Category Archives: Book Review

Essays on the Book of Isaiah

Essays on the Book of Isaiah, by Joseph Blenkinsopp

This volume of essays by Joseph Blenkinsopp on different aspects of the book of Isaiah is the product of three decades of close study of the most seminal and challenging texts of the Hebrew Bible. Some of the essays deal with major themes in Isaiah, for example, universalism, theology and politics, and the Suffering Servant of the Lord God. Five of them are published here for the first time.

I can’t think of a single living person who knows more about Isaiah than Joe Blenkinsopp.  And no one has done more to further our understanding of that book.  Here collected, then, are 20 essays by an excellent scholar, 15 of which have appeared over a number of years across a variety of platforms.  5 additional essays that have never appeared before are also included.

The table of contents is available here, along with the first essay (which has never been published before), and the biblical index.

The essays appearing here for the first time are as follows:

  • The Formation of the Hebrew Bible Canon: Isaiah as a Test Case
  • Isaiah and the Neo-Babylonian Background
  • The Sectarian Element in Early Judaism: The Isaian Contribution
  • Zion as Reality and Symbol in Psalms and Isaiah
  • The Suffering Servant, the book of Daniel, and Martyrdom

The remainder, as listed in the table of contents have, as suggested above, all appeared above in a variety of sources including journals and collections of essays.

Everyone who works in Isaiah studies knows the name of Joe Blenkinsopp and everyone who attends CBA or SOTS or SBL has seen him at one or more of those meetings.  Sleight of stature but powerful of intellect, hat wearing and mustachioed, he is a grave presence; an icon; a fixture.  His unflagging energy is inspiring and his intellectual vigor astonishing.

For those new on the scene of biblical studies, Joe was

Born in Durham, England. Taught at International Theological College, Romsey, U.K., Chicago Theological Seminary, Vanderbilt University and University of Notre Dame from 1970; Guest-Professor at Pontifical Biblical Institute, Rome, 1998.  Member of several learned societies including Society of Biblical Literature, Society for the Study of the Old Testament (U.K., President 1999-2000), Catholic Biblical Association (President 1988-1989), European Association of Biblical Studies.  ATS Research grant 1978, Fellow of Wolfson College, Oxford 1982-1983 with NEH grant, Mellon Retiree Research Grant 2005-2006.  Excavated at Tel Dan, Israel 1977 and at Capernaum, Israel  with Notre Dame University support 1980-1987. Rector of Ecumenical Institute, Tantur, Israel, 1978.  

And more, frankly.  Were all his publications, lectures, conference papers, and assorted other academic achievements listed the ‘world could not contain all the books’ that it would take.

I mention all that not merely to appear fawning (though Joe has long been a hero of mine); but to place him on the stage where he belongs:  dead center.  And so does his little book of essays just published by Mohr.

When he writes, for example, in his explanation of the identity of the tsaddiq of Isaiah 57:2, that

… not everything in these chapters can be derived from one source or only reduced to one formula only, but this prophetic legacy, announced at the end of Deutero-Isaiah (54:17), is clearly a prominent theme and provides an important element of continuity in the post-disaster Isaian corpus…

we are brought to the cusp of Blenkinsopp’s genius:  a careful, measured, thoughtful, and provocative eye for the details and ability to express his insights with clarity and brevity.  That ability is on display throughout these essays.  Students of Isaiah will be greatly assisted in their own studies if they will take the time and make the effort to read through what Professor Blenkinsopp has written.

Were We Ever Protestants? Essays in Honour of Tarald Rasmussen

This anthology discusses different aspects of Protestantism, past and present.

Professor Tarald Rasmussen has written both on medieval and modern theologians, but his primary interest has remained the reformation and 16th century church history. In stead of a traditional «Festschrift» honouring the different fields of research he has contributed to, this will be a focused anthology treating a specific theme related to Rasmussen’s research profile.

One of Professor Rasmussen’s most recent publications, a little popularized book in Norwegian titled «What is Protestantism?», reveals a central aspect research interest, namely the Weberian interest for Protestantism’s cultural significance. Despite difficulties, he finds the concept useful as a Weberian «Idealtypus» enabling research on a phenomenon combining theological, historical and sociological dimensions. Thus he employs the Protestantism as an integrative concept to trace the makeup of today’s secular societies.

This profiled approach is a point of departure for this anthology discussing important aspects of historiography in reformation history: Continuity and breaks surrounding the reformation, contemporary significance of reformation history research, traces of the reformation in today’s society.

The book relates to current discussions on Protestantism and is relevant to everyone who want to keep up to date with the latest research in the field.

Visitors to this link will find access to the table of contents and other front matter which will help them in deciding whether or not this is a volume they wish to read.  I think those interested in the Reformation will be drawn to the work.

As the table of contents is available above I won’t be repeating it here.  Instead, I will make a few observations about the book, which I found very interesting and informative, and I will point out a few problems with the book.

First, the observations:  the essays in this collection are a fitting celebration of the scholar herein honored.  Rasmussen is certainly the most accomplished of Reformation scholars from Scandinavia, and the work at hand centers its attention primarily on the outworking of the Reformation in those lands.  Particularly engaging, for me, were the essays by Leppin (who is a wonderful scholar), Jürgensen, and Kaufmann.

