We believe… in one holy, catholic, and apostolic church. (The Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed, 381 AD)
In my undergrad I took a course on the intellectual history of Europe in the Post French Revolution era. Our major assignment was a biographical paper on an influential thinker from that period which we drew from a hat. I drew John Henry Newman, a key leader of the Oxford Movement. Despite his vocal denunciations of the papacy, he was eventually received into the Roman Catholic Church, even becoming a Cardinal. A key turning point in his journey was a study of the heresies of the early church, and the Creeds of the early church councils, and in particular, the confession of belief in “one holy, catholic, and apostolic church”. Many of us who identify as protestant get squeamish around the word catholic. But of course, the Vatican doesn’t own that word- it simply means universal. The early church believed in just one church in all places and times.
I have had various periods of deep sympathy for Newman’s struggle. How can I, as a baptist- a protestant- confess that I believe in one holy, catholic, and apostolic church? There have been attempts to draw lines from the early baptists back to the apostles, but these are terribly strained, and to claim that the baptists are the universal church is problematic at best (completely absurd at worst). So do I drop the Creed and sever ties to the historical confession of the Church? Well that’s problematic. Do I “swim the Tiber” and become Roman Catholic? Or become Eastern Orthodox (since their claim to Apostolicity is arguably stronger than the Vatican’s)? Do I go for the via media of the Anglican communion which connects their bishops to the historical line back to the Apostles and claims to be a communion which is part of the one catholic church but doesn’t claim to be the sole claimant of the designation one catholic church? Or do I find some way to embrace my Baptist identity with all the tension it requires? The last option is where I’ve landed. It’s awkward, but the alternatives are, for me, just as much so, if not more.
First, I think it’s worth asking is the belief in a single, unified church necessary? The bishops gathered in Constantinople in 381 thought so (and there were important historical factors for the update to the Creed to include this assertion). Jesus prayed for the unity of his people (John 17:20-21), and Paul wrote there is one body, and the unity of that body must be maintained (Ephesians 4:3-6). So this idea of a single church is both biblically, and historically vital, essential even… and yet, here we are, a body deeply divided. Where is this one body? Who is part of it and who is schismatic and false?
These questions began swirling again last year, for the umpteenth time, because of a few interactions with other clergy friends, and really got going when my social media feed was flooded with both pro and con stuff surrounding the T4G conference, the theme of which was “We Are Protestant”; an evangelical conference beginning celebrations of the protestant reformation’s 500th anniversary. And of course, my thoughts were “why is this a cause for boasting and celebration”? Shouldn’t the breaking apart of the already split Body of Christ be cause for lament?
More recently these questions came to a head when I read Steve Harmon’s Towards Baptist Catholicity. Harmon, and other recent baptists have done impeccable work in examining early baptist confessions and their attempts to navigate their connection to the historical church- the one holy, catholic, and apostolic church. Harmon suggests that early baptists intentionally retained language which reflected/echoed the creeds of the early church, and they were keen to maintain an identity within the apostolic tradition. In the 1700s, a shift began, partly in response to the challenges of the Enlightenment, towards a “no creed but the bible” mentality which became increasingly distinct from the historical trajectory of the church, and from liturgical traditions and historical methods of articulating doctrine and prayer. Harmon and others have called for a baptist recovery of more catholic, historical, liturgical traditions like recitation of the Creeds, reading the Church Fathers as a source of authority (obviously not equal to Scripture, but authoritative as a help to interpretation of Scripture and for liturgical tradition), and other parts of the theology and practice of church traditions.
In his concluding chapter, Harmon reflects on the question of why he doesn’t just move over to the Catholic, or perhaps Orthodox or Anglican tradition, all of which embrace these practices and can lay some claim to apostolic tradition? If we profess a belief in a single church, how can we stay in a denomination which is part of a schismatic movement? Is not our communion in opposition to our profession? I’ve been asked the same question myself- and more than one person has said, only half-jokingly, I’d make a better Anglican than I do a Baptist. There is so much I love about the high church traditions of Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, and Anglicanism. For instance, I think their attention to tradition provides them with tools developed over time which evangelicals desperately need; practice of the spiritual disciplines of prayer, fasting, confession, liturgy, lectio divina, the church calendar, art, etc. These practices have created a much deeper, fuller, more robust spiritual theology and appreciation of beauty, wonder, mystery. Evangelicals often dismiss these things as “empty ritualism” but I’ve found them to be anything but empty. The evangelical skepticism of these things is disheartening and robbing us of so much potential. The “no creed but the bible” attitude which developed in evangelical thought generally and baptists particularly has removed our connection to the great cloud of witnesses and contains within it a very dangerous element; the idea that I can read the Scriptures apart from the body of Christ without causing damage to the body, my interpretation of the Scriptures (or the interpretation presented by some which I prefer to make my own), and myself. This isn’t to in any way diminish the authority of the Bible (as is often the accusation) but to recognize that Scripture comes into existence in the context of the Church and that the Church was the vehicle of inspiration of the text. To disconnect the Scriptures from the “one holy, catholic, and apostolic Church” and read it in isolation from our history is to misunderstand what the Bible actually is. No creed but the bible is, in reality, naive at best, and destructive and unbiblical at worst.
Of course, I have interpretation and doctrinal differences with the Catholic/Anglican/Orthodox traditions (more below), but there are times when I think they have it right, and my own tradition is wrong. For example, the Eastern Orthodox understanding of soteriology and the meaning of the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Jesus developed by the Eastern Fathers is, I believe, more biblical than the model most often espoused by evangelicals (which understands the cross in terms of forensic imputation and/or satisfaction of God’s holiness and wrath, and fits incredibly awkwardly with the Incarnation). I am consistently amazed by the biblical scholarship and gracious, robust thinking which has been happening in the Anglican, Catholic, and Orthodox communions over the past several decades. Show me an evangelical who has the exegetical prowess of Luke Timothy Johnson or the late Joseph Fitzmyer SJ. And show me a more concise, beautiful, inspiring introduction to the Christian faith than Kallistos Ware’s The Orthodox Way. Or show me a better author on pastoral practice than Henri Nouwen. And who in the evangelical world is as influential right now as NT Wright?
But I am still Baptist. And I have no plans to move, in spite of a few tensions with that identity.
So why do I stay put?
First, there the doctrinal concerns. Harmon admits that he has valid doctrinal disagreements with the Roman Catholic Church, the Orthodox Church, and the Anglican Communion and I, as a Baptist, share these and similar concerns (Baptism, Mariology, Papal authority, transubstantiation, the rejection of the ordination of women). I admit that the case for many of these doctrines are better than most protestants actually think. But I still can’t embrace them. So can I belong where liturgical practice and doctrinal confessions declare things I believe to be false?
Like Harmon I wonder if these can or should be barriers to fellowship. Can I disagree within the one body? Harmon envisions an opportunity for baptists to be dissenters within the apostolic tradition, rather than outsiders to the tradition. Now, most would probably be quick to say that these doctrinal differences do require separation, but I’d echo Harmon’s caution here. I say that for two reasons; first, most evangelicals have no problem worshipping and praying with folks of other traditions with whom they disagree on certain doctrinal things (e.g. Baptists typically get along well with Presbyterians even though they adamantly disagree on baptism). So, where do we draw the lines between willingness to pray/worship/minister together and actually have denominational fellowship (especially since denominations are the very problem I’m wrestling with here). Second, do I agree with Baptists on all issues of doctrine? Of course there are various Baptist fellowships, and the denomination to which I belong is just one. But do I always agree with the Baptists within my own denomination? No. In fact, one colleague even declared his hatred of my doctrinal positions from the pulpit of the congregation where he serves. And yet those disagreements apparently do not require a separation. Why is that? For myself, within the CBOQ I can appreciate the allowance for a spectrum of belief on many subjects, so I’m not opposing any of our official doctrines. Everything I hold to doctrinally is well attested within the scope of historical orthodoxy- within the “one holy, catholic, and apostolic church”, as well as within the baptist tradition more broadly. However, some of my doctrine and liturgical and spiritual practices fit a bit awkwardly among my own tradition, and quite comfortably elsewhere.
I think the strength of my own denomination is the allowance for this diversity. Some disagree on this. That’s fair. I can appreciate the desire for likeness of mind on this. But I’ve also read enough of the Early Church Fathers to know that they allowed for more freedom and diversity than we often assume.
Second, and more importantly: these are my people. Harmon concludes that leaving the tradition where he was discipled in the faith, that is the community which invested in him, would be a breach of a cherished fellowship, leaving one’s own people. And I have similar tensions. I am a Baptist. I was baptized in a baptist church, by a baptist pastor, went to 3 different baptist post-secondary schools. I was called by a baptist church to pastor, and am now ordained by the Canadian Baptists of Ontario and Quebec. But perhaps more importantly, I was called here to Centre Street Baptist Church specifically, and still feel as strongly (or even stronger) now about my calling to be here, ministering with and to these particular people, this particular congregation.
