reading

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.

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.

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:

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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.

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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.

doubting Thomas

One of the (nerdy) joys I have is re-acquainting myself with my personal library–after being separated from it for just over 5 years. I find books that I’ve been wanting to read and now can (seeing that I have the time to do so), encounter others that I had forgotten about, and discover a few that now have accidental duplicates. On the most recent scan of the shelves, I came across, Four Views on the Book of Revelation (1998)–edited by Stanley Gundry and C. Marvin Pate. This one, oddly enough, falls into the first two categories: been wanting to read, and forgot I had it.

Because I had forgotten about it, I failed to remember that one of the four views explored was “A Classical Dispensationalist View” (pp. 177-230), advocated by Robert Thomas. And because I failed to remember this, I was visibly and audibly surprised when I saw it. So much so that my, “Are you kidding me?!” outburst (and nearly coming out of my chair) solicited funny looks from other Dunkin’ Donuts patrons. And a couple mothers drawing their children in closer.

I was surprised for two key reasons–one less substantial than the other: 1) that such a view would be included in a book on scholarly approaches to the book of Revelation, and 2) that there is an academic who is still willing to promote the view–especially in 1998! I was fairly confident that the Classical Dispensationalist view of anything (let alone Revelation) had been relegated to those very small pockets of Christendom still tied to John N. Darby and C.I. Scofield. And I could have sworn that it was no longer considered a viable, scholarly, academic position to hold. Apparently I was wrong.

There is not enough time or space in a simple blog post to address the details of Thomas’ argument. Thus, I will mention two of the leading issues of his claims (and his critique of the other views) that prompted further outbursts from me and other funny looks (and reactions) from DD patrons.

First, I had trouble with Thomas’ critique of the other views in the book (i.e. Preterist, Idealist, and Progressive Dispensationalist).  At times, he was a bit unfair in how he represented the other views (and their interpretative decisions). Moreover, he was rather curt and occasionally discourteous towards his “opponents”–simply because he thinks the other views are flawed at the hermeneutical level and thus open to ridicule. Specifically, Thomas dismisses the arguments of his “opponents” because they do not (in his view) adhere to a specific line of interpretation (i.e. the so-called, grammatical-historical [or: literal] approach)–a line that he sees as the only valid means for interpreting the book. Alternatively, he openly and passionately accepts (and thus promotes) the Dispensationalist reading because it does adhere to the G-H approach.

Thus, prima facie, Thomas’ critique is not: “the other views are wrong/false/invalid because they are not Dispensational”; instead, it’s: “the other views are wrong/false/invalid because of they do not follow the G-H interpretative approach; but because of it’s loyalty to G-H interpretation, Dispensationalism is the more appropriate reading of Revelation.” In effect, Thomas presents his case as though: 1) the G-H approach is open to all and is completely objective in its processes, 2) the other views have rejected this approach and have been forced to create wild and fanciful readings of the text–readings that are not reflective of either history or theology, but 3) only Dispensationalism has earnestly accepted the approach and consistently applied it to the biblical text, thus producing a uniform reading that is faithful and true to both history and theology. However, there is a serious problem with this presentation. I’ll come back to it in a moment.

Second, I could not get past the theological and cognitive dissonance of Thomas’ (counter)arguments. In particular, Thomas chastises one of his “opponents” for allowing his presuppositions and hermeneutical approach to dictate his interpretations. Specifically Thomas declares (p.187 n.19):

C. Marvin Pate opts for a twofold outline because of his preunderstanding of an “already/not yet” hermeneutical key, through which he interprets the book. This illustrates how one’s preunderstanding, if allowed in the hermeneutical process, influences the interpretation of Scripture.

Thomas utterly fails to recognize the essential necessity for Dispensationalism to operate in accordance with specific preunderstandings, without which the whole system would collapse. As Bruce Waltke has clearly demonstrated:¹

  • (Classical) Dispensationalism begins with a small handful of (unqualified/unsubstantiated) presuppositions,² and uses them as “rules” for interpretation
  • it then reads the whole of Scripture through the lens of these presuppositions/rules, and this holistic reading (conveniently) leads to the Dispensationalist system
  • it then allows this system to govern as the hermeneutical principle by which individual parts of Scripture are understood
  • and then finally it uses the conclusions about the parts to justify the holistic view of Scripture, which then legitimates both the Dispensationalist system/reading of Scripture and the presuppositions with which it began. (Still with me?)