Jürgensen’s intriguing contribution featured a number of excellent photographs which properly illustrated his chief thesis, which is that art is the one place Protestants felt comfortable in retaining their Roman Catholic affinity for images and idols.  The cult of the Saints is alive and well in Protestantism, in other words, in artistic depictions – even if the cult was denounced in sermons and tractates.

And Kaufmann’s essay is simply superb.  His assertion that

The German ‘Protestant community’ itself has a chequered history of division and hatred.  The Lutheran and Reformed (Calvinist) parties required considerable time and effort to overcome doctrinal differences and reach a frosty unity based on perception of the common Catholic enemy.

is right on the mark.  And his demonstration of that truth in his contribution is thorough and intelligent.  He is, accordingly, also right to point out that

The Peace of Augsburg may therefore have established political and legal peace, but it did nothing to prevent – indeed promoted – the establishment of a bitter confessional split in the German nation which provided the framework for the development of an unparalleled level of inter-confessional rancor and uninhibited polemic.

And now, second, a few problems with the book.  The primary issue readers will have with the book is that there are a number of places where it is obvious that it has not been carefully examined by a native English speaker.   For instance,

on page 1 – ‘bin’ stands where the word should be ‘been’.

on page 4 – ‘Luther’s Catholic Intention and the Raise of Protest’ should be ‘Luther’s Catholic Intention and the Rise of Protest’.

on page 7 – ‘Making Luther Protesting’ should be ‘Making Luther Protestant’.

on page 11 – “Wider Hans Worst” should be ‘Wieder Hans Wurst’.

And finally (because I don’t want to list every grammatical error but simply illustrate their fairly common appearance), on page 11 the closing paragraph as a whole is oddly constructed (from an English point of view):

Was Luther ever a Prostestant?  Again: No, never.  How could he?  Luther wanted to be a Catholic, and he felt being a Catholic.  Sure, not a Roman Catholic, but he was neither a Lutheran nor a Protestant.  He was just: a Christian.

The wonderfully informative and engaging essays of this collection deserved a second go through linguistically.  The reading experience of this book is less pleasurable than it could be, and should be, simply because the various grammatical errors are jarring.   Reading the work is like driving down a lovely highway where the scenery out the windows of the car is simply enthralling and being jarred from the experience by a giant pothole that nearly shakes one from one’s seat.

I sincerely hope that should a second edition appear, it will be combed through by an English editor before it is printed.

Lexham Geographic Commentary on Acts through Revelation

I was unaware of the existence of this book (and of the series of 4 other volumes with which it serves as part) until it arrived today for review.  So I thank Lexham for sending it along, doubtless knowing of my great interest in such things.

I will review it in due course.  Stay tuned.

The Lexham Geographic Commentary on Acts through Revelation delivers fresh insight by drawing attention to the geographical setting for the spread of Christianity in the first century AD. Geography is a central concern in Acts, but the full significance of its geographical context is easily overlooked without a familiarity with the places, the types of transportation, the relative distances, and the travel conditions around the Mediterranean in the first century AD. Luke’s account mentions places from all over the known world, and Paul’s missionary travels covered an estimated 15,000 miles by land and sea.

Jesus’ words in Acts 1:8 literally map the future travels of the Apostles and provide the structure for the rest of the book: The Apostles will take the gospel from Jerusalem (1:1–8:3) to Samaria and Judea (8:4–40, 9:32–11:18), and finally throughout the Roman world and beyond (13:21–28:31). Geography also provides a new depth of insight into John’s letters to the seven churches in Rev 1–3. Their locations along key Roman mail routes suggest the letters may make up a single composite message to be received in stages as the letters are passed along from one church to the other. The references in Acts and Rev 1–3 cover the full geographical context for the first century Church since some of the cities Paul visits in Acts are later the locations of churches that receive his letters such as Ephesus (Acts 19; Eph 1:11 Tim 1:3). The Lexham Geographic Commentary gives you insight into the importance of all of these locations—both culturally and spatially—and provides a deeper understanding of the spread of early Christianity.

 

The Text of the Earliest New Testament Greek Manuscripts – Two-Volumes

The manuscripts that form the Greek New Testament are scattered throughout the world and are usually only accessible to scholars and professionals. These were the manuscripts read by the earliest Christians, which comprised their “New Testament.” In his volumes, Philip Wesley Comfort bridges the gap between these extant copies and today’s critical text by providing accurate transcriptions of the earliest New Testament manuscripts, with photographs on the facing pages so readers can see the works for themselves. Comfort also provides an introduction to each manuscript that summarizes the content, date, current location, provenance, and other essential information, including the latest findings. This allows students and scholars to make well-informed decisions about the translation and interpretation of the New Testament.

Volume 1 includes manuscripts from Papyrus 1-72. Volume 2 includes manuscripts from Papyrus 75-139 as well as from the uncials. In addition, it features a special section on determining the date of a manuscript. This two-volume set replaces the previously published single volume Text of the Earliest New Testament Greek Manuscripts, as it contains many new manuscripts, updated research, and higher quality images of all manuscripts previously covered.

