“Black Friday” sales, Bible & theology edition

And a happy Thanksgiving to all who are celebrating it!

I’m not a huge fan of the whole “Black Friday” concept; it’s devolved into a consumerist orgy and is a sure sign of cultural decadence. Nevertheless–I’m going to take advantage of it when it helps me out. After all, the internet never takes a holiday.

Logos has posted its sale for the weekend. There’s not much that’s too terribly exciting here, at least so far (they’re keeping a few items back as a teaser). They based this on their loyal customers’ wishlists. (I am aghast that Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology came in at #2!) The only I thing from mine is The Early Church Fathers, which they’re giving for $50 off (about 20%) the normal price. As this is absolutely vital for historical theology studies, I went ahead and got it as an early Christmas (and probably New Year’s and birthday) present. This is the old late C19 edition of Schaff et al. (They have a newer edition in the works but it’s almost 10 times the price.) I’m not very fond of spending real money on public domain works that are available for free all over the internet, like here. However, I’ve used these web editions for serious work, and they are a pain to navigate. The Logos edition should be vastly superior. I’m paying primarily for convenience, ’tis true, but convenience for the rest of my life.

Barth’s Dogmatics is also on sale (technically); I got it on pre-pub for much less. It is another resource where having it in electronic format is much better than print. CBD has the print edition on sale at a much better price.

Anyway, if you’re interested, give Logos a click. Apparently some of the books are reduced even further once you proceed to checkout, so you might need to click through that far to get the final price.

Web freebies: November 2013 edition

One of my mottos is, “Cheap is good; free is better.” Thankfully there are tons of free theological resources on the internet; basically anything that’s old enough to be in the public domain someone has scanned or otherwise put into an electronic format and posted. Also, some journals make their content available after a certain amount of time has gone by. Things like that and more.

However, not everything that is free is free forever. Lately I’ve been finding good limited time deals on material that’s normally charged for. It’s too bad I wasn’t blogging last month. SAGE Publications had all of their journals open for the entire month. Normally they’re really pricey, like $20 for a single article. This was a tremendous gift; they have some really good academic journals.

There are two good freebies going on now through the end of the month (or almost). The first offer is access to 14 philosophical and theological journals put out by Maney Publishing. Quite frankly few of these journals interest me all that much, certainly not in comparison to SAGE, but I haven’t gone through all of them yet. Black Theology seems the best of the bunch so far. (This offer is good through November 29.)

Also, Crossway Books is giving away the online edition of the ESV Study Bible. You have to set up an account and give a shipping address, but it unlocks the content for free. The way the promotion is worded, it’s not clear if the content is available for free only through the 30th or if that is just the deadline for signing up for it. My impression is the latter.

Book notes: Wright and the intermediate state

As mentioned below, I’m presently rereading The Resurrection of the Son of God
by N. T. Wright. The main subject, of course, is the resurrection of Jesus, but while going through the first 200 pages, I’ve learned a few things about the intermediate state—the state of existence between death and the resurrection.

For quite a while now I’ve had problems with popular Christians notions of the intermediate state. Too many versions of the faith have an unhealthy focus on it—almost like, “Oh boy, I can’t wait to hurry up and die so that I can go to heaven!” Reading the New Testament, I don’t see that as the focus of salvation at all. It’s about being reconciled to God through Jesus Christ in the present life and the transformation it brings, and the future hope of the Christian is the complete transformation of the entire person, body and soul, in the renewal of all things that is yet to come. The Bible itself tells us very little about the intermediate state between the two—the Old Testament says hardly anything at all, and the New reveals little more. Yes, it’s probably there in 2 Cor. 5.8 and Phil. 1.21-23, but Paul doesn’t explain at all what “at home with the Lord” means or is like. Our sermons, books, and tracts of heaven almost invariably grab and (mis)use resurrection passages to fill in the missing details.

In an early part of this book, Wright examines ancient Greek beliefs about life after death. By and large they believed that the soul lives on apart from the body; resurrection was impossible to them. From Plato onwards, many longed for the release of death, which freed the soul from the prison of its body. Wright explains Plato’s belief:

[D]eath is not something to regret, but something to be welcomed. It is the moment when, and the means by which, the immortal soul is set free from the prison-house of the physical body. (48)

For Plato, the soul is the non-material aspect of a human being, and is the aspect that really matters. Bodily life is full of delusion and danger; the soul is to be cultivated in the present both for its own sake and because its future happiness will depend upon such cultivation. The soul, being immortal, existed before the body, and will continue to exist after the body is gone….Because the soul is this sort of thing, it not only survives the death of the body but is delighted to do so. If it had known earlier where its real interests lay it would have been longing for this very moment. It will now flourish in a new way, released from the prison that had hitherto enslaved it. Its new environment will be just what it should have wanted. Popular opinion would attempt to bring the dead back if that were possible, but this would be a mistake. Death is frequently defined precisely in terms of the separation of soul and body, seen as something to be desired.

Hades, in other words, is not a place of gloom, but (in principle at least) of delight. It is not terrifying, as so many ordinary people believe, but offers a range of pleasing activities—of which philosophical discourse may be among the chief, not surprisingly since attention to such matters is the best way, during the present time, of preparing the soul for its future. The reason people do not return from Hades is that life is so good there; they want to stay, rather than to return to the world of space, time and matter. (49)

To my ears, popular Christian focus on the intermediate state (“He’s in a better place now!”; “You are/have a soul; you live in a body”) sounds far more like this description of Plato (excepting, of course, his belief in the pre-existence of the soul) than anything I read in the Bible. Wright’s section here confirms what I had already surmised: so much of the folk piety that has been handed down to us, at least in this area, is far more Greek philosophical than biblical.

