Two are worth mentioning. First, she is very cautious in how she chooses to word her claims. When talking about the unexpectedness of the event, White focuses her attention on “the return” of Christ. While (seemingly) benign to most everyone else in the church, this phrasing is necessary for the Dispensationalist system of interpretation, which in turn formulates the Dispensationalist’s theology. By focusing on “the return” as an unknown event, White is emphasizing the so-called “rapture” and not Jesus’ (final-and-I-really-mean-it-this-time) Second Coming. Thus, for the Dispy, at the word level: “return” = “rapture”. And she has to follow this notion, partly because, of the two events (wrongly) assumed to be a part of Christ’s two-stage coming, the so-called “rapture” is the only one that is described as unknown, unannounced, without warning, blah, blah, blah. And the other part is because, if this event (supposedly) precedes Jesus’ (final-and-I-really-mean-it-this-time) Second Coming, all one needs is simple math to work out when the Second Coming will take place–i.e., 7 years after the so-called rapture–thus making it a known event. That’s the first cocnern in her point. The second one is easier stated: the passage she ropes in to support her case (Matt 24.36) not only says nothing about a so-called rapture–either before it or after it–but also is, as Dispys typically argue, focused on the Second Coming.

And that brings me to the final¹ concern in White’s case. In her fourth point, White is correct in describing the return of Christ as “visible and audible”. This is a breath of fresh air from the otherwise dank claims of older Dispensationalism which tends to advocate a “secret rapture” (cf. this). But the relief stops there, for White immediately launches into a treatment that leaves one rather puzzled. I say that because, in speaking of Christ’s “return” we are left with the impression that White is still referring to the so-called “rapture”–an impression that is encouraged by references to texts like 1 Thess 4.16, a passage that some have rightly defined as “one of the noisiest” in the NT.² But right alongside this are references that Dispys typically use to speak about not the so-called “rapture” but Christ’s final Coming–i.e., Matt 24.26-27, 31, and (from the previous point) 36. This would suggest, at the very least, that White–in her exuberance to make a point–accidentally conflated the two ideas into one. Or it would at least suggest that the (wrongly) assumed two-stage Coming of Christ is not as important or necessary or clear-cut as White so adamantly claimed in an earlier point. Or, at best, it would begin to expose the fact that Dispys have no biblical case for a two-stage Coming of Christ, but that they have to make such a case in order to sustain an idiosyncratic and flawed hermeneutic–one that created a rather idiosyncratic and flawed theological perspective³–and in making such a case, they simply get things wrong. And they get things wrong, because they’re missing the point: the final Coming of Christ is not about the rapture. Not even close. It’s about so much more.

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¹ Well, the “final” one to be noted here.
² S. Wohlberg, End Time Delusions (2004), 22.
³ My problem with Dispensationalism, especially the Classical and Modified/Revised forms of it, is twofold: it surreptitiously (1) questions the  NT writers as inspired advocates of God’s truth, and ultimately (2) downplays the full scope of Christ’s salvific, redemptive, atoning, and fulfilling work.

review of Mark A. Howell’s commentary

Well, it’s been over a year (I think) since I agreed to perform a review of a commentary in a new(ish) series. The commentary is from Mark A. Howell* entitled, Exalting Jesus in 1 & 2 Thessalonians, and the series is called: Christ-Centered Exposition (NT), from B&H Publishing. The really, really long review is available here (…it’s 35 pages). The reason for the length? The honest answer is: the commentary is saturated with problems–e.g., typographical, logical, exegetical, theological, etc–and it took some time to work through them. (In fact, I had to make a decision to stop writing the review). And by “work through them” I mean, point them out and explain why they are problematic. If you want the short version about the commentary: it’s not one that I would recommend. If you want to know why I say that, you’ll have to read the review.

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* Right before posting this, I discovered an error in the review: Howell is no longer the Pastor at First Baptist (Daytona, FL); in July of this year, he became the Pastor at Hunters Glen Baptist (Plano, TX). However, I have decided to keep the details as I have them in the review, primarily because they reflect things as they were at the time of writing it.

a curious appeal

At present, we (our church) are doing a sermon series entitled: “Credo: Faith and Identity.” It’s a seven week series that runs through confession of the Apostle’s Creed. (In short: it’s a “what we believe” series). While preparing for the various topics, I refreshed myself on some of the common misconceptions about each point in the Creed, and I did this so that I could help our people become aware of such things. For the one on the Holy Spirit, I naturally defaulted to the views of the “Jehovah’s” Witnesses–since they are a modern group who flat out deny the personhood and (true) deity of the Spirit (see here).