A review copy of the set has arrived courtesy the good folk at Kregel.  More soon.

Masada: From Jewish Revolt to Modern Myth

Two thousand years ago, 967 Jewish men, women, and children—the last holdouts of the revolt against Rome following the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Second Temple—reportedly took their own lives rather than surrender to the Roman army. This dramatic event, which took place on top of Masada, a barren and windswept mountain overlooking the Dead Sea, spawned a powerful story of Jewish resistance that came to symbolize the embattled modern State of Israel. The first extensive archaeological excavations of Masada began in the 1960s, and today the site draws visitors from around the world. And yet, because the mass suicide was recorded by only one ancient author—the Jewish historian Josephus—some scholars question if the event ever took place.

Jodi Magness, an archaeologist who has excavated at Masada, explains what happened there, how we know it, and how recent developments might change understandings of the story. Incorporating the latest findings, she integrates literary and historical sources to show what life was like for Jews under Roman rule during an era that witnessed the reign of Herod and Jesus’s ministry and death.

Featuring numerous illustrations, this is an engaging exploration of an ancient story that continues to grip the imagination today.

Of it Eric Cline writes

“Internationally renowned archaeologist Jodi Magness plunges the reader directly into the story of the fall of Masada, unpacking the dramatic tale as told by Josephus. She also recounts the fascinating adventures and misadventures of the region’s explorers, from the nineteenth century through the 1960s, and compellingly describes the excavations there, including her own, providing a welcome tour of the site.”—Eric H. Cline, author of 1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed

Few are as well qualified to write a book on this topic as Jodi Magness.  Chapters include

Prologue: The Fall of Masada

  1. The Siege of Masada
  2. The Search for Masada
  3. Masada in Context
  4. Masada and Herod’s other Building Projects
  5. Judea Before Herod
  6. From Herod to the First Jewish Revolt against Rome
  7. The First Jewish Revolt against Rome
  8. The Rebel Occupation of Masada
  9. Masada Shall Not Fall Again: Yigael Yadin, the Mass Suicide, and the Masada Myth

Epilogue: A Tour of Masada

Following the body of the book there are

  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Index
  • Image Credits

The outline of the volume illustrates Magness’s careful historical investigation.  Carefully and meticulously she works through and presents the evidence and offers readers a very clear picture of what we can actually know about Masada and the myth that came to surround it.  Allow me to illustrate her very thoughtful methodology by providing the subsection titles of Chapter One: The Siege of Masada.

Here she discusses The siege of Masada, The Roman Army, The Roman Siege Camps, The 1995 Excavations in Camp F, Roman Military Equipment, The Assault Ramp, The Last Stand, Flavius Josephus, Josephus’s Biography, The Jewish War, Jewish Antiquities, Josephus’s Biases and Apologetic Tendencies, The Afterlife of Josephus’s Works, and finally, Postscript: Josephus at Masada.

Meticulous is the word that always comes to mind when I read Magness, and this volume is that, in spades.

Along with the meticulously argued text there are ample maps and charts and photographs, both in black and white and in color.

Yet the highlight of the volume, for me, is the final chapter, the ninth.  Herein Magness shows the extraordinarily influential Yadin at work and the continuing influence of his Masada myth.  She begins with a brief bio of Yadin and then launches immediately into an investigation of the so-called ‘mass suicide’ which Yadin insisted took place at that location.  She sagely observes

I am often asked in I believe there was a mass suicide at Masada, to which I respond that this is not a question archaeology is equipped to answer.  The archaeological remains can be interpreted differently as supporting or disproving Josephus’s account.  Whether or not the mass suicide story is true depends on how one evaluates Josephus’s reliability as an historian- a matter that I prefer to leave to Josephus specialists to resolve.

For her, the important question is

How did the site of a reported mass suicide of a band of Jewish rebels who terrorized other Jews become a symbol of the modern State of Israel?

The remainder of this final chapter addresses that question.

For myself, I have always been very skeptical of the entire account of Josephus.  I was early on heavily influenced by Jamie McLaren’s Turbulent Times?: Josephus and Scholarship on Judaea in the First Century CE , one of the most fantastic studies of Josephus yet composed.  McLaren’s skepticism is infectious because so well established by McLaren’s important research.   

I didn’t find McLaren’s work mentioned in Jodi’s bibliography.  Yet I would heartily encourage readers of Jodi’s book to take a look at Jamie’s as well.

As to the book at hand, I cannot but recommend it fully and heartily.  It is a work of scholarship and insight and should be on the shelves of every New Testament scholar, archaeologist, and interested laypersons.

I’ve not yet read a book by Professor Magness that didn’t teach me a great deal.  This book does too.  And I look forward to whatever will come from her pen in the near future.

