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ancient-apocryphal-gospelsThanks to WJKP for sending along a review copy of this new textbook by Markus Bockmuehl. This is the latest in the Resources for the Use of Scripture in the Church series, which is itself a subset of the Interpretation commentary series.

The book begins with a 54 page chapter defining an ancient Christian Gospel. Since there are about eighty documents which fall under the category “gospel,” Bockmuehl must carefully define what he will include in this book. In his conclusion he comments “the canonical gospels appear to be unique and distinctive” (226). There are no narrative apocryphal gospels which attempt to tell the story of Jesus from baptism to resurrection, although they all seem to presuppose the general outline of the canonical gospels.

After this introduction, Bockmuehl offers a chapter infancy gospels (such as James and Thomas), ministry Gospels (Egerton and “secret Mark”), Passion Gospels (such as the Gospel of Peter), and post-resurrection gospels (such as the Gospels of Thomas and Philip).

Bockmuehl also concludes these apocryphal gospels were not suppressed from the canon and the evidence overwhelmingly indicate no one thought these gospels would supersede the canonical gospels. Many were in fact produced as private literature and intentionally hidden. As Bockmuehl says, these gospels did not “become apocryphal but remained so” (232). This is important since much of what is written on these gospels is sensationalism at its worst. These are the lost gospels, or the gospels the Church did not want people to read. In fact, only a small percentage of the literature surveyed in this book could be considered subversive by the orthodox church. For example, Bockmuehl considers the Gospel of Jesus as “antagonistic” (234), but most of this literature is not dark, heretical knowledge.

So why read this literature? The non-canonical gospels bear witness to a wide variety of early Christian thinking. The first few centuries of the church were far more diverse than many overly-optimistic church histories would lead you to believe. This diversity also indicates the difficulties of dealing with who Jesus was as presented by the four canonical gospels.

The book includes an extensive 47 page bibliography may be worth the price of the book by itself.

Look for a full review soon.

 

Gorman_ecoming the Gospel_wrk02.inddGorman, Michael J. Becoming the Gospel: Paul, Participation, and Mission. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2016. 351 pp. Pb; $28.   Link to Eerdmans

In this new monograph Michael Gorman asserts the apostle Paul wanted his communities to not only believe the gospel, to become the gospel by participating in the life and mission of God (2). Gorman describes local churches as “colonies of cruciformity” Gorman has already contributed two books with similar themes (Cruciformity: Paul’s Narrative Spirituality of the Cross, Eerdmans 2001 and Inhabiting the Cruciform God: Kenosis, Justification, and Theosis in Paul’s Narrative Soteriology, Eerdmans 2009). This book intends to develop this view of Paul’s theology of participation by reading Paul missionally. After two introductory chapters, Gorman examines becoming faith, hope and love in 1 Thessalonians, the story of Christ in Philippians, the gospel of peace in Ephesians, and the justice of God in 1-2 Corinthians and Romans.

In this book Gorman argues Paul “expected the salvation of God to spread throughout the world not only by means of his own Gospel ministry but also by means of the participation of his converts in various house churches” (61). In fact, the church was to be a “living exegesis” of the gospel of God (43).

Gorman uses Philippians 2:6-11 as a model of the gospel several times in the book. He calls this text a “missional Christology for a missional people” (109). The pattern of these verses is “although [x] status, not [y] selfishness, but [z] self-renunciation and self-giving.” In Philippians, Jesus as the status of “form of God” [x], but did not consider than status as something to be exploited [y], but rather he emptied himself so that he could give himself on the cross [z]. Chapter 4 contains a careful exegesis of these verses and Gorman describes them as Paul’s master text. Gorman shows how Paul’s example in 1 Thessalonians 2 or 1 Corinthians 9 follows this same pattern (87), but also Paul’s expectation for his churches are similarly modeled.

But Gorman is not advocating some bland lifestyle evangelism. Using the Thessalonian church as an example, it appears their faithfulness to the gospel was public and in some way brought them into conflict with their culture, perhaps even leading to the death of some members of the congregation because of their faithful witness (74; although he admits this is a minority view in footnote 24, I am inclined to agree). In addition to this, those who have expressed public faith in the gospel would have face questions from friends and family about their abandonment of cultic activity. This would include a rejection of family gods, but also civic and imperial worship. This would be interpreted as impious and unpatriotic behavior, potentially leading to persecution (95). Gorman says “one cannot speak of the ‘good news’ of Jesus as ‘Lord’ without focusing on the countercultural religious and political claims of this story” (134). The gospel itself challenges the false master story of the Roman world. If the church is actually living out the gospel in their lives then they will challenge culture in very real ways which will lead naturally to persecution.

Gorman spends two chapters on the church as the embodiment of peace. Chapter 5 is a biblical theology of peace which defines peace as shalom, the fullness of life promised by God (143). Although Western Christians tend to think of peace in the Pauline letters as “peace with God,” Gorman follows N. T. Wright in arguing peace is central to both Paul’s soteriology and ecclesiology. Certainly reconciliation with God is important for Paul, but peace within the community is constantly repeated throughout Paul’s letters. If a local church is an embodiment of the gospel, and peace with God is central to that gospel, then peace with one another must be an important component of how a church lives out the gospel in a community. Gorman sees the peacemaking mission of the church as an anticipatory participation in the coming eschatological kingdom of peace (162, almost an “already/not yet” argument).

