Dr. House’s bookshelf: December 2013 edition

My reading has slacked off this month due to travel and several writing projects (unfortunately not ones directly related to my theological publishing ambitions, but the work has to be done). It being Christmas, however, I did acquire some nice new volumes.

This month, on the same day in fact, I finished reading both Wright’s The resurrection of the Son of God and the second volume of Bavinck’s Reformed dogmatics. Wright I had read before and enjoyed it, so I wanted to go through it again before tackling his next volume, Paul and the faithfulness of God. Resurrection is a wonderful work on what I consider to be the true doctrine upon which the church stands or falls. On the second reading I found portions of it somewhat tedious; Wright’s review of the relevant ancient literature is almost exhaustive. On the other hand, his discussion of the Gospels’ account is exhilarating; by the end of it I’m wanting to give a fist-pump “Yeah!” The biggest thing I learned from this reading was how deeply gnosticism has permeated certain wings of contemporary critical scholarship. Wright’s whole aim is to show (1) that by “resurrection,” the church meant the Jesus rose bodily from the grave; (2) that they really believed that it had happened; and (3) that it is the best explanation for the existence of the Christian church. I had not realized that (1) was so widely disputed today. Too many try to explain Easter as “Jesus dying and going to heaven,” by which they mean a “spiritual” resurrection, by which they ultimately mean “nothing really happened.” Wright does a tremendous job of destroying that whole line of thought.

Moving on, I like Bavinck, though not quite as much as a thought I would. His second volume added further weight to a hypothesis of mine: once you’ve read one classic reformed systematic theology, you’ve read them all. While Bavinck is certainly more readable than Hodge and much deeper than Berkhof, I can’t say that I have seen anything that’s really different in this particular volume. The main topic of interest in it is the “decrees” of predestination, and Bavinck takes the standard reformed path; there really isn’t any other one available to him. I still cannot accept the idea that “predestination and foreknowledge are really the same thing.” If that were so, there’d be one word used, not two. A simple substitution in a verse like Rom. 8.29 shows how silly this idea is: “For those whom he predestined he also predestined.” Bavinck tends to lump, well, everyone who’s not a Calvinist into the category of “Pelagian.” Been there, done that, got the t-shirt. Also, he tries to do too much with natural theology. Along with his biblical and theological discussion, he’ll quote ancient Greek philosophers as if that proves something; I find this jarring in a reformation perspective. Still, it’s a valuable work of systematics, and I’m sure I’ll refer to it frequently. I plunging right ahead into the third volume; I want to see it through.

For light reading, on my phone I’m going through Immortality and the future by H. R. Mackintosh. It’s part of a large bundle of public domain eschatology books from logos.com I got through community pricing. Eschatology is always interesting, but I haven’t read any for quite a while.

I mentioned this earlier, but from Logos’s Black Friday sale I got a complete set of Schaff’s edition of the Church fathers. This was a bit of an indulgence; these are available for free online, but they are a pain to navigate. As a very long term goal, I’ve decided to attempt to read through the entire set, though I’m not pushing myself to keep any particular schedule and might skip boring parts. The Logos edition is really nice. I’ve got a layout set up where, if I click on a Bible reference in the Fathers, it opens an English translation of the Septuagint (the version they used) as well as other versions for comparison.

And finally, yesterday I purchased Michael F. Bird’s Evangelical theology on Kindle for $5.99. Logos had this in prepub for several times the amount so I passed on it then, but for $6 I’ll give any systematics a whirl. (I’m a little concerned about this development. I’ve got a lot invested in Logos and will always prefer it, but it really needs to do something about its high prices considering the competition it’s getting from Amazon now.) It’s around 800 pages; it will be nice to see if it supports or undermines my other hypothesis, that a good systematics cannot be done in under 1,000 pages. What’s interesting about this one is that the author is a New Testament scholar, not a theologian. (I’m not sure when I’ll start it; I’ve got quite a few other works in the queue first.)

I did it!

Hours before taking delivery of my electronic copy of N. T. Wright’s latest addition to his series, Christian origins and the question of God, I finished reading the first three volumes! As stated before, I had read the third volume, The Resurrection of the Son of God, before, but I wanted to read it again 1) in the light of the two previous volumes and 2) because it is so good. (More on this at a later date.) I’m not sure how long it will take me to burrow through all 1,700 pages of volume four, Paul and the Faithfulness of God. I’m not in a hurry; this will (probably) be my next “phone book.” Unlike the resurrection, and unlike most who discuss Wright, Pauline theology is not an area of huge interest for me. I’ll have to wait till I examine the text to determine how high to prioritize it.

NB: This is not an N. T. Wright blog, and I am not a fanboi. (Okay, I am a big fan of his third volume and very envious of how he writes.) Nor am I a detractor. I just happen to be reading through his works now. Just be grateful I wasn’t blogging when I was going through Barth’s Church dogmatics. (Yes, I have read the entire thing, and yes, I am a fanboi.)

“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.

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.

