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.

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

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.

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.

nothing new under the sun. including irrelevancy.

I’m sure the dude is a nice guy, and I’m sure he means well, and I’m sure he’s wanting to connect with people and present old ideas in an updated form. But frankly, this book‘s title borders on the ridiculous and its content is merely an echo and not a new song:

Screen Shot 2015-02-21 at 11.58.40

Two things, with an underlying third, bother me about this book. First, there is an inordinate amount of endorsements for the book. There are 42! As I’ve noted before, including such a multiplicity of accolades suggests either a pathological need for praise or an attempt to get wide-spread recognition to help push an otherwise crappy idea. Or it’s just a sad marketing strategy. Probably one of the the most absurd is from Tony Nolan:

Read Static Jedi and you’ll experience Eric Samuel Timm dropping some Jesus power on you, Obi-Won Kenobi style! But the force you’ll get isn’t fictional; it’s authentic Holy Spirit power helping you master the noisy gauntlet of life choices. Read this book!

I’ll let the absurdity and poor theology of this endorsement speak for itself. And probably one of the silliest is from Dr Ed Newton:

Static Jedi is more than a resource on spiritual intimacy; it’s a paradigm changer that will hydrate your soul into spiritual renewal.”

“Paradigm changer”? Seriously? Have you not read any of the other spirituality-self-help-styled books on the market? How is Static Jedi, other than the ridiculous title, any different? Moreover, how is this book a break from the mold of the classics–i.e. Brother Lawrences’ (far better) treatment of the subject? Saying this book is a “paradigm changer” is like saying Neil Cole’s book, Church 3.0 is revolutionary for how to do church. I’ve read Cole’s book. It’s not. The same is true for Mr Timm’s book. It’s not new, and it’s certainly not breaking out of an existing mold and creating new ones. It’s essentially nothing more than old principles in new language.

Second, there’s decision to associate (if not conflate) “Jedi” with Christian spirituality (let alone Christianity)–even if only in passing. I say “only in passing” because, Mr Timm never really defines what a “Static Jedi” is (which is problematic for his first chapter, since he’s asking people if they are one or want to become one) or even why he chose that phrase. The closest he comes is: “Static Jedi: One who masters the noise. Noise, existing in many shapes, consumes our time, real life, and ability to hear God. A Static Jedi is a form of master, teacher, and sensei” (Kindle loc. 286). Wow. That’s helpful. Okay, if that’s the definition, why use “Jedi”? Why not one of the other (more benign) terms?¹

That aside, one problem with the association is that Jedi are fictional characters. Why not rely on and use real people? Moreover, Jedi from the Star Wars narrative, and the 20th century religion, Jediism that developed out of that narrative are “nontheistic”² in their “theology”. More problematic, the “force” Jedi tap into, harness, and use is simply that: an impersonal thing built into the fabric of the universe. So far, I’m not seeing any parallels or any sound reason to associate it with Christianity. This problem could have been avoided if Mr Timm chose a better descriptive term. But there seems to be an underlying reason for choosing such a designation: an unspoken need to be relevant.

And that brings me to the third problem. The need for being relevant, or at least desiring to make the gospel–and its associated ideas–relevant always runs the risk of (and usually ends up in) irrelevancy. This fact was ably presented and defended in Os Guinness’ book, Prophetic Untimeliness: A Challenge to the Idol of Relevance (2003). Some insight from Guiness includes:

After two hundred years of earnest dedication to reinventing the faith and the church and to being more relevant in the world, we are confronted by an embarrassing fact: Never have Christians pursued relevance more strenuously; never have Christians been more irrelevant.

Our timeliness lies in the untimeliness of rejecting modern timeliness. Our moment and our hour depend upon our turning from the spurious models of the modern world to the real moment and the real hour seen only under God.

…many Christian leaders have become trendy. Obsessed with the new, they have produced only novelty. Staggering from one high of excitement to another, they have become jaded.