What I found intriguing in their denying explanation is the first entry under their “Misconceptions” section, and entry that deals specifically with the personhood issue. As you can see (if you clicked on the link), the JWs declare: “Misconception: The ‘Holy Ghost,’ or holy spirit, is a person and is part of the Trinity, as stated at 1 John 5:7, 8 in the King James version of the Bible.” There are a handful of problems with this assumed misconception–not least of which are the underlying assumptions about the KJV (and the JWs incessant use of it as a reliable text)–but I’ll leave those alone for now. The thing that struck me was the response or rebuttal the JWs gave to this so-called misconception:

Fact: The King James version of the Bible includes at 1 John 5:7, 8 the words “in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one. And there are three that bear witness in earth.” However, researchers have found that those words were not written by the apostle John and so do not belong in the Bible. Professor Bruce M. Metzger wrote: “That these words are spurious and have no right to stand in the New Testament is certain.”—A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament.

Okay, yes, what is claimed here is indeed factual. And it’s primarily factual because of the inferior (=crappy) manuscript testimony that undergirds the KJV translation. But let’s be fair and honest (and not merely selective with our “facts”): scholars have known this detail for ages. So, nothing new here; move on, please. Moreover, simply referring to this passage and pairing it with some inflated rhetoric does not deal with the assumed misconception in a convincing way. So, you’re going to need something more.

That “something more” would seem to be the JWs peculiar appeal to Metzger as their supporting voice for denying the personhood and deity of the Spirit in particular and the doctrine of the Trinity in general. True, Metzger–in nearly everything he writes on that passage–does say it is not a part of the original (or best/earliest) manuscripts and is most likely a (much) later addition. But again: so what? Scholars have known that for years. Even Erasmus knew about it. But here why I find their appeal peculiar:

There are many other passages in the New Testament which reveal how deeply the Trinitarian pattern was impressed upon the thinking of primitive Christianity. Thus, besides the direct and obvious statements in Matt 28:19 and II Cor 13:14, there are texts as I Cor 6:11, 12:4-[6]; II Cor 1.21-22; Gal 3:11-14; I Thess 5:18-19; I Pet 1:2; and others.[*] (Because the manuscript evidence of I John 5:7-8, King James Version, is insufficient, this text should not be used. There is, however, abundant proof for the doctrine of the Trinity elsewhere in the New Testament.)

That quote (with emphasis added) comes from… You guessed it: Bruce M. Metzger. And the source: a rather polemical article entitled, “Jehovah’s Witnesses and Jesus Christ”, found in Theology Today 10.1 (1953): 65-85. It would seem counterproductive (and counter-intuitive) to rope in someone to support your case when that someone utterly contradicts (and rejects) the very case you’re trying to make. Moreover, Metzger was adamantly opposed to the hermeneutical gymnastics that JWs perform in order to justify the claims they often make–and not just about Trinitarian doctrine.

On a slightly different tact, I find it odd that on both their Holy Spirit page (noted above) and their Trinity page (see here), they do not engage with any of the texts that Metzger cites–instead they focus on only a very small handful which they have already deemed questionable. And while they do have these texts in their “translation”, in each case the reference to the Spirit is downplayed–i.e., it’s always lower case (because they think the Holy Spirit is a thing [an impersonal force] and not a person). But that is highly suggestive of the fact that they are allowing an existing theological presupposition to determine the interpretation of the texts that deal with a given topic, and thus interpret those texts a way that favors or supports their existing theological presupposition. That’s eisegesis. And in hermeneutics: eisegesis is bad.

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[*] Metzger provides a footnote to JND Kelly’s book, Early Christian Creeds (1950) for the interested reader to find a more extensive list of texts supporting a Trinitarian view.

cracks in the dam(?)

Dedicated readers of this blog will know at least two things: 1) I am poor at posting consistently, and 2) a number of posts have dealt with the problems of plagiarism. Many of the instances of plagiarism I highlight tend to come from students who either fail to abide by the rules of proper citation or are ill-informed about such rules, or from (more or less) popular writers/authors–and often for similar reasons. In the main, I can excuse such things because they can be seen as rookie mistakes. Thus, I tend to get over those instances rather quickly. I see it. I gripe about it (usually to myself, sometimes here). And then I move on.

But there are times when I don’t move on as quickly. And these times are related to when I discover plagiarism in scholarly work–either personally or I hear/read about it from others. Recently, two seasoned scholars have been criticized for plagiarism in their respective commentaries, and both have admitted to the regrettable causes for it (e.g., pressures of publishing, time-crunches) and it appears that both commentaries will be pulled from circulation. This bothers me, in part, because scholars should know better–or at least they are better informed about what constitutes plagiarism and how to avoid it. But as we’re discovering, that idealistic view is being rattled by reality. And what I fear is that this kind of rattling is creating cracks in the dam, which if it gives way will bring about disturbing and disruptive consequences.

