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.)

George Herbert, “Easter”

Rise heart; thy Lord is risen. Sing his praise
Without delays,
Who takes thee by the hand, that thou likewise
With him mayst rise:
That, as his death calcined thee to dust,
His life may make thee gold, and much more just.

Awake, my lute, and struggle for thy part
With all thy art.
The cross taught all wood to resound his name,
Who bore the same.
His stretched sinews taught all strings, what key
Is best to celebrate this most high day.

Consort both heart and lute, and twist a song
Pleasant and long:
Or since all music is but three parts vied
And multiplied;
O let thy blessed Spirit bear a part,
And make up our defects with his sweet art.

I got me flowers to straw thy way:
I got me boughs off many a tree:
But thou wast up by break of day,
And brought’st thy sweets along with thee.

The Sun arising in the East,
Though he give light, and th’East perfume;
If they should offer to contest
With thy arising, they presume.

Can there be any day but this,
Though many suns to shine endeavour?
We count three hundred, but we miss:
There is but one, and that one ever.

George Herbert, “Easter,” from The temple, 1633

I came across this while rereading N. T. Wright’s The Resurrection of the Son of God. I normally am not fond of poetry, but I like this one.

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.