–Guinness, Prophetic Untimeliness (2003), 12, 23, 77

With all due respect, Mr Timm would have done well to consult Guinness’ advice before pitching ideas about Christian Jedi.

¹ Incidentally, and for whatever reason, Mr Timm switches terminology at various times in the book–e.g. “Static Master”.
² Cf. George D. Chryssides, Historical Dictionary of New Religious Movements (2011), 186.


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.

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.

relying on a bad/faulty premise

If you want to have a go at Dispensationalism, then you need to be prepared to account for a number of eschatological topics and their (assumed necessary) relationship with each other. (You also need to be ready to deal with questions of interpretative approach, but that’s a different ballgame). For example, if you start an eschatological discussion with a Dispy, you are bound to be asked about (at the very least): Daniel’s 70 weeks, the focus of Matthew 24-25, the (so-called) “rapture”, the (so-called) “millennium”, the (so-called) “great tribulation” and when it occurs, the “great white throne of judgment”, the (supposed) battle of Armageddon… you get the idea.

In some ways, it can be overwhelming and even exhausting to get through this type of discussion simply because of the tangled web of ideas and theology that Dispensationalism has weaved. Thus, instead of going at the thing whole-hog and dismantling Dispensationalism in toto (quite frankly: you’d have an easier time convincing a Jehovah’s Witness that “Jehovah” is not even a word), it’s better to examine the individual parts and discern their respective validity. The one I want to focus on in this post is the so-called, “Restrainer” in 2Thess 2.6. Here is a more or less standard (Dispensational) approach to this issue:

Our identification of the Restrainer must ultimately be determined by the question, What person is able to hold back the efforts of Satan?  To effectively counteract and restrain the personal activities of Satan demands a person, and one that is more than human.  Only a supernatural person can truly frustrate the supernatural workings of Satan.  This would at once rule out human agencies as well as all evil supernatural agents.

–D. Edmond Hiebert, The Thessalonian Epistles: A Commentary (1971), 313

The stuff that follows Hiebert’s question is understandable and, in the main, a reasonable conclusion. And a number of scholars (mostly Dispensational) contend that only the work/power/person of the Holy Spirit fits the needed criteria to restrain Satan.[1] However, there are serious theological problems with seeing the (so-called) “restrainer” as the Holy Spirit, but I will have to side-step that conversation for now. I will simply echo John Chrysostom who said: “if [Paul] meant to say the Spirit, he would not have spoken obscurely, but plainly” (NPNF 1.13: 388).[2]

My issue is that there is a more fundamental problem with Hiebert’s argument. Despite the understandableness and even the reasonableness of Hiebert’s observations, all of it ultimately relies on a bad or faulty premise–namely: 2Thess 2.6 is in fact talking about “the Restrainer”, and this (supernatural) person can be identified. To put it more bluntly: the legitimacy of his question and the proposed conclusion are dependent upon the validity of the presupposition that drives his question and conclusion. Without the presupposition, his argument falls flat at best or becomes meaningless at worst.

I am working on a longer treatment of this discussion, so if you want the details: please be patient. Until then, I will summarize things by saying: 1) the identity of “the Restrainer” in 2Thess 2.6 is not as clear-cut or obvious as Hiebert (and his fellow Dispys) believe, and 2) the rendering “the Restrainer” is not the only option for how one can translate the Greek verb, κατεχω (especially in the light of grammar and syntax). With regard to the first point, a number of suggestions have been made throughout the history of interpretation; the Holy Spirit is only one of those. In other words, we cannot (as Hiebert and his Dispy friends have done) conclusively assert unambiguously or unequivocally that Paul is talking about the Holy Spirit in 2Thess 2.6.