Not too long ago I was having lunch with the priest at the nearby Catholic Church, and we discussed the idea of boundaries of fellowship between us. His own tradition frames the limits around the Eucharist. He and I can pray together, worship together, eat together, etc. But he cannot serve me the Eucharist because the broken Eucharistic fellowship of our two communions lamentably constrains him. He asked if he came to Centre Street, would he be allowed to participate with us. My answer was that since we practice open communion, (those who profess faith in Jesus Christ are welcomed; the old cliche that this is not our table, not a baptist table, but the Lord’s table) nothing on our side actually prohibits him from participating with us. He was surprised, and said he’d likely not partake.
And there I think is the proverbial rub for me. Why can I not leave the tradition I’m in for another? Because to do so would require me to sever table fellowship with the community which led me to Christ, and bore witness with me as I was baptized, and taught me to pray, and read Scripture; the folks who taught me to belong to the Body of Christ. Belonging elsewhere would also mean not belonging with my people.
These are my people. I am part of this group which is lamentably not visibly part of a single catholic church. Are we irreparably broken? Will the schism only end when Christ returns and sets all things right? There should be real tension and heartbreak among us, which I don’t think has sunk in as it should among protestants. How can we build more and more bridges? How can we develop greater ecumenical sharing and co-operation in serving God’s Kingdom here on earth? I have to echo Harmon, that developing a greater appreciation of the history of the Church, and reclaiming a sense of belonging to the one holy, catholic, and apostolic church is probably the best way to move towards greater unity.
Steven R. Harmon. Towards Baptist Catholicity: Essays on Tradition and the Baptist Vision (Studies in Baptist History and Thought Volume 27). Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 2006.
There are objectively good books (well researched, beautifully written, well structured, etc), and there are books that truly resonate with you personally- which address the exact thing you need addressed, and sometimes you may even find books that are both. This one is both for me. Steven Harmon has written the exact book I needed to read at this point. And I don’t just say that because we’re “friends” on Facebook and I am pretty sure he’s going to read this. This truly is the book I needed in my current context, and it is truly superbly written. My hope is to write a follow up piece to this review which unpacks some of the more personal context surrounding why this book resonated the way it did, but that would not fit into a review of the book itself.
Towards Baptist Catholicity is a collection of various essays, most of which come out of prior papers and lectures Harmon presented, now collected together and reworked to be coherent around a single topic: the inherent value in Baptists recovering tradition (particularly from patristic sources) as a source of authority and direction to bring revitalization to the Baptist vision and movement. Harmon demonstrates how early Baptists sought to maintain a connection to antiquity and included resonances of the ancient creeds in their confessions of faith (using specifically Nicene rather than biblical vocabulary) consciously placing themselves within the historic, catholic, apostolic tradition, albeit as voices of dissent against the then present state of the Church. Later Baptist confessions began removing these explicit resonances, or in some cases, ditching confessions and creeds altogether in favour of a “no creed but the bible” approach to theology. In doing so, the Baptist movement developed under an increasing influence of modernity, and the triadic narrative Gospel (the work of God in history through the three persons of the Trinity) was displaced by a Gospel of intellectual assent to a collection of more abstracted doctrines extrapolated from newly developed methods of exegesis (this influence manifested in two separate directions within protestantism; fundamentalism and “liberal” theologies equally drinking from the same well). Harmon’s suggestion is that as modernity continues to shift away from the Enlightenment ideals, the narrative forms of traditional orthodoxy and catholicity, and the means of communicating that theology liturgically, can and should be recovered as a guide for the Baptist movement, shifting from its position as dissenters from outside of tradition, to dissenters within the catholic tradition. We need not become Catholic in the sense of Roman Catholic, but develop a sense of Baptists as part of catholicity- a “thick ecumenism” which draws heavily from the broader church rather than reduced to the results of individualistic modern exegesis.
Throughout, Harmon shows his skill as a historical theologian, digging deep into early English Baptist confessions and the changes which come in later Baptist confessions (the Philadelphia Confession of Faith, the New Hampshire Confession of Faith, and the various revisions of the SBC’s Faith and Message). He also digs into his speciality: patristic sources, as well as several modern theologians who sought similar recovery of patrisitic sources for the 20th and 21st century church (Oden, Barth, etc.). The primary source research is stunning, as is the frequent engagement with secondary sources from a variety of perspectives (though at times perhaps a bit heavy on folks with whom he agrees).
Harmon also includes considerable personal reflection from his own experience within the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) which went through tremendous conflict while Harmon was in the theological education process. That conflict ultimately saw a more conservative demographic take over leadership and reshape the identity of the denomination leading to a large group breaking with the convention to form the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship (CBF), with whom Harmon is currently affiliated. The concluding chapter addresses the question “what keeps you from becoming Catholic”; a reflection on why Harmon remains part of the Baptist tradition while still pushing for a development of catholicity within that tradition rather than change affiliations. My own thinking and experience has been similar to Harmon’s, and I hope to share some of my own thoughts in the follow up piece. Harmon’s conclusion is that Baptist identity is not something to be shed easily. He identifies some reservations around Catholic, Anglican, and Orthodox practice and doctrine, which he argues are important, but would not ultimately be insurmountable for him to make a shift. For Harmon it is the ecclesial identity which keeps him where he is; he was formed and shaped within a particular tradition, and moving from one body to another would require breaking of fellowship; to become Catholic is to sever a relationship with Baptists, to break communion, and in essence assert the body which discipled him to be a false body. He concludes that a far better way forward is not to break with one and join another. Instead he suggests; “before the separated churches can move towards visible unity, they must first go deep within their own traditions in order to recover elements of catholicity that once characterized their own churches but have been subsequently neglected.”(202) In other words, the unity of the Church as a whole cannot be achieved through individuals severing ties with their formative traditions, but through a consistent reflection on the way in which one’s community has moved and developed, and a push to recover an identity as part of the catholic church. By revisiting the sources of Christian tradition, and looking at the means by which the Church communicated its faith in early catholic expression (liturgy, calendar, eucharist, etc.) Baptists can recover an identity within a tradition flowing out of and in communion with the Church through history, rather than a voice of dissent distancing itself from everything which came in between the Apostles and the present.
Harmon’s challenge is an important one, not just for Baptists but for all protestants- to think deeply, creatively, and critically about what the ramifications of our break with tradition and catholicity really means for us. The refusal to accept tradition as a source of authority in favour of a “no creed but the bible” approach has consequences, some of which are quite harmful. It fails to recognize the role and impact of individual interpretation. Harmon includes a “case study” of sorts highlighting the patristic exegesis of the Epistle to the Hebrews and how many modern conflicts, especially when Calvinists and Arminians examine Hebrews 6:1-8, could potentially be rerouted, because the text in patristic exegesis never produced the same conflicts, because they approached the text differently. The “no creed but the bible” approach has proven to have fracturing effect among evangelicals rather than a unifying one. Harmon suggests that the tradition of the Church can possibly assist in finding unity not in uniform interpretation of Scripture, but in the core narrative expressed in the early creeds. By recovering this catholicity by going back to the creeds, the church year which walks through the narrative each year, increased frequency of the Lord’s Supper, and other aspects which were part of early Baptist identity, but later cut out, we can potentially bring a renewed sense of unity to a fractured group.
I would certainly place this into the “required reading” category for Baptist leaders. Harmon’s voice is one which, if heeded, I believe can make a difference in drawing people back together. The individualism, dissension, anti-traditionalism, “chronological snobbery”, and in some cases anti-intellectualism/fundamentalism often evident in recent (mid 18th century – present) Baptist thought is confronted with gracious, constructive, and highly intelligent reminders of our identity and a vision of what can be recovered and built on. The work begun in this book (and by other Baptist theologians who have worked closely with Harmon on some join statements included as appendices) can help us chart a course towards a renewed, constructive, unified identity which will be of great benefit as we seek to respond to the challenges of the shift in our cultural context.
Cynthia Long Westfall. Paul and Gender: Reclaiming the Apostle’s Vision for Men and Women in Christ. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2016.
“Of making many books there is no end” (Eccl. 12:12). Sometimes this is how it feels with the debates surrounding gender and the Bible. The back and forth between complementarians and egalitarians goes on and on, with seemingly little or no new ground being broken, and the same basic arguments being reproduced. It gets a little wearisome at times. This was my fear when I got wind that my former professor at McMaster Divinity College, Dr. Cynthia Long Westfall was publishing a book on Paul and gender. Would this be a rehashing of the content of Keener and Payne’s work on the same topic? Could anything be added to those lengthy studies? However, I was also cautiously optimistic, since Dr. Westfall’s expertise in discourse analysis, Greco-Roman rhetoric and culture, and prowess with the subject matter, could bring some nuance and clarity. She exceeded any expectations I had. I knew it would probably be good, but this was outstanding (and, yes, I have a bias because she was my professor, and because we agree on this subject, but bias aside, this is still objectively a great book).
The Bible in general, and Paul more specifically, is often a source of tension with regards to gender. Paul has been accused of being sexist, or at the very least, that he put significant limitations on women’s roles within the home and the Church with strict prohibitions against their participation in leading, teaching, or having authority (cf. 1 Cor. 14:34-35, 1 Tim. 2:11-15). But, as studies have continued to show, things are not as simple as they may seem. Dr. Westfall reads the Pauline letters as complete wholes (rather than in snippets used as proof-texts) and does so within the context of Greco-Roman and Jewish culture, and social structures (with special attention given to patron-client relationships). By doing so, she reads the “clobber passages” within the complete discussion of gender, and places that discussion within Paul’s discussions of authority more generally (the vocabulary and imagery used in depicting leadership and authority), the body, creation, eschatology, etc. and demonstrates that much of the imagery and language runs counter the common understanding of male leadership and female submission.
