Tag Archives: bible

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?

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.

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really struggling to see a difference

A friend posted this link, which describes–albeit in brief form–the eschatological views of “Jehovah’s” Witnesses. Apart from item #4, I am at a loss for how these view differ from those found within Classical and Revised/Modified Dispensationalism.

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gee, that was subtle

On the heels of their most recent convention, here in ATL, and thus ostensibly (re)energized for mission, the “Jehovah’s” Witnesses were out in full force this past Sunday.[1] By way of example, our little neighborhood, which is held together by a single half-mile-long road, was peppered with six or seven teams of JWs. Exuberant. Excessive. Overkill. Pick your term.

When I saw one team begin to mosey up the front walk, I bolted downstairs to meet them at the door. Not because I was bored, or genuinely excited to see them as I would an old friend, or wanted to hear their version of the gospel. My haste was rooted in the fact that Ashley just fell asleep and she truly needed a nap. A sudden ringing of the doorbell would not help that cause.

So I opened the door and was immediately met with a greeting that suggested the dude went to the Joel Osteen school of public speaking, only with more volume. As politely as I could, I interrupted and told him we just got our daughter down for a nap. He graciously lowered his voice, apologized, and proceeded to hand me two brochures–one on how to improve my health, and the other on a mix of apologetic-type issues. I took the brochures, said thanks, and we parted ways.

Curious, only because I like to see how the JWs approach certain things, I glanced at the table of contents in the apologetic-like brochure. My eyes quickly fell on the article entitled, “Who is the Antichrist?“. This might be either because I’ve been doing a fair amount of reading on Dispensationalism (don’t ask why) or because the other topics appeared rather dull. Either way, I knew I had to read the Antichrist bit. So I did. I must say: the contents of the article matched the exuberant, excessive, overkill, and–to add another term–hubris of their swarming our little neighborhood. While I laughed at some of it, there was one thing that caught me off guard.

The first few paragraphs were decent and generally not out of sync with the small handful of biblical texts on the Antichrist. They did well to point out the fact that John speaks of many antichrists in the world, and that an antichrist is one who denies Jesus as God’s Messiah and as having come in the flesh. But then two summary remarks in this first part gave me a good chuckle. In reverse order:

Clearly [in these passages], John understood the antichrist to be all who deliberately spread religious deceptions about Jesus Christ and Jesus’ teachings.

Fair and true enough. And

People or organizations making up the antichrist spread lies, deny that Jesus is the Christ, or Messiah, and try to distort the relationship between God and His Son, Jesus Christ. Those who make up the antichrist claim to be Christ or his[2] representatives, but since “they went out from us,” they deviated from true Bible teaching.

The theological and cognitive dissonance in these statements is astounding. And that’s what made me laugh. The very thing that the JWs characterize the antichrist doing is the very thing they themselves do! The christology of JWs, if I can label it that way, is not only extremely low but also out of step with biblical evidence. They deny the true nature of Jesus by making him a lesser god, or at least one like God but not identical with God. Thus, they distort the true relationship shared between Jesus and God. However, both of these are the result of a faulty hermeneutic the JWs use, only they don’t see it as faulty.

As with any sales pitch, there’s a “But wait, there’s more” type claim in the second part of the article. After having explained what the antichrist does, the article proceeds to identify who the antichrist is specifically–or at least the kinds of characteristics that make identification easy. They offer two key markers, again in reverse order:

  1. Antichrists are those who, through countless and needless varied translations of the Bible and the promotion of such translations, routinely “omit God’s personal name, Jehovah, from the text. . . . The result? They identity of the true God becomes even more shrouded in mystery.” While I don’t have the time to go into the specifics, what’s funny about this claim is not just its absurdity (and its reliance on a faulty premise) but the JWs’ failure to recognize the perpetuation of a different error. In other words: the JWs, in criticizing others for omitting God’s personal name, fail to see the fundamental error in their own insistence of including a “name” for God that’s not even a word.
  2. But the leading characteristic of the antichrist? Simple: “the churches [propagating] the doctrine of the Trinity, claiming that the Father and the Son are part of the same entity. The antichrist thus shrouds in mystery the identity of Jehovah God and Jesus Christ.” Once again, the theological and cognitive dissonance is amazing. And sad. But there’s something more, something rather disturbing. The effect of this claim is that every (orthodox) Christian church who affirms the age-old, firmly established doctrine of the Trinity, rooted in a clear and faithful reading of John 1.1-4, are the antichrist. In other words: non-JWs. The further implication is that such is the case because orthodox Christians are like those who, according to John (as cited by the article), “went out from us”–i.e. away from true biblical teaching. The “us” in this case would be the JWs. But historically, theologically, and ecclesiastically speaking, it is the JWs who broke from orthodoxy and formulated their own (distorted) beliefs based on their own (faulty) hermeneutical principles and practices.