With regard to the second point,[3] in terms of Greek grammar and syntax, κατεχω does mean “restrain” (or “hold back”), but only when it is accompanied by an object. At this point, Hiebert and his Dispy buddies seem to be vindicated because nearly every English translation of the passage mentions a “him” as the recipient (i.e. the object) of the Restrainer’s efforts. However, this vindication is valid only if we rely on English translations. Things change when we look to the original Greek text. In the Greek of 2Thess 2.6, there is no object associated with κατεχω. And in terms of Greek grammar and syntax, when this happens κατεχω means “prevail” (or “rule”). And just in case Hiebert et al think I’m being overly pedantic or liberally inventive, this intransitive use of κατεχω is not without support in Greek literature.[4]

Now, those holding to a “Restrainer” interpretation might come back at me and say: “Ah, well, you see, you’re forgetting one of the cardinal rules of interpretation, which is to allow Scripture to interpret Scripture. In every other instance of κατεχω in the NT, it means ‘restrain’ or ‘hold back.’ Thus, when we use ‘restrain’ or ‘hold back’ in 2Thess 2.6, we’re simply following Scriptural precedent.” To which I would respond: “Fine, but you not only become guilty of committing the ‘illegitimate totality transfer’ fallacy[5]; you also fail to recognize that the other instances where κατεχω appears in the NT, it has an object associated with it. Thus, the translation ‘restrain’ or ‘hold back’ in those cases is appropriate. But 2Thess 2.6 is completely unlike those other instances for one simple reason: it has no object.”

I would think Paul, being a fairly educated man, would be aware of the transitive and intransitive uses in Greek and the differences in meaning they convey. Moreover, the intransitive use of κατεχω (and the switch from neuter in 2.6 to masculine in 2.7) does better justice to Paul’s argument in 2Thess 2.3-10. In other words: the “mystery of lawlessness” (neuter) is what now prevails, as  illustrated in 2.3-4, but which is currently unseen for what it truly is; and the “man of lawlessness” (masculine) is the one in charge of what prevails, and the one who will be revealed/exposed and defeated at the end, as noted in 2.8-10. This reading also prevents really wild and wicked views about the Holy Spirit and his role in salvation–views that I cannot, in good conscience (let alone academic integrity) support or even entertain.

[1] See e.g. L.S. Chafer, “Dispensationalism,” (1936): 428; E.S. English, Re-Thinking the Rapture (1970), 70-71; R. Gundry, The Church and the Tribulation (1973), 125-28; J. Walvoord, The Holy Spirit (1977), 115; R.L. Thomas, “1, 2 Thessalonians,” (1978), 325; M. Rosenthal, Pre-Wrath Rapture of the Church (1990), 257-61; C.E. Powell, “The Identity of the ‘Restrainer’,” (1997): 327. Cf. also C. Ryrie, First and Second Thessalonians (2001), 114-16.
[2] R.L. Thomas tries to wiggle out of this by claiming (without any support whatsoever): “It appears that to katechon (“what is holding back”) was well known at Thessalonica as a title for the Holy Spirit on whom the readers had come to depend in their personal attempts to combat lawlessness” (“1, 2 Thessalonians” [1978], 325).
[3] Here I am relying on the arguments of C. Wannamaker, The Epistles to the Thessalonians (1990), 250-54 and J. Weatherly, 1 & 2 Thessalonians (1996), 258-62.
[4] See e.g. Thucydides, Peloponnesian War, 1.10, 3.89; Andocides, Speeches, 1.130; Aristotle, Politics, 1307b; idem, Meteorology, 345a; Lysias, Speeches, 3.42; Aristophanes, Ecclesiazusae, 434; cf. Homeric Hymns, 2.126; Herodotus, Histories, 7.188; Polybius, Histories, 1.25.7; Plutarch, Lives: Theaseus, 21; Sophocles, Philoctetes, 221; Euripides, Heracleidae, 83; idem, Helen, 1206; idem, Cyclops: Odysseus, 223; Antiphon, Speeches, 5.21.
[5] See J. Barr, The Semantics of Biblical Language (1961).