NIV Life Application Study Bible, 3rd Edition

I’ve been sent along a copy of the new 3rd edition of Zondervan’s NIV ‘Life Application Study Bible‘ for review by the good folk at Biblegateway.  I’m obliged to tell you that I received the bible with the understanding that it 1) costs me nothing and 2) I should review it here, and 3) that I am free to offer my opinion unencumbered by any requirement to make the publisher happy (but of course that’s always true of reviews here, isn’t it?).  Ok cool.  I am also reminded that I need to include the hashtag #BibleGatewayPartner which, naturally, I am happy to do.

I’ve also been asked to point out that there is an interview with the general editor of this edition right here.  You may find it helpful.

First and foremost, the translation utilized in this study bible is the NIV which in and of itself is problematic.  It tends to run in the direction of conservativism and is at times biased and therefore not as accurate as it can and should be.  For instance, at Isaiah 7:14 ‘almah’ is still translated ‘virgin’ in spite of the fact that Hebrew has a word for virgin, ‘bethulah’.  The editors offer a footnote which suggests that ‘young woman’ is another possible reading.  In truth, the footnote should indicate the inferior translation, not the superior.  Accordingly, the text should contain ‘young woman’ and any footnote should explain that the Hebrew text makes use of a word that means anything but ‘virgin’ and that had the writer wished to say ‘virgin’ he easily could have, given that he possessed a word meaning just that.

Second, the translation utilizes ‘red letters’ which purportedly mark off the words of Jesus from the surrounding text in the Gospels.  Such attempts to reconstruct the ‘very words of Jesus’ are ill-considered and usually inaccurate.  For instance, in John 3, it is very much the case that verse 15 is an editorial remark by the Gospel author.  Nonetheless, it is here found in red, implying that Jesus himself said it.

Third, the NIV continues the unfortunate tradition of translating αἰώνιον with ‘eternal’.  The proper translation of this word is ‘everlasting’ when in any context not referring to God himself, as only God is eternal (without beginning or ending).

Various translation glitches and misprisions notwithstanding, the presently at hand study bible has excellent explanatory notes, sidebars, and maps.  It also includes a concordance, an index of subjects, and various ‘Christian worker’ helps and passage guides.  Interesting persons are discussed in sidebars throughout and though the compartments of those sidebars can be at times a little ‘cheesy’ (for instance, a mentioning of various characters ‘strengths and accomplishments’, ‘notable fact’, ‘vital statistics’ and ‘lessons from his life’), the basic information they contain and the various cross references to other bits of the bible where they appear are quite good.

Timelines and that sort of thing are very traditional in orientation.  This is a conservative study bible which will appeal to conservative Christians, bolstering their preconceptions and reinforcing their already existing understanding of the biblical message.  With that in mind, the work is perfect for the audience it aims to please.  It is compiled by conservatives, reviewed in the editorial process by conservatives, annotated by conservatives (there isn’t a single minimalist in the bunch), and lists ‘theological reviewers’ none of whom I have ever heard of aside from Grant Osborne and Geoff Bromiley.

Is this a volume worth acquiring?  If you are a conservative Christian, yes.  If you number yourself as belonging outside that ideological camp, you too may find it interesting but it won’t be pleasurable.  Interesting because of its obvious theological biases, and not pleasurable because of its annoying habit of being far too traditionally minded.

I wish someone would publish this kind of study bible with the Revised English Bible as the base text and the interesting maps, useful biographical sidebars (without the cheese), fully stocked indices, and helpful concordances found herein.  Now THAT would be a study bible I could get excited about.

Because, as useful as this study bible is in parts and pieces, it just isn’t all that exciting.

John’s Letters

A new series from Kregel Academic, Big Greek Idea provides all the relevant information from the Greek text for preaching and teaching the New Testament. Each New Testament book is divided into units of thought, revealing a big Greek idea (the author’s main idea in the passage), and individual clauses are displayed visually to illustrate their relationships, portraying the biblical author’s logical flow. Greek clauses are accompanied by an original English translation.

Additional commentary explains how the syntax and vocabulary of each verse clarifies the biblical writer’s intended meaning. The authors of each volume have scoured major reference works and commentaries on each book, saving readers countless hours of research. The series is ideal for busy pastors consulting the Greek text for sermons, instructors preparing lectures, and students looking for supplementary study aids.

This is a really interesting volume.  Indeed, it stands in the tradition of the Word Pictures in the New Testament by that giant of Greek studies, A.T. Robertson.  To go even further, the present volume is more thorough and more instructive and more informative than Robertson’s classic.

It is a volume brilliantly conceived.  After an introduction, which discusses clauses in the Johannine epistles as well as stylistic features of John’s writing and John’s vocabulary, the volume offers a section by section examination of John’s letters.  Each segment, divided by clauses (so that, for instance, 1 John 1:1-4 is examined and then 1 John 1:5 – 2:2, etc.) is thoroughly described in terms of the ‘big idea’ (or main idea’) of the segment, followed by an overview, an outline, a clausal outline, and a discussion of the syntax of the section.

Interspersed throughout the exegetical materials are ‘nugget’ boxes which discuss in further detail lexical, grammatical, text critical, and theological issues within each segment.  For example, important words like ιλασμος, αντιχριστος, διαβολος, and many others are explicated fully.  English versions are also discussed and their support for various translations offered.