To support this, Gorman offers a detailed reading of Ephesians. Ephesians refers to peace eight times, including the introduction (1:2) and conclusion (6:15) of the letter. Before looking at the way Ephesians describes peace, Gorman must deal with several obvious objections to using Ephesians as a model for Pauline ecclesiology. He deals with the authorship problem briefly by stating that Paul is the genius behind the letter regardless of who wrote it. A second problem with Ephesians is the alleged patriarchy of Ephesians 5:22-6-9. Although there are various ways to deal with this problem, Gorman points out the peace of the gospel ought to effect all relationships in which believers participate, so that if a male head of a household is acting peaceably, then he cannot mistreat his wife, children or slaves (186).

He then argues the book of Ephesians demonstrates that Christ’s death reconciles people to God, but also people to one another (192). To emphasize one or the other is to miss the point of “Christ as peacemaker.” But the church is not simply to “be peace,” but rather they are to keep the peace. If shalom means harmony, then the local church ought to be a place characterized by the same cruciform love that created the church (196). Peacemaking cannot reduced to a nebulous imitation of Christ or God, although it certainly includes “putting on” Christ.

Each chapter concludes with a brief example of a ministry which is “being the gospel” in a particular community. For example, after arguing Paul expects his churches to be peacemakers, Gorman illustrates describes Christian Peacemaker Teams, an ecumenical ministry which seeks nonviolent alternatives in Palestine, Iraq, Columbia or other war-torn regions. For the church as the justice of God, Gorman draws attention to Mary’s Cradle in Bluefield, West Virginia, a ministry associated with Trinity United Methodist Church. The ministry provides assistance for pregnant women and offers a range of services for women. These illustrations are helpful because they provide concrete examples of how local churches can think creatively to be the gospel in their communities.

Conclusion. I have always been associated with Christian organizations which were decidedly evangelistic although not always intentional in how they live out the gospel in a community. Missionaries went off someplace and did missions and the local church supported that mission with prayer and money. But this is not what Paul envisioned when he planted local churches in specific communities. Gorman shows Paul’s “missionary strategy” was to create local manifestations of the gospel, local churches, which then could reach into their communities as a living gospel. I agree with Gorman’s assessment that some churches are hearing a call to be the gospel through a “renewed imagination.” In Becoming the Gospel Gorman provides a solid exegetical, biblical foundation for local church involvement in local communities.

The Eerdmans podcast has a two-part interview with Gorman (episodes 14 and 15) and Gorman answered a few questions on Eerdworld about this book.

 

NB: Thanks to Eerdmans for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.

Richards, E. Randolph and Brandon J. O’Brien. Paul Behaving Badly: Was the Apostle a Racist, Chauvinist Jerk? Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 2016. 224 pgs., Pb.; $16.00 Link to IVP

This book follows Mark Strauss’s Jesus Behaving Badly (IVP 2016, I review this book here) and David Lamb’s God Behaving Badly (IVP 2011). In many ways this new book is similar to an earlier volume written by Richards and O’Brien, Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes (IVP 2012). The goal of this book is to offer some explanation for some of Paul’s writings which strike the modern (and politically correct) reader as not just difficult, but impossible to apply. In the conclusion to the book, they state “Paul was a product of his time—like everyone else” (194).

paul-behaving-badlyIn the introduction to the book, the writers set up the “problem of Paul” by describing their own misgivings about Paul. On the one hand, Paul does say some rather disturbing things. Most Christians struggle with Paul’s command for women to remain silent in church because it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in church (1 Cor 14:3-35). His commands on head-coverings (1 Cor 11:2-16) are difficult to apply in a modern context. Paul can certainly be abrasive and downright rude, calling be infants or foolish (Gal 3:1). There are many Christians who prefer the kind, loving Jesus to a cranky, autocratic Paul. In the conclusion to the book the authors express their hope that this book does not “hate on Paul” (193),

But another serious problem is that Paul is intimidating! Reading Paul can be a difficult slog in terms of both content and theology. Following the argument of Romans can be challenging, and unpacking Paul’s logic in a way which resonates with a modern reader is not always possible. For many Christians it is far easier to understand a parable of Jesus and immediately apply the parable to a situation in their life than to wade through the thick theological argument of Romans or Galatians.

Richards and O’Brien, begin with the way Paul communicates with his readers. Sometimes he seems to be “kind of a jerk.” This is certainly true when Paul’s letters are compared to the popular image most people of Jesus. Another aspect of Paul’s letters which is hard for some to handle is arrogance. Rather than following Jesus, Paul regularly tells his readers to follow him. In 1 Corinthians 11:1, for example, Paul demands his readers follow his example as he follows Christ. Despite demanding peace in his churches, Paul occasionally bullies his opponents (24), calling them names and mocking their views. Richards and O’Brien point out that Paul makes a great deal out of his calling to be the Apostle to the Gentiles and he seems to put his own agenda ahead of the leading of the Holy Spirit (citing Acts 21:4). Richards and O’Brien conclude “there is no way around it. Paul thought he was special” (36). At least some of Paul’s bluster can put explained as Greco-Roman rhetoric, and put into the context of other Roman writers, Paul is not that much different (perhaps he is less of a bully that some!)

Chapters 2-6 deal with specific issues in the Pauline letters which are difficult to apply in a modern context (Paul was a killjoy, racist, pro-slavery, a Chauvinist, and homophobic). In each case Richards and O’Brien set up the issue by citing several passages in Paul which imply he was in fact a racist, etc. After examining these passages within the cultural context of the first century, Roman world, they conclude Paul is not guilty as charged. At least not by the standards of the first century Roman world. This is a key observation for each of the issues Richards and O’Brien cover in chapters 2-6. If Paul is understood as a Second Temple period Jew living in the Greco-Roman world of the first century, then his “politically incorrect” sayings are perfectly understandable.