[1] I’m anticipating a similar effect in a month so, since they have yet another convention scheduled for mid-July.
[2] I didn’t mistype. The article deliberately refuses to capitalize the pronouns for Jesus vis-à-vis those used for God, and this is because of their particular (and peculiar) view of Jesus’ identity. Though, strangely and oddly enough, they have no qualms about capitalizing the term “Son” when speaking of Jesus.

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from the seedbed

In the mail yesterday, I received a copy of the Seedbed Sower’s Almanac. It’s a creative little booklet, with various bits of pastoral insight and adverts for new resources. It has also contains a few short articles related to Wesleyan theology. One of the bits of insight, by Howard Synder, caught my attention: the “Fourteen Favorite Ways to Twist the Gospel”. While I don’t think I am permitted to reproduce the entire contents, I think I’m safe in teasing you with the topic-points that Synder gives. Here they are:

  1. Interpret the gospel primarily through Romans
  2. Focus solely on “personal salvation”
  3. Make heaven the goal
  4. Support the clergy/laity split
  5. Think economics and politics are not directly gospel concerns
  6. De-prioritize community
  7. Neglect the Old Testament
  8. Limit justice to personal righteousness
  9. Neglect intercession
  10. Make believers instead of disciples
  11. Substitute heaven for the kingdom of God
  12. View faith as just a part of life
  13. Disregard Genesis 9
  14. Divorce discipleship from creation care

What he has to say about each one is insightful. I would encourage you to get a copy of it, if you can, so you can see the rest.

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Lately I’ve been reading outside of my discipline, mainly to see what other areas I might like to explore further. For the past week that curious reading has been the Petrine epistles, and by extension, Jude’s epistle. In this reading, I’ve seen scholars run through the issues of authenticity, authorship, occasion, date, blah blah blah; particularly: how many letters did Peter really write (if he wrote any of them)?, was Jude really written by the brother of Jesus and James?; and with regard to 2 Peter: who borrowed from whom–was it Peter using Jude or Jude using Peter, or was there a common source independently used?, etc.

In trotting the usual responses to these kinds of questions, I’ve noticed (on a few occasions*) a rather odd argument employed in response to the issue of borrowing. Specifically, the I’ve seen argument is given in defense of the idea that 2 Peter used Jude as a source and not vice versa, and it goes something like this:

It doesn’t make sense to think Jude, a considerably shorter text, borrowed from the larger treatment of 2 Peter, taking only basic pieces and adding nothing to it. The better conclusion is that the writer of 2 Peter took the basic framework of Jude and fleshed it out.

Prima facie, sure, this would seem to make sense. However, on further reflection, two things make this type of argument unconvincing. First, it betrays a rather subjective analysis of the situation and how that situation could have played out. It almost reads as though it’s saying: “That approach doesn’t make sense because that’s not how we would do things.” And second, it seems to divert attention away from the presence of an underlying (and possibly unconscious) double-standard; or at the very least, an inconsistent parallel.

What do I mean? Simple: in the times that I’ve seen this type of argument, it is found in rather short commentaries on 2 Peter (or Jude)–ones that admittedly acknowledge indebtedness to larger, more detailed commentaries, and add very little to such works. In fact, almost routinely found in these shorter works are footnotes that say (I paraphrase slightly): for more in-depth discussion, check out the bigger commentaries. So my question is: why is it so unthinkable (or unacceptable) for Jude to borrow from 2 Peter (assuming he did) and add nothing to it, yet it is perfectly acceptable for smaller commentaries to borrow from (rely on) larger commentaries and add nothing to them?

* My library is admittedly slim when it comes to the Petrine letters (and Jude), so I’m working with limited resources at the moment.

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review of the really, very, holy, Dr Tilling

My review of Chris Tilling’s monograph,, Paul’s Divine Christology is now published (in SCJ).  If you click the SCJ link, you can gain (free) access to all of the book reviews in the current edition.  There’s more than 60-pages worth, so you’ll certainly get your fill.  Happy reading.

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let’s go easy on the Cremer

Recently I began going over my notes on NT Greek, mainly trying to decide on matters of content if I were to teach it. (Since I’ve never had to teach NT Greek, I figured it be best to know how I would if called on to do so). In the midst of this review, I (re)discovered one little anecdote that commonly appears in Greek textbooks: the “old” proposal that the NT was written in a special type of Greek for a specific purpose. As the late Rodney Decker says:

In the nineteenth century, it was frequently assumed that the Greek of the New Testament was not Classical Greek, but rather a special dialect of Greek created by the Holy Spirit for the purpose of accurately conveying divine revelation: “Holy Spirit Greek” as it was sometimes called.

Koine Greek Reader (2007), 246.