A good example of how Westfall brings a fresh reading comes as she interprets Paul’s images of leadership, which often invoke imagery which in the first century would be understood to be feminine, and how that applies to relations between men and women. One the key examples is one of complementarianism’s key passages; Ephesians 5:22ff. There, Christ’s “headship” (and Westfall does do an awful lot of fleshing out of the meaning of the Greek word kephale, showing it rarely means authority over, and carries a sense of origin or source or preceeding from) which is mirrored in the husband’s “headship” in relation to his wife, which is couched in images of washing and stain removal. The man’s “headship” looks like doing laundry. Given the call of all Christians to submit to each other (Eph. 5:21) and the discussion of husbands and wives flowing from that, which uses different terms than we see in parent-child and master-slave discussion, we see Paul shifting out of patriarchal understandings rather than upholding them. Thus, the husband’s call to love as Christ loved, is followed by an explanatory image of submission and service, not a typical image of authority. This opens up a whole new way of reading texts like Romans 16 in which Paul commends multiple females leaders, who he identifies as deacons, patrons, apostles, co-workers and people who “toil” with him. The Greek verbs “co-work” (synergeo) and “toil” (kopiao) are indicators of leadership, as Westfall indicates through Paul’s use of these terms in 1 Cor. 16:15-16, which instructs the Corinthians to submit (Greek hypotasso) to anyone who co-works or toils.
Payne’s work on manuscript data, and grammatical study was solid, but what Westfall adds to the discussion through her discourse analysis and investigation into Greco-Roman rhetoric on gender, builds on the work which precedes, and cuts new ground. By reading not just the clobber-texts, and the counter-clobber-texts, but rather the whole sweep of Paul’s work, and examining how the piece of gender roles fit together with the other pieces of creation, fall, eschatology, authority and leadership, and cultural norms of the first century, we see a newer, more robust picture emerge.
While many of the conclusions are the same as other egalitarians’ works, the arguments are strengthened considerably by this new, deeper, contextual, more sensitive reading. These new questions are vital. How does Paul’s hellenism and his Judaism inform his choices of imagery and rhetorical style, and where does he seem to deviate, and how would that be heard by his original audience? How does Paul’s understanding of creation, fall, and redemption relate to gender? How does Paul’s reading of the body and sexuality (e.g. 1 Cor. 6-7) inform relationships in the family and church? How do the household structures of the ancient world, and social relationships outside it, when employed to describe gender affect how we read Paul’s discussions of gender? What about eschatology and soteriology, especially in texts like Galatians 3:28? Does this not affect how we understand gender roles rather than just equal soteriological standing? (Hint: yes, it absolutely does) If the person and work of Christ and the ongoing presence of the Spirit form leadership and authority, and redeem humanity, male and female, slave and free, Jew and Gentile, from the effects of the fall, what does that look like, and what does Paul’s choice of the imagery of service and domestic roles mean?
As a result of the tearing down of these destructive systems, many women in Paul’s circle came into key leadership positions, and the women in Corinth were encouraged to exercise freedom to prophecy and pray in the gatherings (1 Cor. 11), with heads covered, which was a cultural symbol not of subjugation but of honourable status for women. This reinterpretation of the head-coverings is a remarkable distinction between the work of Westfall among other egalitarian scholars (e.g. Philip Payne). She argues that Paul is encouraging all women, not just those of married free-woman status to wear the symbol of honour. Young, unmarried women, and female slaves were typically not to wear head-coverings, and the wearing of head-coverings symbolized a woman coming under the cover of a man. Thus, Paul is arguing a woman has an honour of her own, not through marital or social status, but from her creation in the image of God as a woman, and that woman as “the glory of man” is not an indicator of subordination, but that she shares in the image of God and of man, and was created to complete man, and carries an additional glory. Thus women are neither ontologically lower than men, nor restricted in role, with the provision that she cover her head to demonstrate her honour, rather than remain uncovered suggesting a lower position. Since 1 Cor. 11 states that women in Corinth were praying and prophesying, and 11:11-12 speaks of the mutual dependence and origin (Eve came from Adam, and all subsequent men being from a woman), any assumptions of women being prohibited from leadership in the gathering of the church or in the family doesn’t capture the overall picture Paul is creating for the home and the church.
One final argument worth noting is the emphasis Westfall places on the location of the gathered church- in the home. In Greco-Roman thinking, a woman’s sphere was the home. Paul even calls young widows to remarry and to oikodespotein (“rule the house”; often softened to “manage their homes”, but this is misleading). The church gathering was not a public gathering, but a domestic one. In the domestic world, women were used to leading and managing. Thus, in the early church, women naturally stepped into leadership roles.
Westfall’s conclusion is that Paul supports a movement away from patriarchy towards an egalitarian view of gender, in which men and women partner together and support each other in fully expressing their giftedness, and all leadership roles, whether in the home, church, or society, are open to both genders. This does not in any way remove the distinction between the genders, or reduce gender to anatomy. But it does allow for women to fully engage in leadership, and use their gifts for preaching, teaching, leading, or whatever, recognizing that these tasks may legitimately be done by people of either gender, even though the expression of those roles may look different coming from one gender than it does from the other.
She does this not, as some suggest of egalitarians, by setting aside clear directives from the New Testament, but by showing how those passages read in light of a larger theology, and the flow of Paul’s argument, and through close examination of Paul’s overall argument and choice of vocabulary, do not support the complementarian reading. The proof-text approach does not hold up to the scrutiny Westfall brings. The picture which emerges from Westfall’s research is a coherent theological vision of power structures like patriarchy being counter to the vision of God at creation, and the vision which Christ’s work in the world is bringing into being as Paul taught.
Westfall puts the most often cited complementarian arguments (Carson, Schreiner, Moo, Grudem, Piper, etc.) under close scrutiny and reveals their shortcomings. She has put together a masterpiece of a study, which should (and I think probably will) become standard reading for seminarians as we attempt to shape a theology of gender within a broader biblical (or more specifically Pauline) theology, as opposed to the cherry picking bible verses to define gender roles approach. What Wesfall has presented is thorough, compelling, honest, and overall a “game changer” of a book. I didn’t think there was new ground to break, but was happily proven wrong by this one. This brings fresh perspective, and sets a new course of investigation. She doesn’t just present a new piece, but broadens the possibilities for future discussion in her breaking of new ground. By taking a different road than egalitarian scholars, the same data (the letters of Paul) yields new and important conclusions and raises new challenges.
A while back now, I created a list of my choices for the best New Testament commentaries by book. I tried to limit selections to one commentary per New Testament book. My Old Testament commentary collection is not as extensive (ironically I spent far more time on the Old Testament in my studies, but the vast majority of my preaching in based in the New Testament), but here are my choices for the best Old Testament commentary options. As with the New Testament, if you don’t see your preferred choice here, it may be because I don’t own it, and I’m always open to recommendations. I have tried to, wherever possible, limit my selection to one or at most two, though there are exceptions. For multiple options, see my list here.
Genesis: For the best all-around, most balanced, reader-friendly, and reliable commentary, I’d go with Victor Hamilton’s 2 volumes in the NICOT series.
Exodus: Victor Hamilton has also written an outstanding commentary on Exodus. This stand alone commentary (Exodus: An Exegetical Commentary) features Hamilton’s own translation, extensive textual notes, and then his interpretation of paragraph sized chunks. Very user-friendly, and reliable.
Leviticus: Gordon Wenham, The Book of Leviticus (NICOT) is my first choice, though Leviticus is not a book I have studied in any considerable depth. I do have a few hesitations with this one, but commentaries on Leviticus are not typically exciting reads.
Numbers: Although the introduction is much too short, Timothy Ashley, The Book of Numbers (NICOT) is my preferred choice. The text in its final form is the focus, and source criticism, though noted, does not take up much space, whereas in other commentaries on Numbers (and the Pentateuch more generally), these discussions can become a distraction.
Deuteronomy: Peter Craigie, The Book of Deuteronomy (NICOT) is where I go first, even though it’s over 40 years old, and I own more in depth options. It’s fairly succinct, without feeling like it’s lacking, as he avoids the tangents and unnecessary fluff which bog down critical commentaries. I understand a replacement volume in the series is in the works. Replacing Craigie’s is no easy task.
Joshua: With all the difficulties of the violence in Joshua, one doesn’t want commentators to tip-toe around it, or make excuses, but deal with it head on. Gordon McConville & Stephen Williams, Joshua (THOTC) is a very good option, and where I go first. The Two Horizons series is a great avenue to deal with the big questions of Joshua. Though the exposition of the text is typically brief, it does get the main points well. But in this volume, the essays in the second part which wrestle with the theological themes gives this one its real value.