For example, Paul did not “support slavery” in the same sense than nineteenth century Southern Americans did. Certainly Paul did not demand Christians release their slaves, and he did tell slaves they ought to obey their masters. But in the context of the Roman world, slavery was not always an abusive relationship nor would every slave desire to be free! Although Richards and O’Brien do not mention this, it is worth noting that Jesus never demanded his followers free their slaves. Many of Jesus’ parables include slaves, although it is hidden behind the softer translation “servants.” So Paul could be charged as “pro-slavery” if his words are taken out of context, but within the correct cultural context, he is neither for nor against slavery.

With respect to chauvinism and homophobia, from a modern perspective Paul may be “guilty as charged.” But again, Richards and O’Brien work to set some of Paul’s difficult anti-women and anti-homosexual statements into their proper historical context. With respect to women, the writers conclude that Paul does come across badly, but Paul’s Jewish culture would have not been pleased with the level of freedom and responsibility Paul suggested women have in the Body of Christ (122). With respect to homosexuality, it is absolutely true that Paul considers homosexuality a sin, but his view stands on the foundation of the Jewish Law. Paul’s view was counter to the morals of the Greco-Roman world, but as Richards and O’Brien conclude, homosexual relationships acceptable in the Roman world did not include gay relationships between equals (gay marriage).

The two final issues in the book are more difficult. First, was Paul a Hypocrite? The issue here is Paul’s ministry strategy of being “all things to all men” (1 Cor 9:20-21). Did Paul tell to live one way, while living a different way himself? In some letters, Paul refuses to take money from his churches, but in others he thanks the churches for their gifts. The issue of eating meat sacrificed to idols seems odd to us today, but it is was an important issue in the first century since Gentiles had no problem with the practice, Jewish Christians would have thought it was a sin. Richards and O’Brien offer an interesting analogy, should Christians practice yoga? Most Christians would answer like Paul, it depends. Since the origins of yoga are part of a non-Christian religious practice, could a believer do yoga as recreation without all of the pagan baggage? What if you listen to Chris Tomlin while doing yoga? For Paul, the wise answer for some practices depends on the situation (164).

Second, did Paul twist Scripture? There are a few places in Paul’s letters where he seems to read the Old Testament in ways which the original text did not intend. The allegory of Sarah and Hagar in Galatians 4 is an example of this, since Paul uses the two women (and their children) as an analogy for a change in God’s plan from Promise to Law to Grace. I have occasionally joked that if my exegesis students turned in papers using the same methods Paul did in Galatians 4, I would probably fail them! But as Richards and O’Brien point out, Paul is reading the Old Testament as a Jewish Christian. He was a trained Pharisee who was thoroughly trained in rabbinical techniques including midrash and pesher. As with virtually every section of this book, reading Paul in the context of the Second Temple period helps us to understand what Paul is saying. They conclude Paul did not twist Scripture, “but he did squeeze every last drop out of it” (190).

As a conclusion to the book, Richards and O’Brien offer a short reflection on whether we ought to be “following Paul” or “following Jesus.” Like most of the questions in this book, the question is set up in order to generate the discussion which follows. Of course we follow Jesus, but we imitate Paul has he followed Jesus. It is true Paul may have been a “bull in a china shop” at times, but he was called by God to suffer for the sake of Jesus.

Conclusion. As with any book of this kind, chapter titles are set up in order to catch the reader’s attention and make the answer to the question applicable to a modern reader. So, “Was Paul a homophobe?” suggests to the reader perhaps he was, although the answer is always comes down to careful definition of terms. The cover of the book and the promotional material which will accompany the book are intentionally shocking. This book would make an excellent small group Bible study since the chapters are set up to generate discussion Paul’s views on controversial issues and how those issues ought to be addressed in the church today.

 

Papandrea, James L. The Earliest Christologies: Five Images of Christ in the Postapostolic Age. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 2016. 144 pgs., Pb.; $18.00 Link to IVP

In his introduction, Papandrea explains the challenged faced in the post-apostolic era. Jesus taught and did miracles, was raised from the dead. This lead to the worship of Jesus from the very beginning of Christianity (15). There were good reasons to understand Jesus as divine, yet he suffered and died on the cross. It was difficult for the first few generations to reconcile Jesus’ humanity and his divinity. If Jesus was God, then he ought to be immutable; how then could he live as a human?

Papandrea-ChristologyPapandrea has limited his study to the post-apostolic age, primarily the second century. One reason is to avoid monarchic modalism which flourished in the third century and was a Trinitarian heresy rather than an attempt to explain who Jesus was. It also limits the discussion to the period before Arianism, a far more complicated view of Jesus worthy of a monograph on its own. By limiting himself to the second century, Papandrea has set a manageable goal for a short monograph. He does, however, mention both modalism and Arianism as the legacy of adoptionism in his final chapter.

As believers genuinely struggled with defining who (or what) Jesus was, several competing views emerged. Papandrea places these views along a continuum, beginning with Angel Adoptionism and Spirit Adoptionism, both of which emphasize the humanity of Jesus. He then describes Docetic Gnosticism and a hybrid form of Gnosticism emphasize the divinity of Jesus, concluding eventually Jesus a kind of “Cosmic Mind” devoid of humanity.

These four views might be called heresy, and they certainly were by the time Christians began to define orthodoxy. But Papandrea rightly points out these views all represent the sincere efforts of genuine Christians within the church to make sense of the difficult problem of who Jesus claimed to be. For the most part, these views “grew up rather organically or around certain teachers” (15).