In short: without this predetermined hermeneutical method being used in interpretation, Dispensationalism does not work. And by reading Thomas’ argument in the Four Views book, it does not take much effort to see his reliance on (and need for) this Dispensationalist approach. But the dissonance does not stop there, for Thomas even goes on to say (p.226):

[Pate] attempts to justify his “already-not yet”[³] hermeneutical key by recourse to Revelation 1:1, 3, 19, but he reads into those verses a meaning borrowed from Oscar Cullmann.

Here Thomas (conveniently) overlooks the fact that his views on the so-called rapture of the church, the supposed two comings of Christ, the seven-year (great) tribulation experienced by only those “left behind” (i.e. not raptured), the implied distinction between Israel and the Church–along with the respective fulfillments of prophecy–are not the inherent or natural readings of the text(s); they are presuppositions foisted onto the text and are nothing more than the creation of people such as John Darby, C.I. Scofield, Lewis Chafer, John Walvoord, Charles Ryrie, Dwight Pentecost, Hal Lindsey, etc. The double-standard should be obvious, but for whatever reason it’s not. And then he has the temerity (a fancy, academic word for: cojones) to claim (p.227):

The grammatical-historical way to approach the book is to put one’s predispositions aside and let the facts of history and principles of grammar within the book speak for themselves. Recent hermeneutical trends have pushed aside this time honored quest for objectivity, but they have done so through allowing intrusions by man-made and man-centered philosophical emphases. Inclusion of human preunderstanding has no place in biblical interpretation. . . . A [classical] dispensational view of Revelation strives for objectivity by putting aside all preunderstanding and bias, so that the text of the book may speak for itself. This is grammatical-historical interpretation historically construed.

In the words of Frank Barone: “Holy crap!” Classical Dispensationalism is just as guilty–if not more so–in all of these respects. It does not put aside predispositions and biases and read the text objectively, without the intruding man-made philosophical emphases; it completely uses them and absolutely needs them. Without them, (Classical) Dispensationalism falls to the ground. Moreover, (Classical) Dispensationalism is not so much concerned with hermeneutical loyalty–as Thomas presents it–as it is with theological sustainability. In other words, its loyal to a particular hermeneutical approach is not out academic honesty or because it is the only one available; it’s loyal to that approach only because it is the one that enables an existing theological system to be sustained. Why Thomas thinks otherwise or fails to admit this is beyond me.

 

[At the very least, this post will ensure that I would have serious difficulties being hired at Master’s Seminary].

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¹ this reworks Waltke’s argument from a(n audio) lecture given at Westminster Theological Seminary.
² i.e. an exclusively literal approach to Scripture; a clear and definite distinction between Israel and the Church, each having its own salvific program as depicted in Scripture; a literal (physical) fulfillment of all prophecies made to Israel alone.
³ I’m not exactly sure why Thomas switches from “already/not yet” (on p.187) to “already-not yet” (here in p.226).

a confused France and Morris dancing?

At present, because I have a little spare time before my viva, I’m reading two different commentaries (as you do): one on Matthew (by R.T. France) and the other on 1-2 Thessalonians (by L.L. Morris). In both I was struck by particular lines of argument on specific points (different ones, of course) and was, quite frankly, unimpressed. My umimpressedness was not necessarily due to the specific arguments themselves, rather it was because of the underlying (and unexplained/unjustified) reasons supporting them. Let me explain.

To France:
A common approach for associating Mark’s Gospel with a Gentile (i.e. non-Jewish) audience is to point out the frequent authorial explanations of Jewish practices and terms (e.g. Mk 5.41; 7.3-4, 34; 12.18; 15.22, 34, 43). The gist of the argument is: Mark would not need to offer such explanations if he were writing to a (predominantly) Jewish audience. Fair enough.