Judges: Barry G. Webb, The Book of Judges (NICOT) is great in overall scholarship and composition. However, I do believe he completely mishandles the Deborah narrative, both in his exposition and in the introduction. His reading of that narrative is hindered considerably by his strong complementarian views on gender which hurts an otherwise impeccable commentary. Arguably equal to or better than Webb is Susan Niditch’s commentary (OTL). Niditch’s commentary is a bit less comprehensive than Webb, but not light on detail by any stretch.
Ruth: Ruth is one of my favourite Old Testament books, and where I first cut my teeth in Old Testament Hebrew. I preached through the book of Ruth in 2014. Two great commentaries were immensely helpful in that, and both are highly recommended. Kirsten Nielsen’s OTL volume is a bit more scholarly focused and gives more on history of interpretation, but less on theological objectives, and impact on the original audience than one gets from Katherine Doob-Sakenfeld (Interpretation). But overall both are excellent.
1 & 2 Samuel: The books of Samuel have probably occupied more of my time than any other Old Testament book. Among my favourite undergrad courses was my advanced Hebrew reading course with Keith Bodner which focused on translation of 1 Samuel. Walter Brueggemann, First and Second Samuel (Interpretation) is in my mind essential reading for understanding Samuel.
1 & 2 Kings: Simon DeVries, 1 Kings, Second Edition (WBC) and T.R. Hobbs, 2 Kings (WBC) are both in depth, scholarly treatments which I highly recommend, and where I typically go first. They are highly technical, so some knowledge of Hebrew is required. For a more non-technical commentary, I go to Richard Nelson’s commentary in the Interpretation series.
1 & 2 Chronicles: My former professor Keith Bodner is currently working on a new volume in the NICOT series, which no doubt will be excellent. Right now, Sarah Japhet’s OTL volume is my go-to; but don’t take that as her getting a consolation prize. Bodner has his work cut out for him if he wants to exceed what Japhet has done- her commentary is so comprehensive, but not dull. The textual notes and citations keep the technical stuff from bogging down the exposition.
Ezra/Nehemiah: Joseph Blenkinsopp (OTL) and H.G.M. Williamson (WBC) are both worth having, though Blenkinsopp is more user-friendly than Williamson, as the WBC format is not ideal. Blenkinsopp does have more on redaction/source criticism, and Williamson has more on linguistic stuff. Both are very technical and not for the faint of heart.
Esther: The introduction of Karen Jobes, Esther (NIVAC) alone makes this one worth its weight in gold. Jobes did her doctoral research on the Greek version of Esther, so even though she’s a New Testament/Greek scholar, she is probably the best currently active biblical scholar to write on Esther, and the results here are impeccable. Frederic Bush (WBC) on Ruth and Esther is more technical, if you’re into that level of study, and also commendable is the OTL volume by Jewish text-critical scholar Jon Levenson. But for Pastors, Jobes is where I’d suggest you start.
Job: Two volumes are worthy of note: Tremper Longman III, Job (BCOTWP) and John H. Walton, Job (NIVAC). I would recommend either without hesitation. These two gentlemen are probably the best Old Testament and Ancient Near Eastern scholars currently active in the evangelical world.
Psalms: The only commentary you will ever need on the Psalms is John Goldingay, Psalms (3 vols. BCOTWP).
Proverbs: The first commentary I go to is Roland Murphy (WBC), an expert in the Wisdom and poetry books of the OT.
Ecclesiastes: I’d also strongly recommend Peter Enns, Ecclesiastes (THOTC) which is, like the Two Horizons volume on Joshua noted above, really valuable because of the theological approach to the text in the second portion. Enns is able to draw out the real value of this book without passing over or taking lightly the very real challenges of Qohelet. That said, Roman Catholic scholar Roland Murphy (WBC) is, like his Proverbs commentary, absolutely superb, and my preferred technical commentary.
Song of Songs: Tremper Longman III (NICOT) is the typically viewed as the standard, but I’d also add the less well known and more recent volume by Richard Hess (BCOTWP) and once again Roland Murphy (Hermeneia). All three read the book as an erotic song depicting human sexuality in a very positive light, and interact frequently, and graciously with other commentators throughout history who have proposed various allegorical readings, but are also sensitive to other ancient near eastern erotic poetry and the light those texts shed on Song of Songs. They come to similar conclusions, so any will serve pastor and student/scholar well.
Isaiah: If you can go to a multi-volume set, go with Joseph Blenkinsopp’s AB. Because of its immense size and all the difficulties of textual criticism, Isaiah cannot be comprehensively treated in a single volume.
Jeremiah: I would strongly recommend Walter Brueggeman’s A Commentary on Jeremiah: Exile and Homecoming. It is not a technical commentary, but focuses on sociological and literary reading of Jeremiah in its final form, highlighting the embodiment of the pathos of Judah in slow movement towards collapse and the aftermath of Babylonian conquest. For a more traditional exegetical-critical commentary, Robert Carroll’s OTL volume is my first choice.
Lamentations: Commentaries on Lamentations alone are not exactly abundant, however, this does not mean there is a shortage of quality here. Robin Parry’s Lamentations (THOTC) and Dianne Bergant’s Lamentations (AOTC) are exceptional commentaries for pastors or students (though I think Parry’s is ever-so-slightly better). For a more scholarly option, Adele Berlin’s Old Testament Library volume is outstanding, and probably my overall favourite.
Ezekiel: There is not a book in the bible I’ve avoided the way I’ve avoided Ezekiel, so I don’t have a strong opinion on Ezekiel commentaries. But Joseph Blenkinsopp’s Interpretation volume is where I go first on the rare occasion I am in Ezekiel, usually because of an inter-textual link between the NT and Ezekiel. It is an excellent pastoral-theological commentary.
Daniel: Although the format is a bit unorthodox, John Goldingay, Daniel (WBC) is my first choice. Some conservative evangelicals have disliked his conclusions on dating and some parts of interpretation, but I find his reading to be the most plausible. A more recent, and more user-friendly option is Carol Newsom’s outstanding OTL volume.
Minor Prophets: Every series has its own way of dividing up the “minor prophets”. So instead of doing each of the 12 individually, I’ll just condense them together and make a few suggestions. J. Andrew Dearman, The Book of Hosea (NICOT) and Douglas Stuart, Hosea-Jonah (WBC) cover Hosea well, though Stuart is less strong on Joel and Obadiah than he is on Hosea, Amos, and Jonah. Leslie Allen, The Books of Joel, Obadiah, Jonah and Micah (NICOT) is excellent, and gives all four books their due. James Limburg, Jonah (OTL) contains some unique features, like an appendix on Jonah in Jewish and Christian art, and his introduction and treatment of the genre and uniqueness of Jonah among the Twelve is very insightful. John Goldingay & Pamela Scalise, Minor Prophets II (UBCS) is a great intro level commentary, which doesn’t feel like it lacks much in exegesis, even though it doesn’t cover technical or critical questions. Ralph L. Smith, Micah-Malachi (WBC) is much shorter than it’s counterpart by Douglas Stuart on Hosea-Jonah, but still a very worthy volume to have. Wilda Gafney’s Wisdom Commentary volume on Nahum, Habakkuk, and Zephaniah brings a unique feminist perspective in addition to a pastor-friendly general exposition. Mark Boda’s recent NICOT volume The Book of Zechariah is a beast of a commentary, but incredibly well done. Mignon Jacobs The Books of Haggai and Malachi (NICOT) is excellent both in its scholarship and pastoral relevance. And lastly, a great pastoral commentary on Nahum-Malachi is Elizabeth Achtemeier’s Interpretation series volume.
Rupen Das. Compassion and the Mission of God: Revealing the Invisible Kingdom. Carlisle: Langham, 2016.
Objectively reviewing books written by acquaintances, colleagues, and friends is always difficult to do. This is eased considerably when the work they’ve produced is undeniably really, really good. Such is the case with Rupen Das’ new book, Compassion and the Mission of God. Rupen gave me a copy when he came to speak at Centre Street in May. Rupen Das and his wife Mamta are our partners in mission (PIM) through Canadian Baptist Ministries, currently working out of Amsterdam on development and relief projects through the European Baptist Federation. His work focuses considerable attention and resources on the Syrian refugee crisis both in Europe as refugees flee the Middle East, but also in the Middle East itself through partners like LSESD, and local congregations on the ground. I first met Rupen in Beirut, Lebanon in 2013 when I was there to see first hand the amazing work happening through Baptists in Lebanon. After returning home, and sharing about what is happening, Centre Street enthusiastically decided to make Rupen and Mamta our new PIM, as Colin and Karen Godwin were coming back to Canada with Colin taking up a new position at Carey Theological College in Vancouver.
Compassion and the Mission of God centres around the questions of integral mission- how it is that care and concern for the poor relates to the proclamation of the Good News. It would not be disputed among Christians that the Church should be engaged in charitable work; using our resources to help those in need. But what is the theological grounding for that? And where does the work of development to alleviate not just immediate concerns, but systemic issues of poverty, insecurity, and lack of access to things like education, medical care, etc. fit into all of this? Is that the work of NGOs or government aid? Or does biblical theology place this as a major concern for God’s people? Rupen Das argues that all of these things are part of the biblical picture of the Kingdom of God.