Each chapter begins with a short definition of a view of who Christ was and a short survey of the literature used by the group. Angel Adoptionism is associated with Ebionism and may be represented in the eighth Sibylline Oracle, the Shepherd of Hermas, and (perhaps) an edited version of Matthew’s Gospel. Angel Adoptionism essentially believed that Jesus was a righteous human who was rewarded by God with the gift of an angelic spirit, called Christ. Similarly, Ebionites were also associated with Spirit Adoptionism, in which the man Jesus was given the Holy Spirit like an Old Testament prophet. Relying on the Gospel of the Nazarenes (possibly another name for Matthew, perhaps in Aramaic) and apocryphal Acts of the Apostles, this group also rejected the preexistence of Jesus as well as the virgin birth.

Docetic Gnosticism is an early form of Gnosticism which held that Jesus only appeared to be human. It is customary to cite 1 John as engaging this form of early Christology, although Papandrea suggests Docetists may have used a text like 1 Corinthians 15:50, “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God” to support their view of Jesus. If he was human (flesh and blood), then how can he ascend to heaven? Papandrea suggests some documents in the Nag Hammadi library may have been Docetic, especially the Thomas traditions (Gospel and Acts of Thomas) as well as the Acts of John. In this book, Jesus is not only intangible, he is invisible (55)!

Papandrea’s fourth view is a hybrid form of Gnosticism which thought of Jesus as a “Cosmic Mind.” The problem for Docetism is that there are too many stories about Jesus eating for him to have been some sort of phantom. He therefore suggests later Gnosticism was also a variation on adoptionism. He cites the Carpocrations and Sethians, and the teachers Basilides and Valentinius as examples of this view that a cosmic mind inhabited Jesus unto the crucifixion. The mind abandoned the man Jesus at that point, or switches bodies with Simon of Cyrene (73). Papandrea is sensitive to the wide variety of Gnostic teaching in this period and he is well-aware there was no standard view. But proposing this new category of “hybrid Gnosticism” he hopes to highlight the elements of Gnosticism which see divinity as a spark within humans while avoiding hedonistic aspects of Gnosticism appearing later.

At the center of his continuum, Papandrea places Logos Christology as a balance between the humanity and divinity of Jesus. The view opposes adoptionism by arguing Jesus pre-exists as the Logos, part of the Godhead, and develops a view of incarnation that can affirm a real bodily death and resurrection of Jesus. This eventual orthodox formulation is represented by Ignatius of Antioch, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus of Lyons, and Tertullian.

Finally, Papandrea concludes with a short chapter asking “what is orthodoxy?” To a certain extent, the orthodox view is the middle course between two extremes. Rather than asking “humanity or divinity?” the orthodox view sought to balance both since both were part of the apostolic preaching. Papandrea points out the important implications of adoptionism or Docetism have for the resurrection of Jesus. Neither adoptionism nor Gnosticism leave room for union with God at the resurrection, so that only Logos Christology affirms the bodily resurrection of Jesus (117).

Conclusion. This book makes a good supplemental reading for a systematic or historical theology class. Papandrea clearly and fairly presents the non-orthodox position and is to be applauded for avoiding the language of heresy for many of these positions. The orthodox view of the two natures of Jesus simply had not developed in the second century. He also avoids any of the conspiracy theories often present in a popular presentation of this period of history. It is not the case that orthodoxy suppressed the more spiritual (or liberal) Gnostics. The second century was a time when honest Christians struggled to make sense Jesus’ own question, “who do people say that I am?”

NB: Thanks to Intervarsity Press for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.

Published on August 2, 2016 on Reading Acts.

Bingham, D. Jeffrey and Glenn R. Kreider, Eschatology: Biblical, Historical, and Practical Approaches. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Kregel, 2016. 501 pp. Hb; $36.99.   Link to Kregel

Although the fact is not mentioned on the cover of this book or on the Kregel website, this collection of essays on eschatology is a Festschrift for Craig A. Blaising on the occasion of his sixty-fifth birthday. Steven L. James offers a short biographical sketch and bibliography of Blaising’s publications. Blaising has served as president of the Eschatology-BinghamEvangelical Theological Society in 2005 and was active in the Dispensational Study Group at ETS in the late 1980s. As a result of that study group, he co-edited Dispensationalism, Israel and the Church (Zondervan, 1992) and co-authored Progressive Dispensationalism (Baker, 1993) with Darrell Bock. As the editors point out in their preface, although Blaising is primarily known for his work in dispensationalism and eschatology, he contributed articles and conference talks on theological method, Athanasius of Alexandria, patristic biblical interpretation, and John Wesley.

The twenty-six essays in this collection are divided into four parts. The first section, The Doctrine of the Future and Its Foundation, concern theological method. D. Jeffrey Bingham deals with what he considers the fundamental problem of biblical theology, do the difference between the Old and New Testament involve discontinuity between the testaments? Despite the reputation dispensationalism has for favoring discontinuity, Bingham cites Blaising as arguing Christ gives the dispensations their unity. Stanley Toussaint contributes a biblical theology of hope, concluding that a proper study of prophecy will lead to renewed hope in a sovereign God. Charles Ryrie has a short essay on what he considers the “weakening of prophecy” by preterist interpreters. The article is too brief to engage preterists directly (he only cites R.C. Sproul as an example) and engages in a weak rational defense of prophecy using statistics.

More helpful is an article on predictive prophecy and the doctrine of God by John D. Laing and Stefana Dan Laing. By examining prophecies which were fulfilled within the Old Testament itself, the authors argue messianic prophecies ought to be taken seriously, especially since Jesus himself invited his followers to interpret the “signs of the times” (Matt 16:3) in order to understand God’s redemptive plan. Conservative readers will have no problem with Laing’s Old Testament examples of Daniel’s four kingdoms or Isaiah’s prediction of Cyrus the Great. However anyone holding to a later date for Daniel or Isaiah 40-55 will see these as vaticinium ex eventu, prophecies written after the event, rendering the argument of the essay less sure.