A similar line of argument is used (albeit in the opposite direction) for associating Matthew’s Gospel with a Jewish audience: apart from the decidedly Jewish genealogy (and its usage), the persistent appeal to the Hebrew scriptures, and the allusive parallels between Jesus and Moses (or Mosaic traditions); Matthew leaves unexplained the key Jewish practices and terms (e.g. Mt 1.21; 5.22; 15.2; 23.5; 27.6), and he employes ideas and concepts that would resonate strongly with a Jewish audience (e.g. “son of David”, “kingdom of heaven”, “lost sheep of the house of Israel”). Thus, so the argument goes: the best explanation for this is that Matthew is writing to a (predominantly) Jewish audience–a line of argument that France adopts (and obviously accepts). Again, fair enough.

But then France says this (pp. 68-69–emphasis added):

Alongside this very striking concentration on introducing Jesus as the fulfillment of the Old Testament runs a higher note: Jesus is the Son of God. This, one of the main themes of Matthew’s Gospel as a whole, is clearly implied by his stress on the conception of Jesus by the Holy Spirit (1:18, 20), and by the name Immanuel, “God with us” (1:23), and becomes explicit in 2:15 and 3:17, from which it is taken up to become the central theme of the testing of Jesus in 4:1-11.

Here’s what troubles me: when he addresses 1.23 in particular, specifically the name Immanuel and its emphatic links with Isaiah (see pp. 79-80), France says nothing about Matthew’s need to offer a translation of the name. (NB: France leaves off the key bit of the verse–i.e. “which translated means”). Why would a term like “Immanuel”, with strong ties with Isaianic (i.e. Jewish) prophecy need to be defined for a (predominantly) Jewish audience? More to the point: why does France (p. 17) allow for a shared understanding between Matthew and his audience of the name “Jesus” (1.21) yet not offer the same allowance for Immanuel? I’m asking in earnest; I’m not trying to be cheeky (for once).

To Morris:
One of the more sticky passages in Paul’s letters is 2Thess 2.6-7, particularly the identity of the so-called “restrainer”. I’ve been working on a slightly longer post dealing with that particular translation, so there will be more details about it later. For now, suffice to say that commentators have almost categorically translated the term, κατεχω as “restrain”. But this is not the only translation. Morris, thankfully, acknowledges the three possible ways in which κατεχω can be used (p. 130):

The verb can mean (a) “to hold fast” (as in 1 Thes 5:21), (b) “to hold back” (as in Phm 13), (c) “to hold sway” (if intransitive).

While I am grateful for Morris recognizing these possibilities, something not usually done, he immediately goes on to say this (p. 130–emphasis added):

D.W.B. Robinson argues for this third meaning, but the verb does not have this meaning elsewhere in the New Testament and not many have been convinced.

With all due respect to Morris (and I do respect a lot of his work), this twofold response is not a good counterargument; it’s not even a good argument. The second part operates on the (unjustified) assumption that wide acceptance of a particular translation equals right/correct translation. That seems to be flirting dangerously with argumentum populum. But it’s the first part of Morris’ counterargument that bothers me.

Just because κατεχω is not used intransitively elsewhere in the New Testament does not exclude the possibility that Paul is using it intransitively here in 2Thess 2.6-7.[1] Not only is Paul known for hapax legomena, but he is also know for taking familiar terms and applying to them rare (if not obscure) meanings (cf. e.g. 1 Cor 2.4). Moreover, in arguing for the authenticity of the eschatology in 2 Thessalonians, Morris acknowledges that “[Paul] is just the kind of thinker to come up with an idea that nobody else in the early church could have produced” (p. 27). So, if creativity is allowed to Paul on the concept level, why does Morris not extend the same allowance at the word level–especially when there is plenty of evidence to suggest that Paul was lexically creative? Besides, being create with concepts seems to require creativity in language to articulate those concepts.

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[1] Yes, I do think Paul wrote 2 Thessalonians. Don’t agree with me? No worries; you are entitled to do so. Don’t like it? Sorry you feel that way.

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