All of this flows from the prelimary question (p. 9-12) why does the bible seem to commit so much time, and reveal such a deep concern for the poor? If the mission of the Church is focused on the issues of redemption from sin through repentance and faith, why does the care for the poor still have such a seemingly central place? How are these things connected? Chapter 2 frames the discussion, by discussing hermeneutical concerns, and surveying the key common conclusions drawn by Christians of different stripes. Then in chapters 3, 4, & 5, Das examines the biblical text’s consistent call for concern for the poor (The Old Testament, the Gospels, and the Epistles and Early Church respectively) and which inform Christ mission. Das demonstrates that throughout the entirety of Scripture concern for the vulnerable is a key component of justice and righteousness; that God’s concern is care for his creation, and we as his image bearers must show the same concern, especially for the poor and vulnerable.
Chapter 6 deals with theological challenges- defining the Gospel (which Das connects very closely with the Kingdom of God coming on earth, thus involves a strong sense of reordering God’s creation according to his design and character) and the influence of various eschatologies on the practice of relief and development, in particular the ways in which dispensationlism downplays the need to steward creation and develop communities since the time is close at hand for God to destroy the planet and start over. Das argues against this depiction, instead demonstrating that God’s renewal of heaven and earth is close at hand, and we are bring the future vision of the new creation to bear in the present as part of our witness to life in the age to come.
Chapters 7-9 look at the influences on modern mission; liberation theology, fundamentalism, the Lausanne Covenant, and the Micah Declaration, and how the notions of what mission in the world looks like, shifting from a colonial mindset towards integral mission- a balanced approach of word and deed in sustainable ways which preserve dignity of indigenous cultures- and the development of a mission focused on transformation through witness as both proclamation of the Gospel and the tangible outworking of the message of the coming Kingdom of God through justice, care, relief, and transforming communities to places where God’s care and concern for the poor is lived out.
Chapter 10 then develops the notion of the character of God as the basis for all of this. Das argues that because God creates out of his own goodness and continues to extend compassion to his creation, this is the theological anchor for the integral mission pattern developed in chapters 7-9. Ultimately our call to show care and concern and to work with communities and individuals to develop and just and caring pattern or system is a reflection of who God is.
Compassion and the Mission of God is perhaps the best thing I’ve read on this topic. Thoroughly researched, anchored in solidly biblical witness, and good systematic and hisorical theology, and effective practice of experts in missiology, Das doesn’t just regurgitate the already well established notions and practices, but draws various streams of thought together, critiquing the flaws honestly but graciously, and affirming the helpful aspects, and also then putting his own contribution on top of that, moving the conversation forward. Das is not trying to reinvent the wheel, but rests on the fine work of Stott, Newbiggin, Bosch, Niebuhr, Sider, Yoder and others. But he also brings to bear his decades of work in the field of community development and disaster relief. He weaves together good biblical theology, with missiological principles, and first hand experience. You are fed in multiple ways, and challenged in a very real sense to fit various pieces together in an integrated theology, rather than having theology on one side and mission as something only somewhat connected on the other.
Stylistically, it is clearly and methodically composed. The central argument is developped in a logical way, and doesn’t get lost in tangents. All the pieces fit together in a way that makes sense, and makes the point clear. In just 200 pages, he is able cover a whole lot of ground, because the focus is specific, and he stays on task. To draw together a biblical theology of mission, a systematic theology of mission, with historical development of mission into a concise volume without making one feel like something is missing would seem like a insurmountable task, but I think Das has managed just that.
Perhaps it’s just my own bias coming through, but at every point I found myself nodding in agreement, and affirming the argument being presented. I would wholeheartedly back Das’ vision of mission which reflects the Kingdom of God breaking into our world. The alleviating of suffering and brokenness caused by poverty, systemic injustice, disaster, oppression and violence is a steady and persistent thread in the biblical text. It’s a central focus of the early Church’s work. In no way can we separate the work towards care and concern for the vulnerable from the proclamation of the Gospel. This really should be required reading for Churches, parachurch groups, seminarians, and denominational bodies. In a globalized world, with the technology and opportunities we have in front of us, we can do far more to alleviate suffering than was possible in the past. Our reach has extended considerably, and Das has provided a solid theological foundation for developing a strong and potent witness which can be worked out in a variety of different situations and in a variety of different ways.
Craig Bartholomew. Excellent Preaching: Proclaiming the Gospel in its Context & Ours. Bellingham: Lexham Press, 2015.*
Preaching well is a goal of every Pastor. But what does excellent preaching look like, what does it do, and how do we do it? That’s the topic of Craig Bartholomew’s small book Excellent Preaching. The goal for Bartholomew here is to present preaching as the task of being faithful to the biblical text by reading it in it’s own context, but working to translate the text’s purposes for a 21st century context. Bartholomew argues that often preachers focus on one of these tasks or the other; being exegetically deep or being culturally relevant and applicable. Excellent Preaching challenges the preacher to be both, to take faithful exegesis seriously, but to then take the next steps to present the meaning of the text in a way which connects to the context of the audience of a given sermon; this is what the text means in its original context and this is what the text means for us here and now. Bartholomew uses the analogy of “landing the plane”. A sermon needs to get from its source to its destination. But how does it do that? Bartholomew notes the difference between a lecture and a sermon (12). It is not meant to simply convey information and the results of research, but it is also not meant to be simply emotional, to tell a good story or make people feel good. Instead it is meant to bring about transformation of the audience- that’s the destination. Bartholomew draws from his earlier research on the Scriptures as a grand narrative, and suggests a sermon should connect the text to the congregation to help them locate their place in the larger narrative of the Gospel picture of creation-fall-restoration-consummation. The sermon should therefore bridge the gap between the biblical world and the present situation.
Brevity can be a very helpful thing. Sometimes, more needs to be said. But Excellent Preaching says what it’s meant to say in a compact, no-words-wasted, straight to the point form. At only 68 pages before the appendixes, bibliography, and index, there’s no meandering here. Bartholomew says what he wants to say, and doesn’t beat around the bush (I’m sure there’s a lesson in this for preachers like myself with a reputation for brain dumping, and being a little long-winded).
The thrust of the book is of course, quite correct. I would wholeheartedly agree that our preaching should be faithful to the biblical text and also presented in such a way that it proves to be relevant to the life on the audience to which one is speaking. The reminder to preachers needs to be reiterated- the purpose is not to provide a theology lecture, nor is it to simply serve platitudes that tug on heart strings, nor is it to be a self-help presentation. The sermon exists to bring the biblical text to the people in a way which allows them to see new ways to live out the teaching. Bartholomew challenges preachers to make the study of the text a primary concern, and challenges churches to ensure their leaders are able to devote themselves to the ministry of the word.
Bartholomew’s use of secondary sources is generally helpful. He leans on the experts, and frequently incorporates the work of notable thinkers. Bartholomew is very much Reformed leaning, so most of these sources are from other reformed minded folks (Stott, Barth, Newbiggin). Perhaps some more folks outside his own tradition might have been helpful to round things out, but the number of interactions with other sources in such a short, popular level work is commendable. It’s engaged, researched, and grounded in established work by experts in the field, and not simply anecdotal. But it also adds something to the conversation, by incorporating the Gospel metanarrative as a means to draw hearers into the text.
Bartholomew helpfully gives a few examples of how to do this, by selecting a few texts and showing how he would go about making this connection between the text world and the present (54-66). For each of those texts, he demonstrates the key telos of the passage- the heart or goal to which the text points, and how to draw that out and make it relevant to the new situation of the present. One example: Gal. 1:10-2:21 is his first text, which he identifies as having a key telos around Paul’s apostolic authority, which was being challenged by certain teachers trying to “Judaize” the newly converted Gentiles in Galatia. So what does the imposition of circumcision have to do with the present context? The issue to focus in on, according to Bartholomew is authority. Living in a culture which highly values independence and is suspicious of authority, this text can speak into the situation to balance things out- the extremes of oppressive authoritarian structures and complete lack of accountability are both bad. Paul’s challenges around authority are different from more present struggles, but can inform the present discussions.
Because it does what it’s designed to do, and makes one specific argument, and the argument is a valid one, the criticisms one can make here are going to be stylistic issues. The first problem is in the first few pages, Bartholomew in calling people to avoid the two pitfalls of preaching noted above, uses unfortunately overly polemical and overly generalized language- conservative evangelicals tend towards the more exegetical but stuck in the biblical world, and “liberal” mainliners are stuck in the attempts to be culturally relevant, but are ignoring the biblical text. This over-generalization can potentially fuel hostilities and conflict between different traditions. It may have been helpful to nuance this a bit more. Many so-called mainliners are excellent and dilligent exegetes. Similarly, there are many evangelicals who are more focused on being relevant and appealing to the contemporary culture to draw in larger crowds. Obviously in a condensed space it’s hard to be nuanced, but more could have been done.
Second, the “Landing the Plane” analogy sometimes works, but sometimes doesn’t. Analogies are good, but become distracting when pushed to far, or when they feel forced. The captain, cargo, airport, view from arrivals, etc. distracts from the main thrust of the book, and Bartholomew expends too much effort trying to make the pieces fit into the image. Perhaps if the book was a tad longer, connecting the argument to the analogy could use more page space.