The second section, The Doctrine of the Future in the Bible, collects eight essays to form a biblical theology of the future. Essays cover major sections of the Old Testament, including the Deuteronomy (Daniel I. Block), the Historical Books (Gregory Smith), The Psalms (George Klein), and the Prophets (Mark Rooker). Block’s essay on eschatology in Deuteronomy is the highlight of the book. He argues the book of Deuteronomy anticipates the “first phase” of Israel’s distant future and our past (the exile), but also a “second phase” in our future (restoration from exile). The eschatological vision of Deuteronomy includes not only the preservation of Abraham’s seed among the nations, but also a change in the Lord’s disposition towards them so that he will restore them to the Promised Land (133). Block thinks the return from Babylon was a partial fulfillment of prophecy since those who returned were small in number and only occupied a small portion of the land. More importantly, although they were blessed by God, the restored temple was a shadow of what was expected and doomed to be destroyed again in A.D. 70.

Four essays on the New Testament include the Synoptic Gospels (Darrell Bock), John’s Writings (David Turner), Paul’s Writings (W. Edward Glenny) and Hebrews and the General Epistles (David Allen). Bock’s article is representative of the application an “already-not yet” view of prophecy common in progressive dispensationalism. David Turner’s essay on John’s view of the future must first argue that John’s Gospel has an eschatology, since the Gospel is often dismissed as an example of realized eschatology. Based on his collection of evidence from the Gospel fo John, Turner argues the ‘difference between John and the Synoptic Gospels should not be overly pressed” (225).

The eleven essays in the third section, The Doctrine of the Future in the History of Christian Thought, range from historical theology in the Apostolic fathers (Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Origin, Athenasius, Augustine), the Reformation (Calvin, Anabaptist thought, Jonathan Edwards), and contemporary theology (Baptist, Dispensationalism, Jürgen Moltmann, and “contemporary European theology”). It may seem odd to see Calvin, Anabaptists, Moltmann and Dispensationalism in the same volume, but this is an indication that dispensational idea are found in many different streams of theology (even if the combination of these threads is unique to dispensationalism). Mark Bailey’s essay on the future in Dispensationalism is refreshing since it avoids the kind of wild predictions most people associate with the system.

Finally, the three essays under the heading The Doctrine of the Future and Christian Ministry include pastoral care (J. Denny Autrey), Contemporary Challenges (R. Al Mohler, Jr.) and The Marketplace (Stephen Blaising, Craig’s brother). The first two of these essays are rooted in historical theology. Mohler, for example, uses the model of Augustine’s two cities to argue any doctrine of the future must engage with contemporary culture.

Conclusion. This collection of essays serves as a worthy tribute to Craig Blaising, even if it is marketed as a textbook on Eschatology rather than a Festschrift. Many of the writers either self-identify with dispensationalism or are familiar with the contributions of progressive dispensationalism. This too is overlooked in the marketing of the book, but not unexpected given the current antipathy for dispensational thought in scholarship. But the essays in this collection absolutely do not represent the kind of wild-eyed craziness that passes for dispensationalism today. In fact, most of the essays in the collection which can be fairly pigeon-holed as dispensational are very similar a narrative theology, seeking to find the unity of the whole canon of Scripture via the teaching of the whole Bible on the past, present and future.

The book provides an overview of eschatology from a moderately conservative and vaguely dispensational perspective. Given these constraints, Eschatology: Biblical, Historical, and Practical Approaches would indeed make a good textbook for a Bible college or Seminary classroom, although most of the articles will be valuable to pastors and teachers preparing to teach on the future in their churches.

NB: Thanks to Kregel for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.

There are a remarkable number of parallels between this series of judgments and the ten plagues in Exodus.  For example, trumpets are associated with the theophany at Sinai (Exod 19:13-19; 20:18).  The first trumpet judgment is similar to Exodus 9:13-25, hail and fire fell upon the Egyptians.  The third trumpet resembles the plague of the freshwater in Exodus 7:20, except that there the waters turned to blood. The locust in Rev 9:3 is an apocalyptic version of the eighth plague (Exod 10:12-20).

miles-davis-jack-johnsonRichard Patterson traced Exodus Motif in the Prophets, showing that the Exodus was a significant source of imagery for the rest of the Old Testament. The reason for this is the common “Divine Warrior” and “Divine Redeemer” themes in the Prophets. In the Exodus events, God fought for this people in order to redeem them out of their slavery. The prophets pick up those twin themes and apply them to their current situation. Israel has persisted in their unbelief and is once again under oppression (the Exile). God will once again fight for them and redeem them from the nations in a New Exodus.

While Patterson’s article does not continue to follow his argument into the Second Temple Period, the New Exodus theme is present in this literature. But plague imagery is not as common in Jewish sources as we might have guessed. In his detailed survey of the imagery of the Exodus in later Jewish writings, David Aune only finds the plagues in an eschatological sense in the Apocalypse of Abraham. There are ten plagues, although they do not track with the original ten plagues or the seven trumpets from Revelation.

Apoc. Abr. 30:3-8  And he said to me, “I will explain to you the things you desired in your heart, for you have sought to know the ten plagues which I prepared against the heathen, and I prepared them beforehand in the passing of the twelve hours on earth. Hear what I tell you, it will be thus. The first: sorrow from much need. The second: fiery conflagrations for the cities. The third: destruction by pestilence among the cattle. The fourth: famine of the world, of their generation. The fifth: among the rulers, destruction by earthquake and the sword. The sixth: increase of hail and snow. The seventh: wild beasts will be their grave. The eighth: pestilence and hunger will change their destruction. The ninth: execution by the sword and flight in distress. The tenth: thunder, voices, and destroying earthquakes.” (Rubinkiewicz, OTP 1:704)

Nevertheless, Revelation seems to be re-using imagery from the Ten Plagues.  Since John is standing on the shoulders of the Hebrew Bible. This is not a surprise. But it is important to at least wonder why it is important that the Exodus Events were chosen as the main backdrop for John’s apocalyptic description in Revelation 8-9. The purpose of the original ten plagues was for God to show his power to Israel. The ten plagues were not “evangelistic,” hoping that the Egyptians would see them and somehow “convert” to being Jewish. The plagues prove to the people of God in Egypt that he is a God who acts on their behalf to redeem them out of their slavery. The children of Abraham need to be convinced that the God of their ancestors is active and that he cares for them.