 Two things struck me about this claim (and others like it):

  1. The use of “frequently” to describe the assumption. Admittedly, I am neither a grammarian nor a student of the history of ancient languages–specifically NT Greek. I say that to say this: I’m open to correction for what I’m about to say. In all the searching/reading that I’ve done, I have not seen this assumption as widespread as the term, “frequently” suggests. However, I have frequently (almost routinely) seen the assumption that this assumption (or understanding) was widespread. But that’s a different discussion for another time.
  2. The use of “special dialect” to describe the nature of the language. This is important because it signals the crucial difference between a dialect and a language. For comparison, think: Eubonics vs. Klingon. One is an adaptation and form of an existing language, while the other is language sui generis. Thus, I appreciate Decker’s more tame (or even sober) description, in comparison to how others have portrayed things.¹ For example, Reggie Kidd describes the old view as: “many concluded that the New Testament was written in a secret, in-house ‘Holy Ghost Greek’ ” (With One Voice [2005], 166). That’s simply taking things (and the evidence) a bit too far.

Almost without fail, the culprits involved in perpetrating this “Holy Spirit/Ghost Greek”–especially as an entirely new language–are identified as Hermann Cremer (1834-1903) and Joseph Henry Thayer (1828-1901). Occasionally, some (e.g. Decker) will briefly mention Richard Rothe (1799-1867) as the source or inspiration for Cremer’s ideas, with Thayer following suit. However, after I read Cremer’s argument in context, and his use of Rothe, I did not see him advocating a NT Greek language sui generis via the Holy Spirit. Here’s why:

Lexical works upon the New Testament Greek have hitherto lacked a thorough appreciation of what Schleiermacher calls “the language-moulding power of Christianity.” A language so highly elaborated and widely used as was Greek having been chosen as the organ of the Spirit of Christ, it necessarily followed that as Christianity fulfilled the aspirations of truth, the expressions of that language received a new meaning, and terms hackneyed and worn out by the current misuse of daily talk received a new impress and a fresh power. But as Christianity stands in express and obvious antithesis to the natural man (using this phrase in a spiritual sense), Greek, as the embodiment and reflection of man’s natural life in its richness and fulness, presents this contrast in the service of the sanctuary. This is a phenomenon which repeats itself in every sphere of life upon which Christianity enters, not, of course, always in the same way, but always with the same result–namely, that the spirit of the language expands, and makes itself adequate to the new views which the Spirit of Christ reveals. The speaker’s or writer’s range of view must change as the starting-point and goal of all his judgments change; and this change will not only modify the import and range of conceptions already existing, but will lead to the formation of new conceptions and relationships. In fact, “we may,” as Rothe says. . .”appropriately speak of a language of the Holy Ghost. For in the Bible it is evident that the Holy Spirit has been at work, moulding for itself a distinctly religious mode of expression out of the language of the country which it has chosen as its sphere, and transforming the linguistic elements which it found ready to hand, and even conceptions already existing, into a shape and form appropriate to itself and all its own.” We have a very clear and striking proof of this in New Testament Greek.

–H. Cremer, Lexicon of New Testament Greek (1892), vi.

The usual criticisms laid against Cremer’s statement are:

  1. he spoke way too soon and concluded too much, because
  2. later papyri discoveries (cf. Deissmann) revealed that the Greek of the NT was the everyday language of the Empire in and around the time of Jesus; thus “the Greek of the NT was not a language invented by the Holy Spirit (Hermann Cremer had called it ‘Holy Spirit Greek’)”², and
  3. his assumptions relied upon faulty views of inspiration–namely, the so-called “mechanical inspiration theory”, whereby not only the content of the NT but also its very language were given by the Holy Spirit³

My problem is that I do not see any of these criticisms as relevant or applicable to Cremer’s statement. He was not (as I read him) advocating a language sui generis, as the criticisms suggest; he was arguing primarily for the Holy Spirit’s role in using existing language and giving existing terms and concepts fresh meanings to be used by NT writers. Moreover, while I acknowledge the existence of a “mechanical inspiration theory”, I do not think we can see it as a presupposition to Cremer’s argument, mainly because he is not assuming (or even agreeing with) one of the necessary premises of that theory–i.e. the Holy Spirit invented that language.

All of that to say: if we’re going to mention the Holy Spirit Greek anecdote, let’s give Cremer (and possibly even Rothe) better credit.

¹ Nigel Turner is said to declare: “Bibl[ical] Greek is a unique language with a unity and character of its own” and that “We now have to concede that not only is the subject-matter of the Scriptures unique but so also is the language in which they came to be written or translated” (Syntax [1963], 4, 9–quoted [and slightly adapted] from Wallace, Greek Grammar [1996], 26). However, S. Porter suggests that Turner backed off a bit from this definitive position–i.e. that we’re dealing with a unique language. Turner’s slightly revised view, according to Porter, says the Greek of the NT is “distinguishable dialect of spoken and written Jewish Greek” (Grammatical Insights [2004], 183–quoted from Porter, “Introduction” in The Language of the New Testament: Classic Essays [1991], 29).
² D. Wallace, Greek Grammar (1996), 25.
³ cf. C.-W. Jong, The Original Language of Luke Infancy Narrative (2004), 8.

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