John MacArthur’s Strange Fire

Okay, being conflict-averse I don’t normally involve myself publicly in controversy on the internet, but I’ll start this blog off by wading into one: my take on John MacArthur and his Strange Fire book and conference. I’ve not read the book or viewed the conference, but essentially he’s made a renewed attack on the charismatic and Pentecostal movement for false teachings (i.e., heresy). Most of the criticism leveled at MacArthur has concerned his lumping together of the entire renewal movement with the excesses at its fringes. This has been a major topic all over the conservative protestant internets; an overview of the matter can be seen here, for instance.

To be honest, I’ve not been interested in MacArthur since his earlier work on the same subject, Charismatic Chaos. I find the cessationist argument extremely weak biblically and theologically; ultimately, it’s really based just on (a lack of) experience. There are so many good books I want to read by people I disagree with that I don’t want to waste my time on bad books by people I disagree with.

Moreover, such heat over this particular issue seems so… 1990’s. I can understand a cessationist writing a book or preaching a sermon on this, but an entire conference to attack a doctrine or Christian movement seems overkill in this post-denominational age. (What’s next? A conference against infant baptism? Amillennialism? Congregational church government?) Where I’m at, living and working with people from many different theological and denominational backgrounds, even if they don’t claim particular spiritual gifts, everybody believes that God still answers prayer and the Spirit of God still moves today. Everybody prays for the sick to be healed, and sometimes it happens. In my book, that’s kind of being a charismatic. (At the very least, everyone steals our music. Absolutely everyone.)

While its core beliefs are quite solid, I would never say that the renewal movement does not need introspection and criticism. Far from it. A common response to MacArthur’s criticism has been to stress that the Word of Faith movement (i.e., television Christianity) has only a minor influence and should not be seen as that characteristic of the broader movement. No, actually it is very widespread and influential, and it needs to be addressed more directly and frequently by the more orthodox sections. (Pastors, do you know what your church members are watching?)

Critiquing the theology of television Christianity is as easy as shooting fish in a barrel with a hand grenade. I don’t watch it (for many of the same reasons I don’t read authors like MacArthur), but some of it that I have been exposed to is so alien to what I understand Christianity to be that it is almost unrecognizable. I cannot square the “prosperity gospel” with the Jesus who said things like, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” Faith is good and should be positive, but the extremes to which many preach the idea of the “positive confession” is far from Scriptural. (In fact, this teaching actually does not originate with the historical Pentecostal movement but some of the esoteric “mind science” groups like Christian Science.) While not Pelagian in their teaching of salvation—like all good Protestants they teach that people are saved only by believing in Jesus—many popular preachers are thoroughly Pelagian in their teaching of sanctification and the Christian life: whatever God is going to do for you is totally up to you doing the right things. Worse, some of the founders of the Word of Faith movement have made statements regarding core Christian beliefs about God and Jesus that are nothing but heretical.

That said, on the rare occasions I catch moments of some of the popular names associated with this movement, I encounter none of the above. Most of the time, most preach positive, practical messages of how to live the Christian life and be more faithful to God that are not at all harmful. Would I like to hear more and better theology come from them? Oh yes. More accountability and less showmanship? Definitely. Correction of aberrant practices and careless teachings? Absolutely. On the main, though, I think most should be judged (yeah, judging: it’s something we all do and technically part of my job description as a theologian) by the overall good that their work produces (the same probably should be said of MacArthur) rather than more obscure, cherry-picked statements that put in the worst possible light people who are, bluntly, not at all theologically minded (unfortunately the same cannot be said of MacArthur and his more reckless claims.)

Good. That’s that, then—hugs all around, right? Not quite; let me turn the pointing finger around. Others have rightly pointed out the problems and dangers of MacArthur’s particular brand of cessationism, which arises from a severe misunderstanding of the purpose of spiritual gifts in the Bible and why God performs the miraculous. I have further issues with those like him, the self-appointed, ahistorical neo-Calvinist judges (as opposed to historical Calvinist theologians, many of whom, if not in agreement I am on good terms with) of who is and is not a Christian today. (To see their activities, just search the internet a little bit.)

This neo-Calvinist (as in young, restless, and reformed) inquisition holds the following beliefs that contradict the Bible and the Christian faith as understood by the vast majority of churches and believers throughout its entire history:

  • That God does not love everyone (contra John 3.16)
  • That God does not desire all to be saved (1 Tim. 2.4)
  • That Jesus did not die for the sins of the whole world (1 John 2.2)

These errors are being presented as “the Gospel, and nothing else,” the true “doctrines of grace,” which the rest of the Christian church lacks. Discernment is needed here, too: how are the areas of charismatic belief that are commonly attacked any worse? We give these a pass because they are associated with a (small, minority) historical tradition and “good Bible teachers.” In reality, they represent a major internal threat to contemporary preaching of the Good News of Jesus Christ, and they need to be called out for it.

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A note on comments and documentation: Writing a blog is something I do in my leisure, and as time=work=money & other responsibilities, there are real limits as to how thorough a blog post can be. I will elaborate more on this later, but in general I don’t have the time to give voluminous citations to backup every claim that I make, and often they would be from offline sources anyway. All the topics mentioned here I have addressed, at least tangentially, in my Master’s and Doctoral thesis. If you have any questions about the veracity of my statements, please make an effort to investigate them first. Thanks!