This may also be the function of the judgments in Revelation.  By the time of the eschatological age, Israel will have been in a state of unbelief for a long time. Like the original Exodus, they certainly need a reminded of the righteous character of their God. Revelation is using the language of the Hebrew Bible, how God has worked in the past, to describe how he will work again in the future.

 

Bibliography: Richard D. Patterson, “Wonders in the Heavens and on the Earth: Apocalyptic Imagery in the Old Testament” JETS 43 (2000): 385-403.

 

william-blake-revelation-4

The Twenty-Four Elders by William Blake

The 24 elders in Revelation 4-5 are a good test-case for methods of interpretation in this unusual book. What is important in this vision is the worship God receives from all of creation. Is the number 24 significant?

There are a few unusual views for the 24 elders we should probably set aside early on. For example, some have taken the number 24 as the 24 books of the Old Testament. (This is mentioned by Greg Beale, although he does not advocate for this view, Revelation, 326). The evidence for this view is The Gospel of Thomas 52. There Jesus says that there were 24 prophets who spoke to Israel, meaning the 24 books of the Hebrew Bible.  This means the “elders” are the book which the Lamb fulfills in his death and resurrection. Ford identified the 24 as the “great men of the faith” listed in Sirach 44-49, although few have been persuaded by her argument. Henry Morris argued the rather unique view that the 24 elders are the 24 ancestors of Christ, Adam to Pharez (The Revelation Record).

In most cases, the 24 elders are either angles or humans.  David Aune sorts commentators into these two categories. If they are humans, then there are several possibilities to identify who those humans might be.

The Elders are Angelic beings. No other human beings are present when John is called up to heaven.  Isaiah 24:33 may refer to angels as elders and  Psalm 89:7 describes God enthroned among his “council.” Colossians 1:16, Eph 3:10 and 6:12 refer to angelic hierarchy as “thrones. There are several places in Revelation in which the elders re-appear.  In each of these verses it seems unlikely that humans are in view (5:8, 7:13-14, etc.)

This is a tradition, beginning with Old Testament texts and extending into the apocalyptic literature, of God’s counsel as consisting of angels. That these are angels is consistent with the general apocalyptic images gathered together in this chapter.

Sepher ha-Razim 1.8  Within, three princes sit on their thrones; they and their raiment have an appearance like fire and the appearance of their thrones is like fire, fire that gleams like gold, for they rule over all the angels of fire. (Cited by Aune, 1:61)

The Apoc. Zeph. A  And a spirit took me and brought me up into the fifth heaven. And I saw angels who are called “lords”, and the diadem was set upon them in the Holy Spirit, and the throne of each of them was sevenfold more (brilliant) than the light of the rising sun. (And they were) dwelling in the temples of salvation and singing hymns to the ineffable most high God. (Cited by Aune, 1:61).

If the scene in heaven is a “heavenly temple,” then the 24 elders may be a reference to the 24 priests / Levites who lead  worship in Solomon’s temple.

The 24 elders are humans. In support of the 24 elders as humans, commentators usually note that angels are never called elders anywhere else in scripture (Isaiah 24:33 is a debated passage.)  In addition, the white clothing and crown are promised to the churches of Asia Minor if they “overcome.” There are three variations on this view. First, the Elders may represent the Church. The letters to the seven churches were all addressed to the “angel” of the church.  This is an indication that an angel might represent a church.  Here, these heavenly inhabitants represent the church of this age.  Several classic dispensationalists have held this view, including Ryrie (Revelation 36) and John F. Walvoord Revelation (107). In fact, Walvoord entitles chapter 4 “The Church in Heaven” because they are rapture before the time referred to by this chapter.

Second, the Elders may represent Israel. The 24 thrones are based on the 24 priest in David’s temple (1 Chron. 24:3-19 or the 24 Levites in 1 Chron5:6-31, cf. Josephus, Ant 7:363-367).

Qoh. Rab. 1.11 In the Hereafter, however, the Holy One, blessed be He, will number for Himself a band of righteous men of His own and seat them by Him in the Great Academy; as it is said, “Then the moon shall be confounded and the sun ashamed for the Lord of hosts will reign in mount Zion and in Jerusalem, and before His elders shall be glory” (Isa XXIV, 23). It is not written here “Before His angels, His troops, or His priests” but “before His elders shall be glory.”

Tanhuma, Shemot 29   The Holy One, blessed be He, will in the future cause the elders of Israel to stand as in a threshing floor, and He will sit at the head of them all as president and they will judge the nations of the world.