The other question one is left with is the role of preaching within the local church gathering. In some traditions preaching is something which, in terms of the amount of time given to it within the overall allotment within gatherings, receives less focus. Should the preaching be given less time so as to make it easy to retain, but also to allow the gathering to focus on acts of worship in song, prayer, sacraments/ordinances? How should the preaching connect with the other elements of the worship? The rest of the service should be in mind when framing a sermon, but how? Bartholomew doesn’t explore this.
Finally, Appendix B is an expanded Apostles’ Creed which is somewhat strange. It doesn’t lend much to overall impact of the book, so it’s placement here is a questionable choice. Also, unilaterally modifying a Creed is something which one has to wonder about.
This little book is a helpful tool for Pastors, and anyone who is invited to speak from the pulpit. It clearly and simply articulates a central thesis, and provides some helpful “how to”. Bartholomew effectively calls Pastors to renewed focus on good exegetical practices, and commitment to deep study of the text of Scripture, while also encouraging those who preach to make the message engage with the real needs, concerns, and challenges of contemporary life. Excellent preaching should be something we value in our congregations, and the little volume is a welcomed, easy-to-read resource for those called to speak into the life of the local Church.
*This book was provided free of charge in exchange for an honest review. Many thanks to Lexham Press and Jessi Strong
Dayton Hartman. Church History for Modern Ministry: Why Our Past Matters for Everything We Do. Bellingham: Lexham Press, 2016.*
I’m a Pastor with an educational background in history, theology, and ministry studies. So a book about how Church history and historical theology work together with contemporary ministry should be right up my alley. When I was offered this book for review, my thought was, well, this is kind of my schtick.
What it’s about:
The old cliche (attributed to George Santayana and modified by Winston Churchill) goes, “Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” Hartman argues that ignorance of Church history places the Church in danger of repeating past mistakes and heresies. Church history can serve as a guide and guard of our teaching and practice. The Creeds and councils, the great leaders and theologians of the past, can serve us in keeping us away from heretical teachings which have come up in the past, and practices which have injured the Church’s mission. So, it is wise for us to pay attention to Church history in the present.
The basic premise is of course completely accurate. There is great benefit to being well acquainted with the historical teaching and practice of the Church. The Creeds were written for the benefit of the Church, to mark out boundaries for our teaching and practice- Hartman uses the language of “guardrails”(16). The Fathers, theologians and Reformers can all serve us. So the basic premise of the book is a good one. We need more resources bringing to the present the richness of historical theology, and I would excitedly get behind projects doing that well. Hartman’s purpose and goal is wise and to be commended. His execution though falls far short.
One of the biggest struggles for me was the shocking lack of actual history done. A quick glance at the endnotes (and again, I feel obligated to note my objection to endnotes instead of footnotes) and we find surprisingly few interactions with church history, especially the primary sources. We see only a handful of references to the Apostolic Fathers, then we skip most of the Post-Apostolic Fathers (including all the Eastern Fathers, except for a single reference to Justin Martyr) with just a pair of references to Tertullian and a few to Augustine and then everything from Augustine to Luther is completely absent, and other than the Reformed confessions, we have nothing from Calvin to the present. In other words, the vast majority of church history is absent. From an author with a Doctorate in Church history, one would expect more than this. The selective reading perhaps reveals something of the bias of the author, a Southern Baptist who leans heavily towards a more Calvinistic theological slant from what I see here. I am of course not of that perspective. However, I think that while bias is inevitable, in this case ignoring those outside the typical succession appealed to by Reformed Baptists (Tertullian -> Augustine -> Calvin -> Westminster -> Puritans -> Spurgeon) leaves Hartman with a problematically narrow view of historical orthodoxy, historical practice, and deprives his presentation of some of the richest, deepest, and most beautiful Spiritual and doctrinal theology the Church has produced. In other words, Hartman, in trying to help the contemporary church (and specifically the tradition he’s a part of) to avoid the problems of the past, he has inadvertently entrenched a problematically narrow understanding of historical theology. By excluding the mystics, the Cappadocians, Athanasius, Chrysostom, monasticism, medieval art and liturgy, Anabaptist theology, Anglicanism and Anglo-Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, pentecostal and charismatic theology and practice, etc. Hartman has actually ignored most of the value of Church history for us in contemporary ministry. The contemporary Church needs more battles over confessions and Creeds and the schisms that rigidity produces like we need another worship war, or another inquisition, or more Crusades, or more inter-Christian warfare.
Second, from the stylistic side, Hartman includes high school textbookesque boxes of summaries of people and events which seem completely out of place. If the reader needs this information, it can be mentioned in a footnote (he gives snapshots of Augustine, Luther, Spurgeon, Creeds, Catechism, Calvin, Puritans, exegesis, etc.). The authors assumes the readers need to have bare bones of church history explained, so either the Church’s knowledge of its own history is in really bad shape, or the author assumes the situation is that bad. I’m sure a lot of folks in the pew might not be overly familiar with this, but this book is targeted at Pastors (or so I understand since chapters end with a “Dear Pastor” section). These things function as a distraction in my opinion, and when the book is only 90 pages including 2 appendices, indexes and endnotes (a mere 60 pages without these), the inclusion these show that there isn’t much actual material here. We aren’t given any real meat. There’s just nothing much of substance to flesh out the premise.
Next, this book is supposed to be (if I understand correctly) inherently practical. How to use Church history in a contemporary church context. But little actual “how to” is given. For example Hartman argues that the Fathers, especially Augustine, emphasized mentorship relationships (I don’t think his case is overly convincing, but I’m sure the Fathers did invest in young catechumens) and so the contemporary Church needs to invest in mentoring. But how? What do those relationships look like? How do we work that out? How was that done in Church history (here’s one of those places that monastics would certainly come in handy)? Here we get precious little in the way of content, and almost no connection to Church history.
Lastly, not a major issue of content, but something which undercuts the argumentation, Hartman tries to add humour through an attempted joke about hearing the phrase “Nicene Creed” and assuming it was referring to some obscure unreleased song by the band Creed. He tries to argue “I’m not saying that Creed is the greatest band of all time, but they are.”(13) It’s hard to trust the taste of anyone who makes that claim, since Creed is of course the epitome of late 90s pseudo-grunge mediocrity masquerading as alternative rock music. Failed pop-culture references just make for awkward writing.
This book is honestly a a flop for me. I just don’t see much here of value. I dislike writing reviews like this, because it means criticizing a fellow leader in the body of Christ who has put in work and tried to present something of benefit to the Church. But I just came away from this one without feeling like a conversation hasn’t been moved along, or had any real substance added to it. Hartman elevates a certain theological tradition while ignoring everything outside of that (which happens to be the overwhelming majority of Church history). By suggesting that this tradition is the orthodox one, the implication is suspicion of others. The premise of encouraging Christians to read more of Church history and historical theology is admirable, but in trying to make that case, Hartman has gone off course. It strikes me as presumptuous regarding the sole claim of orthodoxy of a single line of tradition through Church history. This book just didn’t offer any real value.
*This book was graciously given free of charge in exchange from the publisher. Many thanks to Lexham Press.
Brad Jersak. Her Gates Will Never Be Shut: Hope, Hell, and the New Jerusalem. Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 2009.
“I’m not a universalist, but I hope God is.” I’m not sure who first said this, but it’s often attributed to NT Wright. Is it right for an evangelical to hope for and consider the possibility that maybe all of humanity will be reconciled to God? For most of history the answer from almost all evangelical theologians has been a resounding no. But can a biblical case be made for at least hoping for the possibility of universal salvation. Recently, I interviewed Brad Jersak for the Rethinking Hell podcast regarding his work on this subject, and here I want to respond to his book, Her Gates Will Never Be Shut.
What it’s about:
Jersak is presenting what he calls hopeful inclusivism. This he depicts as the belief that we cannot presume that any person will be “lost”, that is, the belief that God’s victory over evil, and his sovereignty over all things, and the biblical statement that God desires or wills that all be saved means we have basis for hoping for, and striving for the salvation of all people. This is not the same as universalism (the belief that all will be saved) in that it doesn’t speak in presumption, but in hopefulness. It is also different from pluralistic universalism (all roads lead to God), in that it insists that all things will be made new and reconciled through Jesus Christ. It is also to be distinguished from many forms of Christian inclusivism, in that his argument is not in spite of Scripture, but because of Scripture. So Jesus is still the exclusive means of salvation, but that salvation may extend beyond those who confess faith prior to death, either through postmortem repentance, or through a time of purgation and ultimate restoration, and Scripture is still the authoritative guide for this view. Jersak argues that the Scriptures at least leave open the possibility of hope for the restoration of all things through Christ’s saving work, and we can and should hope and pray that God’s victory will indeed make all things new.
So what about all that biblical evidence of hell and destruction and judgement? Jersak would read these as penultimate, not ultimate things. Those who are found wanting at judgement are “reduced to ash”, but from the ash will emerge as resurrected, made new person. In other words, Jersak suggests that annihilationists do correctly read the passages which they interpret as pointing to the death and non-being of the unsaved. But, he argues that other passages present us with another picture of something beyond that destruction. The Scriptures are thus polyphonic, speaking in many different ways, and taken as a whole hold out the hope of universal restoration. And so when we see the language of “all” in passages like Col. 1, Rom. 5, 2 Cor. 5, 1 Cor. 15, it does mean all (chapter 6).