Each line of the Greek text is meticulously treated and line by line English renditions by the authors are provided.  One should know Greek in order to make full use of the volume, but one needn’t.  That is, the work at hand is also usable by those whose Greek is weak or barely existent.  In fact, users in those lowly states of existence will find the book an absolute encouragement to further their studies of Greek.

A very good translation of the Johannine epistles appears at the end of the volume alone with listings of the various ‘nugget’ sidebars.  The volume is intended to be used by pastors, professors, and students.  Others will also benefit from it, including lay readers and those amateurs genuinely interested in the meaning of the New Testament’s Johannine epistles.

One of the best examples of the work’s usefulness can be found in the “Lexical and Theological Nugget” related to 1 John 2:2’s ιλασμος :

What does it mean that Jesus is the ιλασμος for sin?… Three interpretations are offered for the word: expiation, propitiation, and atonement.  Yet ‘atonement’ seems the best. … So rather than propitiation, which implies a sacrifice that turns away the wrath of God, or expiation, which implies that the offender is purified of the sin that causes offense, the translation ‘atonement’ or ‘atoning’ best reflects John’s usage.

This work is thoroughly enjoyable and extremely informative.  Readers may or may not agree with various lexical or grammatical conclusions and theological suggestions too are subject to disputation.  But one thing that is indisputable is that this volume is a fantastic addition to every biblical scholar’s personal library.  It is a model of the art and science of exegesis and I can well imagine that the series as a whole, if each volume is as good as the present one, will replace Robertson’s ‘Word Pictures’ as the standard example of the genre.

This volume is worth your time even if it simply serves to remind you of the profundity of the Greek New Testament.  But naturally, that’s reason enough to read it.

Everyday Prayer with John Calvin


 ‘Everyday Prayer with John Calvin‘, Don McKim’s latest book, is a genuine joy to read.

Drawing from the Institutes and Calvin’s Old and New Testament commentaries, Donald K. McKim comments on Calvin’s biblical insights on prayer and intersperses his short readings with Calvin’s own prayers. Reflection questions and prayer points help you to meditate on Scripture, understand Calvin’s teaching, and strengthen your own prayer life.

Jennifer Powell McNutt likes it-

Everyday Prayer with John Calvin offers a helpful and thought-provoking guide to better understanding the purpose and practice of prayer in the Christian life. . . . There’s no better way to encounter Calvin at his best than in the reverence that he showed for the practice of prayer.”

Professor McKim, a consummate Calvin scholar and an excellent theologian has collected under one roof many of the prayers of Calvin.  I think that if readers are looking for devotional material for the upcoming New Year, this will be the volume to use.

The book is laid out in 85 chapter-ettes, each includes McKim’s devotional observations based on a theological text from Calvin and a suggestion for prayer.  Or, in his own words, in this book

My approach … is to provide a series of short devotional reflections on quotations from Calvin, drawn from the Institutes and from Calvin’s commentaries on Old and New Testament books. My reflections on Calvin try to explain what Calvin is saying, theologically; and to point out its importance for our lives of Christian faith today.

A scripture citation sits at the top of each page, which McKim urges readers to read first.  Following are McKim’s observations on a relevant text from Calvin and a recommendation for a particular prayer.  Interspersed throughout the volume are prayers of Calvin himself.

Allow me to excerpt a complete entry which will give readers a fuller sense of what’s at hand here:

No Distresses Should Keep Us from Praying
Joel 2:28-32

In a picture of the “coming days,” the Joel portrays the pouring out of God’s Spirit “on all flesh” (Joel 2:28) and the coming judgment as “the day of the LORD” (2:31). This is the worst situation imaginable! God’s judgment is coming. But there is a promise: “Then everyone who calls on the name of the LORD shall be saved” (2:32). Those saved call on “the name of the LORD”—they pray for God’s help and deliverance. However this scene may be fulfilled, we cannot miss the implication: There is no distress imaginable to keep us from praying to God. No situation!

Calvin commented, “Since then God invites here the lost and the dead, there is no reason why even the heaviest distresses should preclude an access for us or for our prayers; for we ought to break through all these obstacles. The more grievous, then, our troubles are, the more confidence we ought to entertain; for God offers his grace, not only to the miserable, but also to those in utter despair.”*

This is the word of hope for us today. We can pray to God in the midst of the “heaviest distresses.” The worse our troubles, “the more confidence” we should have in God’s help. We may be miserable and pray to God. But even more—even if we are in “utter despair”—we can (and must!) pray to God. For God gives grace to those in this most dire of all situations. Let nothing deter you from praying to God who helps!

Reflection Question. In what ways do the worst of circumstances lead you to pray even more fervently?

The volume is a spiritual aid, a very useful and helpful guide to some of Calvin’s best thoughts about a variety of topics.

Were I to fault it, I would only say that I wish it were expanded further to 365 readings so that it could be used as a ‘through the year with Calvin’ sort of devotional for each day.  It should, in my estimation, be longer.  Much longer.

Perhaps in the not too distant future that will happen.  Until then (or if it never does), then readers here are urged to find a copy and read it.  Either day by day for 85 days, or through in a couple of sitting sessions.