Third, the Elders may represent the Old Testament and New Testament Saints. For some, the 24 thrones are twelve for the 12 tribes of Israel and 12 for the 12 apostles. Occasionally this is expressed as “the church of all ages,” or as Swete thought, the elders represent “the church in its totality” (Revelation, 68-69). An a-millennial interpretation of Revelation would naturally see the Old and New Testament believers as the same church

One other possibility is that the elders are human, but the image is designed as a parody of the 24 lictors (bodyguards) who normally accompanied the Emperor Domitian. Suetonius described Domitian as follows:   “He presided at the competitions in half-boots, clad in a purple toga in the Greek fashion, and wearing upon his head a golden crown with figures of Jupiter ,Juno, and Minerva, while by his side sat the priest of Jupiter and the college of the Flaviales, similarly dressed, except that their crowns bore his image as well.” (Aune 1:292)

While it is probably better to avoid dogmatism on this point, my understanding of the 24 elders is that they are angels who worship God before his throne. This might overlap with the lictors in a Greco-Roman throne room scene. Since there is a distinction between the elders and the “saints” later in the book, this identification seems best. In this case the number 24 (12 and 12) might not be significant for interpreting the imagery.

Like the 24 elders, the four “living creatures” worship God at his throne (Rev 4:6b-8a). The NIV places these creatures “in the center, around the throne.” This reflects the difficulty of the syntax of this line in Greek. It could mean they are simply in the immediate vicinity of the throne, near the throne.

Most scholars think John’s vision draws on the throne room vision from Ezekiel 1-2. If this is true, then these creatures in Rev 4 are cherubim. In Ezekiel the four creatures are a part of the throne of God, more or less the “wheels” of the Throne-Chariot of God. There are, however, a number of differences between these creatures and Ezekiel 1-2. The four creatures are described as having similar other-worldy features. They are “full of eyes,” or “eyes all around.” This is similar to Ezekiel 1; the cherubim are “wheels within wheels, full of eyes.” But the description is also slightly different; the faces are not quite the same in Revelation.

Thirteenth century ivory carving of Christ surrounded by the four living creatures from the MusŽe national du Moyen-åge

Thirteenth century ivory carving of Christ surrounded by the four living creatures from the MusŽe national du Moyen-åge

It is possible the description in Revelation recalls something of Ezekiel, but also may have been influenced by other developments in Jewish thinking about angels. One possibility is that John intended to make a reference to archangels. In the Hebrew Bible, there are no archangels, although Gabriel (Dan 8:16, 9:21, Luke 1:18, 26) and Michael (Dan 12:1, Jude 9) are two specific, named angels given that distinction in later Jewish documents. “Archangel” does appear in Jewish literature, but it is perhaps not the right designation for these angels.

It is possible these many-eyed creatures are apocalyptic “watchers.” In some apocalypses written well before the first century, there is a category of angelic being who are designed by God to “witness” everything (1 Enoch 1:5, Jubilees 4:15; 8:3; 10:5). According to 1 Enoch 6-36, some of these angels came down to earth and taught humans sinful practices (like making war and sorcery, but also medicine and cosmetics, 1 Enoch 8). They also had relations with human women and created “the giants.” Michael and Gabriel (along with Surafel or Uriel, depending on the manuscript of 1 Enoch) “observed carefully from the sky” all of this wickedness and called out to the Most High to judge these angels and to destroy the wickedness they had caused (1 Enoch 9-10). The result, of course, is the flood (and a blockbuster Hollywood film).

The Targum on Ezekiel has an expanded description of the cherubim. In Tg. Ezek. 1:6 the angelic beings face four faces, each of which have four faces, sixteen to each creature, with sixty-four faces in all. This kind of elaboration is also found in 3 Enoch 21:1-3:

R. Ishmael said: The angel Metatron, Prince of the Divine Presence, said to me: There are four creatures facing the four winds. Each single creature would fill the whole world. Each of them has four faces and every single face looks like the sunrise. 2 Each creature has four wings and every single wing would cover the world. 3 Each one of them has faces within faces and wings within wings. The size of a face is 248 faces, and the size of a wing is 365 wings. 4 Each creature is crowned with 2,000 crowns and every crown is like the rainbow; its brightness is as the brightness of the sun’s orb and the rays which shine from each separate crown are as the brightness of the morning star in the east. (P. Alexander, OTP 1: 277)

Each of the four creatures has a different appearance. Only the third is said to have the “face” of a man, but based on Ezekiel 1 it may be that only the face is in mind. A major difference between these four creatures and Ezekiel 1 is that each creature has a different face, while Ezekiel 1 describes four creatures with four faces each. These creatures have wings like the Seraphim of Isaiah 6 and they worship God is a very similar manner as the Seraphim, but other characteristics (such as the faces and eyes, etc.) are similar to Ezekiel.

AliensMany attempts have been made to ferret out some meaning of the four faces, some more serious than others. The church fathers usually tried to find the four gospels in the faces, but never really agreed on which gospel was intended. It is probably best to agree with the majority of modern commentaries and see these faces as referring to the highest creature in four categories, wild animal, domestic animal, flying animal, and man.

We can know for certain these creatures lead worship in heaven (Rev 4:6-9; 5:8-9, 19:4) and they appear to be associated with the throne of God. In Rev 6:1-7 they will announce the coming of the four horsemen after each seal is opened, and in 15:7 one of these creatures gives the seven bowls of God’s wrath to the angels who pour them out on the earth (16:1).

 

Revelation 4-5 are often read only for their value in describing worship (worthy is the Lamb….) or their Angelology (Who are the elders?  What are the four living creatures?)  While these elements are certainly there, the function of Ezekiel-merkabathese chapters in Revelation is to introduce the vision of the seven seals.  The Lamb is worthy of the same worship applied to God, but this means he is also worthy to open the scroll with seven seals.

Revelation 4-5 is built first on the foundation of the Hebrew Bible. There are several texts which describe God as enthroned, such as Isaiah 6 and Ezekiel 1-2. In both of these passages the prophet sees a vision of God enthroned in heaven surrounded by otherworldly angelic creatures (seraphim in Isaiah, cherubim in Ezekiel). In both cases the prophet is stunned by the vision and eventually commissioned to a prophetic office. In Revelation 4 there is a central throne, angelic beings, but John is not a prophet as much as an observer of the impending judgment contained in the scroll given to the Lamb to open.