I still remember one of the more disturbing instances I encountered: it was in 2011, while I was doing some follow-up research during my doctoral studies. Specifically, I was reading a published dissertation on a theme in Pauline theology.¹ I first suspected it when the writer made an argument that was surprisingly similar to the scholar he cites. The differences in wording were minimal at best (e.g., transposing two words, alternate spelling on a Greek term, an elision of one minor clause). However, I became concerned because the writer did not place the argument in quotes, despite the minor differences. Though, to his credit, he did cite the scholar’s work with an in-text reference, but the citation gave the impression of an allusion to the other’s work, not one that signals explicit reliance upon it. So I ultimately let it go as a one-off, one that might be debatable and thus not sufficient for further thought.

But then it happened. When reading an earlier portion of this same dissertation, I found an explicit use of another’s work without proper citation–let alone quotation marks. In this second example, the author presented an explanation of a particular Greek term and this explanation carried on for nearly 120 words (essentially the length of the preceding paragraph in this post). Only at one point did the author place a portion of the explanation in quotes (5 words, to be precise), followed by an in-text reference. However, by looking at the argument found in reference cited and comparing it with what is found in the dissertation, it is obvious that the author lifted more than the five quoted words. In fact, nearly the whole 120 words were lifted from the source used. But again, since there were no quotation marks around this larger section, thus signaling the use of another’s work, one would not suspect that the larger section was boosted. The only reason I knew of the similarities is because I had read the source used only the day before. Thus, when I came to this portion of the dissertation, things sounded far too familiar.

Not knowing what to do, and being a mere PhD student at the time, I decided to ask a professional. His initial response was this: “From your description it sounds to me like carelessness rather than deceptive plagiarism (i.e. there is a reference to the source material, but the wording is too close to the source without being acknowledged as citation). And it is not uncommon. Deceptive plagiarism (if no source/reference is given, and large portions are found to be derived from an unacknowledged source) is a different matter and would perhaps warrant some further probing.” Even though this distinction and criteria for making it were a touch different than what I was used to, I heeded his follow-up response, which was (paraphrased): I’d leave it alone. You don’t want to start your career as being the one who outed an established scholar and professor for plagiarism.

To borrow from Ron White: “I told you that story to tell you this one”. This morning, while doing some research for a sermon series I’m doing, I came across the following:

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The book on the left was published in 1978, while the one on the right was published in 1993. (I am going to leave the authors for these two works unnamed for now). The parallels in the larger description are close enough to raise an eye-brow, though such material might be said to fall into the category of general knowledge, which is not necessarily required to be cited. (I would debate some of the nuances of that escape clause, especially in this case, but point taken). However, it’s the smaller paragraph that bothered me. The wording is exactly the same, with the exception of one qualifying phrase (i.e., “of the guild”). But there is no reference. No footnote. Nothing. There’s not even a entry in the “Further Reading” list of the newer book for the older one. This should not be happening, especially by a scholar who is known for thoroughness and precision.

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¹ I’m being intentionally cryptic at the moment because I am still torn with how to proceed with this.

a subtle poke(?)

While reading a published PhD dissertation from 1900 (as you do), I saw this in the introduction:

It is the purpose of this book to present a study of Alexander Campbell’s theology by the historical method. He was not a voice crying in the wilderness and having no connection with his age except to receive from its degeneracy an impulse toward reformation. Try as he would, he could not sweep aside all that men had thought during the past eighteen centuries, and lead a religious movement or formulate a system of Christian doctrine as if a true word had not been spoken since the death of the Apostles.¹

I may be wrong (which is always possible), but I think he just took a shot at Joseph Smith with that last sentence. Or maybe even Dispensationalism. Either way: If so… well played, sir.

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¹ W.E. Garrison, The Sources of Alexander Campbell’s Theology (St Louis: Christian Publishing, 1900), 14-15.

jabs with bad analogies

For the past couple of weeks I’ve seen more and more people (or groups) taking pot-shots at Christians, trying to make it look silly or inept. It might be because we’re a few days away from Christmas and that’s what normally happens. But it appears as though, because there is not a huge show-stopping crapumentary on the Discovery Channel or H2 or whatever about Jesus, the attempts have been reduced to quick jabs–or sucker punches, if we’re honest–given for a cheap thrill or an easy laugh.

Earlier this month, Conan O’Brien gave this little quip (about 5:28 in):

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A few days later, I saw these images floating around, the first slightly more subtle than the second:

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(Whether people stole it from Conan and rejigged it or Conan got it from these images is not really my concern. Frankly, I don’t care).