Jersak begins with giving the “lay of the land”, giving brief summaries of different views, and some of the other questions (God’s character, atonement, Scripture, our own bias and desires) we bring to the question judgement and hell and how those may influence our conclusions (for better or for worse), and leaves us with a challenge to avoid presumptions, and ask what possibilities the text of Scripture leaves us with. He provides four theses (10):
1. We cannot presume to know that all will be saved or that any will not be saved.
2. The revelation of God in Christ includes real warnings about the possibility of damnation for some and also the real possibility that redemption may extend to all.
3. We not only dare hope and pray that God’s mercy would finally triumph over judgment; the love of God obligates us to such hope.
4. Revelation 21-22 provides a test case for a biblical theology of eschatalogical hope.
He then (part 1) journeys through the backstory of the Old Testament to develop an accurate depiction of the vision from which the New Testament draws. He unpacks the terminology of Sheol, Hades, Gehenna, Tartarus, eternal, punishment, etc. to present the “possibilities” of damnation and hope, and the various ways the bible speaks of judgement and punishment.
By looking at the Old Tetsament’s (and especially Jeremiah’s) use of the Valley of (the Sons of) Hinnom, and then tracking the development of the Gehenna tradition in Second Temple Judaism, and the diversity within Rabbinic thought, Jersak shows more than one way of viewing Gehenna in the time of Jesus, thus more than one “possibility” for those who enter Gehenna; annihilation, eternal torment, or restoration after a time. Jersak’s conclusion is that the portrayal of the New Testament is consistent with the vision of the Old Testament of judgment followed by the possibility of restoration, as Ezekiel 16:53-55 even suggests Sodom and Gomorrah, though completely destroyed, will find restoration.(91-97) This vision of destruction and restoration, argues Jersak can be seen in the New Testament in death and resurrection. Death can be seen as penultimate- able to be undone by resurrection and restoration. Thus, Scripture in fact leaves open the possibility for reconciliation, but a stern warning of the possibility of judgement, making all three major views (eternal torment, conditional immortality, and universal reconciliation) possible outcomes.
Part 2 examines historical theology, in which Jersak demonstrates strong cases for apokatastasis among the early church fathers, alongside the other views. He argues that until Augustine in the West, and even later in the East, apokatastasis (reconciliation of all) was an option for theologians, and was proposed by several influential thinkers (notably Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Gregory of Nyssa). Augustine becomes the looming figure for the Western medieval tradition, and into protestantism through Calvin, who was quite fond of Augustine. Thus, our limiting of the possibilities is unjustified since several key, influential, orthodox thinkers have presented this notion, and the Church has never had an ecumenical statement presenting a single view.
Finally, in Part 3 Jersak looks the vision of Revelation 21-22 to show how the possibility of reconciliation is left open. That the unredeemed remain outside the city, but the gates remain open, and the Spirit says “come”. These, he argues suggest an invitation to reconciliation postmortem. By connecting the river of the water of life in Revelation, with the river depicted running from Jerusalem east to the sea, causing life to spring up (Ezek. 47) can be read as life going out from the heavenly Jerusalem to all people.
I actually believe this book is far more thoroughly biblical than any argument for eternal torment I have read to date. This isn’t to say that Jersak is right (I don’t really think he is; see below), or that there isn’t a biblical case to be made for eternal torment (I haven’t read every book on the topic, obviously, but what I have read, I have found unconvincing and scant on actual biblical insight) but simply that Jersak is at every turn engaged in exegesis (parts 1 & 3) and historical theology (part 2) and does it thoroughly, does it well, and presents with grace and rigour. Jersak provides keen, incisive, and intelligent analysis of the background context from the Old Testament; the language and imagery of Jeremiah and Ezekiel especially, in formulating a set of possibilities for later interpreters to draw from. Although his reading of Second Temple and Rabbinic texts is somewhat selective and limited (the whole book is 210 pages, so he probably could have done more with this section in my opinion) it does provide sufficient evidence for us to at least open up our understanding of the assumptions within Jesus’ historical context. Jews of the first century had differing ideas about Gehenna, the fate of the wicked, God’s justice, and the Age to Come. In particular his reading of the Lake of Fire and River of Life imagery from Revelation in light of Ezekiel 16 & 47, Hosea 11, and Zechariah 14 (chapter 5) is of note, and really should become a central topic for discussion moving forward. Those who wish to put aside claims of hopeful inclusivists and universalists will need to wrestle with this and respond well, as this is a strong, compelling, and well presented argument.
The Historical theology section is where I think Jersak can score the most points. The Old Testament and Second Temple data may provide the basis for the possibility, but did the authors of Scripture, and the Christian Church explore that possibility? And in the case of the Fathers, Jersak shows us that at least some did. Jersak demonstrates that Clement of Alexandria understood punishment in the New Testament (Greek kolasis) to mean correction doled out to bring sinners to repentance in the present or in the Age to Come. These punishments are not to satisfy God’s wrath, honour, or justice (as in the thought of Anselm or Calvin) but meant to bring stubborn, unrepentant people to humility and repentance. Similarly, Origen draws on the notion of apokatastasis panton (“restoration of all”) from Acts 3:20-21, and nobody seems to refute that Origen taught this doctrine that the fires of the Age to Come were healing, transformative, or purgative. Finally Jersak shows that the Cappadocian Father Gregory of Nyssa becomes dogmatic even about the restoration of all. Thus we have at least three examples of Church Fathers (one of whom is recognized as a pillar of historical orthodoxy) affirm at least the possibility of salvation for all. Jersak does leave out some more contested folks who may have implied the possibility of apokatastasis (Maximus the Confessor, Gregory Nanzianzen, Evagrius of Pontus, Theodore of Mopsuestia, Isaac the Syrian, et al). He could have scored more points, but shows some restraint, as some of this is disputable data.
I of course disagree with Jersak on this particular discussion. I still affirm conditional immortality (the belief that humanity requires the intervention of God and his salvation through the person of Jesus Christ in order to have eternal life, and thus, those who reject this salvation perish and go into non-existence). I believe this is what Scripture teaches, as a vast array of biblical texts speak of destruction with no implication of hope beyond. Philippians 3:19 says of those who oppose the cross, “Their end is destruction” (Greek: on to telos apoleia). The word telos (“end/completion”) is a strong way of speaking. This certainly does not appear to be a statement of penultimate things, but of an ultimate, final thing. Other texts like Matthew 7:13-14, 10:28, 2 Thess. 1:9, 2 Peter 2 & 3, 1 John 5:11-12, and others speak of death, destruction, extinction, etc. with no mention of any hope beyond that.
Secondly, the “all” passages, when read in broader context are passages I find hard to read in the way Jersak does. For instance, when Jersak quotes Colossians 1, he ends the quote at verse 19. But if we keep reading, we see that this reconciliation will be completed, “if you continue in your faith, established and firm, and do not move from the hope held out in the gospel.” (Col. 1:23). Similarly, even though 2 Cor. 5:14 and 1 John 2:2 speak of Christ’s death for all, this simply makes this reconciliation available to all. There is still a call “We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God.” (2 Cor. 5:20). There is still an act of faith, trust, response required for reconciliation, and there is no text which makes it explicit (at least in my reading) that postmortem repentance will be an option. The all in all refers to all things which are part of the Age to Come, I would argue. There are some, perhaps many or even most of humanity, who I believe will sadly be excluded. As much as I may want Jersak to be right, I don’t see enough evidence in Scripture for this. I think he raises some questions which certainly give me more than enough cause to affirm his position as within the boundaries of what the Church has historically accepted as orthodox. I see no reason to exclude Brad from the table of orthodoxy. I am deeply saddened that others have done so. Having interviewed him and read this book and other pieces he has written and listened to him lecture, I not only dare to call him a brother and friend, I emphatically affirm this, in spite of our disagreement on this particular topic.
Her Gates Will Never Be Shut is a book which needs to be widely read. The out-of-hand dismissal and knee-jerk reactions against any and every assertion of the hope of the salvation of all is unjustified by Church history, and if we actually hear what is being said by Jersak and others, violates our protestant assertions of Sola Scriptura and semper reformanda. I am very grateful to Brad Jersak for this book, and his interaction with me on this topic. I am encouraged by his graciousness, even in the face of fierce opposition. My hope is that this book will open up a conversation between camps which can enlighten us to the beauty of diversity within orthodoxy. Jersak draws heavily from the Eastern Orthodox tradition which draws sharp distinction between dogma and theologomena. The Early Church did not make a firm dogma with regard to hell. So within the communion of the holy, catholic and apostolic church, there can be lively, but gracious discussion on this, and Brad Jersak has moved the conversation along. There is more to unpack obviously, and rehashing the same tired arguments is not useful. This book pushes our understanding, opens up the possibilities of alternative readings, and challenges those who disagree to disagree better.
Richard Bauckham. Gospel Women: Studies in the Named Women of the Gospels. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002.