Yet there are many elements which are “stock imagery” in Jewish apocalyptic. First, the “door of heaven” is opened, is a common apocalyptic element.  The idea of going “up to heaven” may be drawn from Gen 28:17 or Ps 78:23, but is developed in non-biblical apocalyptic into the idea that heaven is closed.  Only the visionary is invited to “come up” into heaven.

3 Maccabees 6:18 Then the most glorious, almighty, and true God revealed his holy face and opened the heavenly gates, from which two glorious angels of fearful aspect descended, visible to all but the Jews.

1 Enoch 14:8-9 And behold I saw the clouds: And they were calling me in a vision; and the fogs were calling me; and the course of the stars and the lightnings were rushing me and causing me to desire; and in the vision, the winds were causing me to fly and rushing me high up into heaven.

Second, John hears a “voice like a trumpet.”  This too is a common apocalyptic element as trumpets are used to signal an announcement. Perhaps this is a description of some king of ecstatic state.  John’s body remains on Patmos, but in his spirit (mind?) he experiences heaven.  Paul appears to have experienced the same sort of thin in 2 Cor 12:1-4, in non-biblical apocalyptic 1 Enoch 70-73 and 81 are quite similar.

 1 Enoch 71:1-2 (Thus) it happened after this that my spirit passed out of sight and ascended into the heavens. And I saw the sons of the holy angels walking upon the flame of fire; their garments were white—and their overcoats—and the light of their faces was like snow.

Third, as John enters heaven in the Spirit, he sees a fantastic throne (Rev 4:2-3). This vision is very similar to that of Ezekiel 1-3 as well as Isaiah 6, but the main source of imagery appears to be Daniel 7:9-27. Again, there is some element of“stock language” in the description of the throne. Throne imagery is important in Revelation, although John never names the one on the throne. It is as if he cannot find a word to describe the glory of God associated with the throne.

 Testament of Levi 5:1 At this moment the angel opened for me the gates of heaven and I saw the Holy Most High sitting on the throne.

John is describing heaven exactly the way any Jewish reader would have expected heaven to look in the late first century. Imagine if he had described heaven like a modern office complex, or Disneyland (the allegedly happiest place on earth) or a resort in the Caribbean. The original readers would not understand the imagery, since they were expecting these sorts of stock images of “what heaven might look like.”

This should be a warning against using these descriptions to create a list of things about “what heaven is really like” since John is expressing himself in terms a Second Temple period Jew would understand.

 

The theological term for the end times is eschatology, the study of last things. This includes not only the return of Christ and the kingdom, but also “personal eschatology,” what happens to individuals after death, what judgments await the believer and the unbeliever. I think that the study of the “end times” has mutated into “what is going to happen to those people left behind after the Rapture?” While I do believe in a Rapture / Tribulation / Second Coming scheme, I think it is more helpful to see the overall themes of Revelation rather that try to get ever detail of the Tribulation lined up on a chart.

I want to let Revelation speak for itself as much as possible, and to do that the book must be read in the context of the Hebrew Bible and Second Temple Jewish expectations. John is remarkably consistent with the Judaism of his day, with the exception of identifying Jesus as the Messiah.

WhereThe most general teaching of Revelation concerning personal eschatology is that the righteous are to be rewarded and the unrighteous are to be condemned. This is consistent with the Hebrew Bible. When the messianic age begins, there is a judgment of the nations and of Israel. Not everyone participates in the messianic age, as a text like Isaiah 25:6-8 makes clear. While many will gather on Zion to participate in the inaugural banquet at the beginning of the age, Israel’s prototypical enemy Moab will be trampled in the mud (25:10-12). Jesus also described the beginning of the new age as a harvest, where the wheat will be gathered into the barn (where it belongs) and the weeds gathered and thrown on a fire (where they belong). This theme of eschatological separation is common in Jesus’ parables (Matt 13:24-30, for example).

Prior to the beginning of the eschatological age, the Hebrew Bible expects a time of persecution of the people of God. In a book like Daniel, this period of persecution will separate the true Israel from the false. The capture of Jerusalem by the Babylonians initiated a long sequence of conflict with pagan rulers which reached a climax during the reign of Antiochus IV Epiphanies. The struggles of the Maccabean period become a paradigm for future persecutions.

In Revelation, there is a persecution of those who refuse to worship the beast or take his mark. Revelation 13:7 describes this as a “war on the saints” which will result in the death of many who are followers of Christ (13:10, 20:4). This persecution is a time when a choice must be made to worship the beast (taking his mark) or to worship the Lamb. There is no middle ground, the time of great persecution is a sifting of the true followers from the false.

In Revelation 20, there is a judgment at the beginning of the Kingdom of God, or the eschatological age. John’s vision turns to a scene of thrones, thrones for those who were martyred during the tribulation, and thrones for those that endured until the end. In this vision, it is the souls of those who were faithful during the tribulation that sit upon thrones. The souls that John is seeing in these verses are those that were under the altar in 6:9 crying out to God asking to be revenged for their death at the hands of the beast and his kingdom.

With respect to the future, then, Revelation promises that God will judge with justice.  Those who persecute will be judged and separated from the Kingdom of God, while those who were persecuted will be vindicated and enter into that Kingdom.

Does this constitute a “hope for the future” for those who are suffering? I think it does, in the same was 1 Peter or Hebrews held out hope for those suffering Imperial oppression. But how does Revelation theology of hope speak to Christians today? Is it simply “suffer in silence and let God sort it out?”

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