There are two initial problems with these kinds of claims. First, they are not fair to the discourse that needs to happen concerning the refugee crisis. In fact, these types of claims not only politicize the crisis, which is insulting those who truly need refugee, but also reveal that at least one side of the debate is happily wearing its “ideological blinders”.* The other side might be, but they are not as expressive or honest about it.

Second, these sorts of political jabs are uncalled for, primarily because they operate on a faulty premise and a crap analogy. For those who have done their homework, it will be obvious that the image of Mary and Joseph frantically looking for housing in Bethlehem only to be turned away repeatedly until some gruff inn-keeper’s wife Gibbs-slaps him and make him offer the barn; that is nothing but sensationalized tradition. The historical and textual evidence about the birth narrative does not support such view.

Moreover, there is nothing to suggest that Mary and Joseph situation was anything comparable to the refugee crisis. Mary and Joseph were not trying to flee their home country and find safe harbor in another. They were simply traveling from Nazareth to Bethlehem for the purposes of taxation. If we wanted to say anything (admittedly in dramatic terms), we could say they were being “hunted down” in the same way that the IRS wants our money each April. But they were not under threat for their lives because of the ethnicity, nationality, religious beliefs, etc. To say otherwise betrays a lack of understanding about the data and an inability to make an appropriate analogy.

The refugee crisis is admittedly an awful situation, one that has created a rather heated debate with varying and often conflicting responses. It is a situation that needs to be taken seriously and it is one that deserves conscientious and respectful discussion and action. It is one where all sides of the debate need to come together and shut up and listen openly and fairly. And it is a situation that most certainly deserves more respect than being used as one side of a crappy analogy for the purposes of taking cheap-shots at Christians. Such one-lines are good for a laugh and caricaturing a group of people, but they do nothing for moving the discussion forward. It’s school-yard antics. It’s weak. It’s empty. And it’s hypocritical.

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* Taken from “West Wing”.

the absenteeness is not the point

I was struck by James McGrath’s being struck¹ by Allan Bevere’s treatment on God as absentee landlord. Part of what struck me about the whole thing was that Bevere only mentioned the idea in passing (and really as a follow-up point to his overall case), yet McGrath snatches up that passing comment and makes a rather definitive (albeit brief) statement about it: you’re wrong, Bevere; God is an absentee landlord, and the Jesus says so. And by doing this (i.e. contradicting Bevere’s comment), McGrath, in effect, undermines the overall point that Bevere was trying to make, which was: in spite of our perceptions and experience, God is near, God is listening, and God answers. Absentee landlords don’t do those things.

But the other part of what struck me was McGrath’s support for his counterargument: “that very image of God [as an absentee landlord] appears in one of Jesus’ parables”. Seriously? We’re going to make definitive theological statements from extremely limited data? Aside from Matt 21.33-40–the parable McGrath has in view–we might be able to rope in Matt 25.14-30 and… oh, wait; that’s really all we have. And we’re going to make definitive theological statements because of an interpretative decision about a parable? Especially when the absence of the landlord is not even the primary focus?² C’mon; we have to do better than that. And are we to ignore the fact that the parable describes the landlord as essentially going on vacation and returning; he’s not skipping town and hiding out because he’s a deadbeat, a swindler, anti-social, pick-your-pejorative-description. And are we going to ignore the fact that the same emphasis appears in the only other parable that somewhat suggests an absentee landlord: the dude goes away on a trip, but he comes back. And let’s not overlook the fact that the other parables about a landlord/landowner show him as not absent.³

Sure, McGrath (rightly) points out that “Absentee landlords have been hated by ordinary people down the ages” and admits that he’s been wanting “to do a study of the negative images of God and the kingdom of God in parables attributed to Jesus in the Gospels”. But my two basic questions would be:

  1. Are the two parables in question truly presenting God as an absentee landlord–i.e. the kind that are timelessly hated–or are they focusing on something else, thus making the absentee dilemma a moo point?
  2. Similarly, are the other parables truly presenting “negative images of God and the kingdom of God” or are they merely using the dramatic to make a point–you know, like parables do–or are the parables only being perceived as negative because their contents and meaning are misunderstood?

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¹ Apologies for the ads and occasional delays in page-loading. It is a Patheos site.
² Umm, hello: the bit found vv34-39 is far more problematic than a landlord being temporarily absent. In other words, the primary issue in the parable is not the (temporary) absence of the landlord; it’s the evilness and wickedness enacted by the hired workers while the landlord is away on vacation.
³ And please, for the love of bacon, do not come back at me and say: “Ah, well, you see, this discrepancy in the portrayals of God as landlord raises serious questions and doubts about both the reliability/authenticity of the accounts and the theological message being advocated.” Crap! It’s a parable.