Either way, it will be of benefit to all.  It’s an authentic delight.

Challenging the Spirit of Modernity: A Study of Groen van Prinsterer’s Unbelief and Revolution

I appreciate the good people at Lexham Press sending a copy of this new volume for review (without any expectations for the tone or the outcome of that review).  And for also sending this work (which of course is the precursor of the new volume and its presupposition).

Dutch politician and historian Groen van Prinsterer’s Unbelief and Revolution is a foundational work addressing the inherent tension between the church and secular society. Writing at the onset of modernity in Western culture, Groen saw with amazing clarity the dire implications of abandoning God’s created order for human life in society. Groen’s work served as an inspiration for many contemporary theologians, and he had a profound impact on Abraham Kuyper’s famous public theology.

In Challenging the Spirit of Modernity, Harry Van Dyke places this seminal work into historical context, revealing how this vital contribution still speaks into the fractured relationship between religion and society. A deeper understanding of the roots of modern secularism and Groen’s strong, faithful response to it gives us a better grasp of the same conflict today.

And

Groen van Prinsterer’s Unbelief and Revolution is a foundational work addressing the inherent tension between religion and modernity. As a historian and politician, Groen was intimately familiar with the growing divide between secular culture and the church in his time. Rather than embrace this division, these lectures, originally published in 1847, argue for a renewed interaction between the two spheres. Groen’s work served as an inspiration for many contemporary theologians, and as a mentor to Abraham Kuyper, he had a profound impact on Kuyper’s famous public theology.

Harry Van Dyke, the original translator, reintroduces this vital contribution to our understanding of the relationship between religion and society.

The primary source titled ‘Unbelief and Revolution’ is here published in a very fine English translation and it includes a thorough introduction and a very important contextualization of van Pristerer’s timely and abidingly relevant work.  In his book, v.P. describes the history of western Europe from the French Revolution through 1845 and the rise of secularism.  It is a work which sees the secularization of the West as the downfall of the West.  Unbelief and revolution (in the sense of a turning away from institutions like the Christian Church) go hand in hand.  They belong to one another and they feed upon one another.  v.P.’s views are succinctly stated in the 13th lecture, where he writes of the years 1789-1794 that they…

… show us the depth of our depravity.  They show us what becomes of a man when a portion of Christian truth, its origin and essence denied, is made serviceable to a false principle: the poisonous seed of error, sown in the well prepared soil, multiplies tenfold and, with circumstances co-operating, bears fruit a hundredfold.

V.P.’s volume, then, strives to show the ultimate danger of Modernity.  History has borne him out.

The second volume of the two here under examination is a detailed study of v.P.’s ‘Unbelief and Revolution’.  It was written by the translator of v.P.’s volume and accordingly was undertaken by a person superbly qualified to understand the sense, aims, and achievements of v.P.’s book.

Herein readers are introduced to the historical period of v.P.’s work and provided a brief biography of the theologian.  Further, the sources and audience of the work are described, along with the style, argument, and editions of the work.

Next, van Dyke compares the first and second editions and various translations of the volume.  And finally, in chapter 13, the controversial issues which the volume addresses.

The second volume also provides a bibliography, an index of names, an index of subjects, and an index of Scripture references.

Van Dyke’s style is informative and engaging and the information he provides is excellent and accurate.  His ability to tell the story of a man, his era, and his work is peerless.

Historical theology matters, and these two volumes are excellent examples of the sources and examination of sources necessary for historical theology to be undertaken and explained.

But most importantly, there are political and cultural ramifications intertwined here as well.  It’s one thing to observe history from afar as though one were a mere disinterested observer.  V.P.’s entire aim is to summon Christians to the examination of history so as to effect changes they deem necessary.  Not in order to ‘bring about a theocracy, but in order to recognize the connection between religion, authority, and freedom’ (as the prefatory note has it).

These two works belong together on the shelves of those interested in theology, and those interested in politics.  And it especially belongs on the shelves of those who are concerned about the theology of politics.

Die Äbtissin, der Söldnerführer und ihre Töchter

Or, more fully, Christine Christ-von Wedel, Die Äbtissin, der Söldnerführer und ihre Töchter: Katharina von Zimmern im politischen Spannungsfeld der Reformationszeit. Unter Mitarbeit von Irene Gysel, Jeanne Pestalozzi und Marlis Stähli

Katharina von Zimmern förderte die Reformation in Zürich beträchtlich, als sie mit 46 Jahren das Fraumünsterstift der Stadt übergab. Kurz darauf heiratete sie den fünf Jahre zuvor in Zürich zum Tod verurteilten Söldnerführer Eberhard von Reischach, mit dem sie noch zwei Kinder hatte. Das ist längst bekannt. Aber es gibt über diese bemerkenswerte Frau und ihre Umgebung noch mehr zu berichten.