Richard Bauckham is without a doubt an exceptional scholar of both biblical theology and the non-canonical texts of early Christianity and Second Temple Judaism. Gospel Women focuses that immense knowledge and research skill into the topic of the women named in the 4 Gospel accounts, and brings into the conversation the material regarding these women in apocryphal texts. By working together his incredible mind for cataloging and interpreting the texts of Judaism and early Christianity with modern feminist hermeneutics, and complementarian objections, Bauckham shows a multiplicity of skills and keen awareness of modern methodologies (though the methodology discussion in the intro and first chapter can be a bit dry, they do perform an important function).
At times Bauckham brings a bewildering onslaught of evidence and analysis, bringing every imaginable piece of data to bear. At times this becomes a distraction from the specific purpose of the text (for instance bringing a lengthy discussion of the origins of the name Chuza, Joanna’s husband, which doesn’t contribute all that much to the discussion of Joanna). Some sections could have been condensed without hurting the overall impact of the book, and also could have afforded more room for discussing the women who were left of this study (Mary Magdalene doesn’t get a specific chapter, nor do Mary & Martha, which are notable exclusions) and perhaps a summary/conclusion chapter at the end. The book is over 300 pages and still leaves these aspects out, which speaks to the immensity of the data included and analyzed. Given the paucity of references to women’s function in the narratives, it is incredible how much Bauckham has unpacked for us through bringing in the non-canonical traditions, historical context, and evaluating the validity of feminist reinterpretation.
Bauckham brings much needed attention to the role of the specific inclusion of several women in the text of the Gospel accounts. His detailed investigation into Joanna, and her possible identification with Junia, mentioned by Paul (Rom. 16:7) is very intriguing, though of course not completely verifiable, and his critique of Grudem, Wallace and Burer is overwhelming and definitive in demonstrating that their reading which excludes Junia from the apostles is simply not warranted by the textual evidence or the historical evidence. That chapter alone makes this volume worth every penny.
Bauckham’s conclusions are somewhat modest, given the incredible evidence he brings, but he ultimately concludes that although the text of Scripture indicates a role for women in apostolic witness bearing and preaching of the kerygma of the early church, the cultural conditions did result in significant limitations in the expression of that equality. So egalitarians may feel Bauckham doesn’t go far enough, but those who exclude women from offices or functions of authority in home and church will be pushed and challenged by the evidence as it is presented here.
Michael Bird & Brian Rosner (eds.). Mending a Fractured Church: How to Seek Unity with Integrity. Bellingham: Lexham Press, 2015.*
It’s no secret that Christians disagree- sometimes with considerable harshness. It’s also no secret that the New Testament issues strong calls for the unity of the Church, and for graciousness and charity over disputable matters. But what are the non-disputable matters? How do you ensure that the discussion of disputable matters is charitable and does not lead to breaking of the unity? Mending a Fractured Church is meant to bring biblical, theological, and historical considerations to bear on these questions, and promote a greater sense of unity among Christians who still differ on some issues without losing or compromising essential doctrines.
What it’s about:
Mending a Fractured Church brings together a collection of scholars (almost all of whom are faculty at Ridley College in Australia; Peter Leithart being the exception) to examine the biblical precedents for handling disputes about doctrine or practice, as well as looking to Protestant history and contemporary challenges posed because of a plurality of backgrounds in contemporary churches. The authors attempt (as the subtitle suggests) to set precedents for how address theological concerns in ways which preserves the unity of the Church but doesn’t compromise doctrinal integrity.
The first essay (Andrew Malone) seeks to set the parameters: what do we mean by “disputable matters” and what does the New Testament give us in terms of defining the unity of the Church. The second (Lindsay Wilson) explores the dispute which is described in Joshua 22 (a dispute about the placement of an altar) and examines what was done well, and what was not done well in the case, and how we can avoid problems in conversations about perceived violations by other Christians. Third, Brian Rosner examines Paul’s instructions in Romans 14 concerning disputable matters, which centres around the issue of food- more specifically meat offered to idols. These instructions focus around accepting others who disagree on specific issues of practice which are as deemed non-essentials. Paul argues the believer is free, but ought to willingly curb the expression of freedom for the sake of accepting those who are not fully matured in that freedom. Fourth, Michael Bird examines the Johannine Epistles, noting that in the congregations to whom these letters are addressed, there had been a “parting of the ways” but this is not a justification for schism. Bird astutely and bluntly states “we need another denomination like we need another Babylonian captivity”. Bird argues that our commitment to the one Church ought to prevent us from leaving where we are, and “the good guys” should avoid being the ones doing the leaving (more on this below). Fifth, Rhys Bezzant examines Protestant history for examples of disagreement done poorly (using the Puritans mainly who held their church order as the only valid option and others as not part of the true church) and some done well (early evangelicals, particularly in Europe, who allowed considerable space for freedom of conscience on non-essentials, demanding unity around the central marker of the Gospel). Finally, Peter Leithart unpacks the challenges confronting church in the present, especially as immigration creates a plurality of cultures, in which Christians from various parts of the world bring particular practices and forms from one place to another. How does the Church accommodate these variations.
This book is needed. The fracturing of the Church into a seemingly ever-growing number of denominations is a disconcerting development in our history as Christ’s Church. The Creed’s declaration of one Holy, apostolic, catholic church is at odds with the fragmented collection of denominations we see in the present. It seems we are divided more than we are united. The Church needs our leaders to lead the way toward greater unity, even if we continue to exist in various traditions. Setting some groundwork for that movement towards unity is something most Church leaders would agree needs to happen. We need precedents (especially biblical, but also historical) to set a framework to launch inter-denominational conversations. We need some folks to begin making big moves in a positive direction. These essays lay out some potential guidelines, biblical principles, for us to begin conversations from. Realistically we can’t expect any book of this type to solve all our problems, but we need some folks who are broadly respected, a category which among evangelicals, I believe, includes Michael Bird and Brian Rosner, who can be catalysts for further development. So while not the be-all-end-all, this is a good place to start; evangelical scholars bringing Scripture to bear on the disputes between “camps” within the Church.
As with all collections of essays, there are highlights. Given the fact that Romans 14 is perhaps the most extensive treatment in the New Testament on the issue of overcoming disputes, one would want any discussion of that passage to be rich, challenging, and central to the overall impact of the book. Rosner does achieve that. He capably points to Paul’s approach to the division over meat. He points that Paul calls upon the mature to curb their freedoms for the sake the less mature, so that offense may be avoided to keep the unity of the Church.
Rhys Bezzant’s essay was a pleasant surprise. He graciously, but effectively critiques the Puritan tradition, which, in a sense, became what it hated in the Roman Catholic Church- demanding that it alone was the true Church based on the markers of Church structure. He points to the early evangelical movement, and specifically the Evangelical Alliance, as a positive model, which made allowance for considerable disagreement, but provided a central core which could unite groups with varying opinions on non-essential matters.
One thing lacking was a proposal of some concrete examples of non-negotiables and disputable matters. There are a few bits in Bird’s work on the Johannine Epistles (incarnation, atonement) but what constitutes a disputable matter? Depending on who you speak to, they will define this differently. Is eternal torment in hell a disputable matter? Is the understanding of the model of atonement a disputable matter? Is women in ministry disputable? Is modes of baptism disputable? Is inerrancy disputable? How do we settle disputes over what is and isn’t disputable? Bird also suggests the “good guys” should not be the one’s to leave. Those who differ from the orthodox should be the one’s to walk away and the orthodox should allow for that if necessary. But the challenge comes with the question “who are the ‘good guys’?” How do we determine who has the high ground? When both sides insist on their position as the right one, and both camps assume they’re the “good guys”, this suggestion doesn’t provide much resolution.
The other key issue unresolved in the question of “how do we do this?” Moving from the theoretical belief that the Church should be one and not divide over disputable matters to actually mending divisions which have occurred, and preventing fractures which are beginning to form to lead to division, is a very real struggle, which this book does not address, which may have been helpful. An additional chapter or chapters on application, perhaps written by pastors or denominational leaders who have been part of reconciliation or conflict resolution would have been an appropriate here.
In a period in Church history when disputable matters are fragmenting the body of Christ, it’s time for “big moves” toward unity. The unity of the Church is certainly placed, by Scripture, as something created by God in Christ, which we are called to steward and protect. For instance, Ephesians 2:14-22 (NRSV) says:
For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.15 He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, 16 and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it. 17 So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; 18 for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father. 19 So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God,20 built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone.21 In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; 22 in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.
While Mending a Fractured Church won’t solve the problem of division (I’m sure no one is under the illusion it will), it is a strong push to begin or perhaps further build on a very serious, and much needed conversation- how do we maintain unity of the Church and maintain our convictions about doctrine and practice? So I commend Bird and Rosner for taking on the proverbial elephant in the room. This small volume succeeds in moving the conversation forward. The conversation will of course require more work. But each step towards a goal of greater unity is a good thing. The Church needs to be always reminded of the centrality of unity of Christ’s body in the New Testament. This call to action is a welcome one.
*The publishers supplied a free copy of this book in exchange for a review. I am thankful to Lexham Press and Jessie Strong for the opportunity to read and engage with this book.