Further on, however (and this is the new thing for me), Wright shook away a fair portion of my skepticism about the intermediate state. As I noted above, there’s almost nothing in the Old Testament about it and only shadows in the New. I have difficult reading much of this tradition back into it; I think it has distorted a lot of our understanding of soteriology. Yet, the biblical silence is not the only factor that should be taken into account. As is well known, Jewish belief in the resurrection grew during the intertestamental period. What I was not so aware of was how belief in an intermediate state, of life after death before the resurrection, grew alongside it. After documenting it copiously, Wright summarizes:

Likewise, any Jew who believed in resurrection, from Daniel to the Pharisees and beyond, naturally believed also in an intermediate state in which some kind of personal identity was guaranteed between physical death and the physical re-embodiment of resurrection. This, too, is a form of ‘immortality’. Unless we were to suppose that ‘resurrection’ denoted some kind of newly embodied existence into which one went immediately upon death—and there is no evidence that any Jews of this period believed in such a thing—it is clear that some kind of ongoing existence is assumed. (164)

This widespread belief in the future resurrection naturally generated a belief in an intermediate state. There were different ways of expressing this: it could even sometimes look fleetingly like a hellenistic, perhaps Platonic, theory of a continuing soul, without (as has often been suggested) strain or contradiction. ‘Resurrection’ entails some kind of belief in continuing post-mortem existence; this need not mean a belief that all humans have an immortal soul in the Platonic sense, since the belief in YHWH as creator which is necessary for belief in resurrection is also a sufficient explanation for the dead being held in some kind of continuing existence, by divine power rather than in virtue of something inalienable in their own being. (203)

In this light, the New Testament’s relative silence about this doctrine becomes easier to handle. Some form of intermediate state—whatever exactly that might be; the details aren’t so important—for the righteous was widely believed by the Jews of Jesus and Paul’s time. It went hand in hand with belief in the resurrection, the unique eschatology of the Jewish people. It is therefore relatively safe to assume that it also stands in the background of Jesus and Paul’s preaching even though not explicitly mentioned or explained in any depth; they never denounce the idea, and the veiled hints of texts such as 2 Cor. 5.8 and Phil. 1.21-23 are perfectly congruous with the theological reasoning outlined here by Wright. Although Christian eschatological hope is focused on the future resurrection of the body, I’ve generally inferred that some form of conscious intermediate existence is necessary as part of the promise of eternal life (John 3.16). Wright’s study here demonstrates the appropriateness of that belief while proving that it’s not necessary to import the change of focus and all the additional beliefs of folk piety that feel more philosophical than biblical.

Dr. House’s bookshelf: November 2013 edition

I usually have at least two to three theology or biblical studies books going at the same time. The first is a core book in my discipline, systematic theology, which I read on my computer for easy note taking and quoting, as continuing education. The second is a “phone book” I read on my phone, more for fun and (relatively) casual interest and so that I’ll never be stuck somewhere waiting without something to do. The third (and so on) will be on dead tree, for when I’m not wired or my phone is charging, and usually related to something I’m working on. These days I usually read 1,000 to 2,000 pages in theology books each month, which does not count journal articles, class selections, or non-theological books. (Lately I’ve been a little obsessive about measuring these sort of things.)

(Nothing about lupus. It’s never lupus.)

My present core book in systematics is the second volume of Herman Bavinck’s Reformed Dogmatics (4 Volume Set). Bavinck is an important Dutch theologian from the turn of the (20th) century, recently translated into English. His is a very thorough but relatively advanced work; for example, the chapter on the Trinity, which is where I’m presently at, is probably the most detailed and comprehensive I’ve come across in a systematics of the “survey of doctrines” type. It reminds me of Louis Berkhof’s Systematic Theology, which I see as the most useful (which is not at all the same thing as “best”; it’s not) one-volume systematics. Bavinck is like Berkhof on steroids, though the direction of authorial inspiration is the other way around (Berkhof owes a lot to Bavinck.) Bavinck is better too.

Continuing my N. T. Wright kick, my “phone book” is his The Resurrection of the Son of God (Christian Origins and the Question of God, Vol. 3). I’ve read this one before on dead tree. I’m reading it again for 1) enjoyment) and 2) to review its ideas now that I’ve completed the first two volumes in the series and am eagerly awaiting the new fourth volume. Wright’s presentation of the rock of Christian belief is exceedingly thorough; “unabridged” or “exhaustive” might be better descriptors. Wright’s case against the opposition’s viewpoint is utterly devastating. Whatever faults he may have (fewer than many), all is forgiven for the greatness of this work.

Both of these I’m reading on Logos via reading plans; I think I’m scheduled to complete them by the end of the year.

Over a short trip this weekend, I just read on dead tree the very brief Christ the Center by (kind of) Dietrich Bonhoeffer. About it I don’t know what to say; it was rather different than I expected. It mostly a survey of the traditional doctrine of the person of Christ from Bonhoeffer’s unique but thoroughly Lutheran perspective. This work was a reconstruction from the notes of students who attended his lecture; his original notes are not extant, and the final part of the series was never given. With Bonhoeffer, one always has to think: what if?

Next up on dead tree is Bread Not Stone by Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza. I’ve already read her vital work, In Memory of Her. She’s sharp as a tack and definitely makes you think.

On my personal Bible reading, as the year winds down I’m winding up a lengthy reading program. I’m going through my once-a-decade reading of the apocrypha, presently in Sirach (Ecclesiasticus), in the NRSV. To keep it real, I’m also reading the Gospels in the ESV with an eye to evaluating Wright’s thesis against them (in other words: is Wright right?) For next year I want to do something different but am not totally sure what yet. I recently got an English translation of the Septuagint and might give that a go.