Neu gefundene und neu analysierte Quellen ermöglichen einen frischen und ungewohnten Blick auf die «Äbtissin» und die Reformation. Das Buch beleuchtet dabei das Zürcher Soldwesen, die Klosterpolitik der Stadt und Zwinglis Bündnispläne, aber auch die theologische, humanistische und höfische Literatur, die damals im Adel gelesen wurde, sowie das Alltagsleben mit seinen Kämpfen, Freuden und Leiden. Auch taucht eine junge Frau auf, die während Katharinas Äbtissinnenzeit zur Welt kam und deren Sohn behauptete, sie stamme vom Paar Reischach-Zimmern ab.

Christine Christ-von Wedel fügt die vielfältigen Themen der Reformationszeit zu einem farbigen detailreichen Panorama zusammen, das sich um Katharina von Zimmern entfaltet.

TVZ have sent a review copy.

Gospel Allegiance

Is faith in Jesus enough for salvation? Perhaps, says Matthew Bates, but we’re missing pieces of the gospel. The biblical gospel can never change. Yet our understanding of the gospel must change. The church needs an allegiance shift.

Popular pastoral resources on the gospel are causing widespread confusion. Bates shows that the biblical gospel is different, fuller, and more beautiful than we have been led to believe. He explains that saving faith doesn’t come through trust in Jesus’s death on the cross alone but through allegiance to Christ the king. There is only one true gospel and one required response: allegiance.

Bates ignited conversation with his successful and influential book Salvation by Allegiance Alone. Here he goes deeper while making his acclaimed teaching on salvation more accessible and experiential for believers who want to better understand and share the gospel. Gospel Allegiance includes a guide for further conversation, making it ideal for church groups, pastors, leaders, and students.

Baker have sent a review copy. By the way, my review of Bates’ earlier work is here.

In the present work chapters 1-6 exist merely to give the author a reason to write chapter 7.  Chapter 7 is the apex, aim, and purpose of the volume and there readers are summoned to take up the cross of ‘allegiance’ (which the author has defined in great detail in the previous pages).  Bates wants ‘gospel allegiance’ taught and he wants those adhering to his movement to go into all the world and make disciples for Allegiance.

So, accordingly, to begin at the beginning, Bates wants to specify or re-define what it means to be a Christian.  He wants the focus to be on what he calls ‘allegiance’ rather than ‘faith in Jesus’.  And, like all of his predecessors in the ‘my version of Christianity is better than history’s version’ movements, he wants to offer readers his version of the ‘full’ Gospel.

This leads him to a description of this ‘new’ understanding of the Gospel mobilized which naturally leads him to a plan for mobilizing ‘gospel allegiance’.

Following his manifesto in chapter 7, Bates provides an appendix in which his Gospel Allegiance approach is summarized.  He then offers another appendix in which readers are provided questions to guide their discussions.  Finally, notes and a Scripture and Ancient Writings index round out the work.

There is a certain ‘insider cult membership has its privileges’ to the whole enterprise that leaves me slightly discomfited.  To explain this statement a bit allow me to illustrate from Bates’ own words:

“The gospel proper announces possible saving benefits. But only those who respond to the gospel by giving allegiance actualize these special benefits.  These include forgiveness of sins, righteousness (justification)….”  etc., etc., etc.

And as if the whole ‘we have something you don’t have because we have Jesus + Allegiance and you just have your ‘faith in Jesus” vibe weren’t troubling enough and smelled more than a little like Gnosticism, we have Bates also arguing that

“The final judgment for eternal life will be based at least in part on the allegiance-based quality of the works we perform with our bodies.”

Bates doesn’t drop that little pagan gem out of pure air; he argues for it and he tries to use Scripture and Calvin and NT Wright to do it.  Without being convincing.  Indeed, his argument is special pleading from beginning to end.

To be quite frank, I don’t know what’s going on in some circles of the Christian church these days but it belies an ineptitude in exegesis and a terribly inadequate theological mindset.  It’s as though Wright’s terribly inaccurate reading of both Paul and the Reformation have infected everything and everyone, in the same way that gnosticism infected the early Church.  Students need to be told, right up front, that Wrightianity isn’t Christianity.  It is an aberration.  A bastardization.

Instead of trying so hard to sell ‘new’ ideas and make a name for oneself and one’s podcast and one’s ‘organization’, perhaps theologians should return to the roots of their task and simply explain to their hearers the Christian faith.

I didn’t like this book.  I don’t like it’s not so subtle ‘Jesus +’ theology.  For myself, Jesus + anything = heresy.  Futhermore, I’m troubled by the trends in theology that this book evidences.   I don’t like them either.

Would that God would give us theologians like Brunner and Barth and Luther and Zwingli and Bultmann and von Rad and replace our semi gnostic popularizing heretics.

Skip this book.  Buy a cup of coffee or two.  Or some cat food.  Or a new lamp.  Or anything besides it.  Just don’t waste your money on it.  You’ll be sad if you do.  And you’ll wish you had heeded my warning.

Luther at Leipzig

On the five-hundredth anniversary of the 1519 debate between Martin Luther and John Eck at Leipzig, Luther at Leipzig offers an extensive treatment of this pivotal Reformation event in its historical and theological context. The Leipzig Debate not only revealed growing differences between Luther and his opponents, but also resulted in further splintering among the Reformation parties, which continues to the present day. The essays in this volume provide an essential background to the complex theological, political, ecclesiastical, and intellectual issues precipitating the debate. They also sketch out the relevance of the Leipzig Debate for the course of the Reformation, the interpretation and development of Luther, and the ongoing divisions between Protestantism and Roman Catholicism.

Brill have graciously provided a review copy.  This collection of informative essays begins with the setting of the Leipzig debate in its historical context.  Essays present readers with the opportunity to ‘delve deeply’ into the events concurrent with and important to one of the most important debates in the history of the Reformation. Accordingly, in Part One we find

  • The Leipzig Debate: a Reformation Turning Point, By: Volker Leppin and Mickey L. Mattox
  • Defending Wittenberg: Andreas Bodenstein von Karlstadt and the Pre-history of the Leipzig Debate, By: Alyssa Lehr Evans
  • Wittenberg’s Disputation Culture and the Leipzig Debate between Luther and Eck, By: Henning Bühmann
  • The Papacy’s Aversion to Councils in the Time of Leo X: Leipzig in the Context of Conciliarism, By: Thomas M. Izbicki
  • The Leipzig Disputation: Masters of the Sacred Page and the Authority of Scripture, By: Ian Christopher Levy
  • Frigidissima Decreta: Canon Law, Ecclesiology, and Luther’s Proposition 13, By: Richard J. Serina Jr.

Having set the stage, this work next looks in detail at the implications of the debate. Essays here include

  • Philip Melanchthon and the Earliest Report on the Leipzig Debates, By: Timothy J. Wengert
  • Papalism at Stake in the Leipzig Debate, By: Bernward Schmidt
  • A Genealogy of Dissent: Luther, Hus, and Leipzig, By: Phillip Haberkern
  • Councils after Leipzig: Luther’s Interpretation of Nicaea from the Leipzig Disputation to On the Councils and the Church (1539), By: Paul Robinson
  • Luther’s Later Ecclesiology and the Leipzig Debate, By: Jonathan Mumme
  • The Catholic Reception of the Leipzig Disputation, By: Michael Root
  • The Disputation between John Eck and Martin Luther (1519): A Select Translation, By: Carl D. Roth and Richard J. Serina Jr.

This collection serves to provide more important facts and details surrounding and relevant to the Leipzig Debate yet collected under one cover.  Leppin, Izbicki, Wengert, Mumme, and Roth in particular have written exceptional essays.

For instance, Leppin observes:

Perhaps the most elusive question regarding the debate, however, pertains to the character and motivations of the two primary actors: Luther and Eck. What impelled them to debate these complex issues in public? Both men were relatively young, ambitious, and anxious to promote and defend the church’s faith as they understood it. Eck had already made a name for himself as a debater, engaging in public disputations outside Ingolstadt, in Vienna and Bologna. Luther, for his part, seems to have been trying to accomplish something similar in 1517 when he published the Ninety-Five Theses, asking for public debate. Friends who knew them both recognized common concerns and interests that might well have united the two in a common cause. The jurist Christoph Scheurl, for example, clearly thought that Luther and Eck would want to know one another. For his part, Luther initially showed respect for Eck and avoided a public confrontation with him.

And Izbicki-

When John Eck raised the question of papal power in the Leipzig Debate in the summer of 1519, he cannot have been unaware that Rome was sensitive to any threat to its preeminence. His description of a monarchy founded by Christ on Peter must have been music to papal and curial ears. Eck made direct reference to Pope Leo X as Peter’s successor. Eck dismissed dissent from papal primacy as sharing the condemned errors of the Waldensians and Marsilius of Padua. It is less clear how he thought appeal to the authority of the Council of Constance, and even that of the Council of Basel, in his attack on Luther as a “Hussite” would play out in papal circles. Eck’s argument for divine guidance of councils by the Spirit might also have played out badly in Rome. Eck was on safer ground when he referred to the temporary ecclesiastical union achieved at the Council of Florence (1438–1445) in the argument over whether the Greeks were schismatics and heretics. He said that the Greek delegates simulated agreeing to union when present at Florence, for fear of the Turks, but that they abandoned their commitment upon returning home. The Eck who debated at Leipzig represented a strand of pro-papal, post-conciliar ecclesiology commonly held in the Rome of the early sixteenth century.

And finally, Wengert writes

If “Brand Luther,” to use Andrew Pettegree’s apt phrase, began with the publication of the wildly popular Sermon von Ablaß und Gnade of March 1518, the first real test of Luther’s popularity, especially among his fellow humanists, occurred in the aftermath of the Leipzig Debates. Here Luther had the assistance of Philip Melanchthon, an experienced fighter in such matters, as his editing of letters in support of Johannes Reuchlin five years earlier proved. Melanchthon had already played an important role in the run up to the debates, appealing directly to Erasmus of Rotterdam, then in Louvain, to be one of the judges.  Then, at the debate itself he helped Luther by handing him notes with some salient patristic citations.

These excerpts allow potential readers of the volume to get a scant sense of the material herein.  Said readers will simply have to take my word for it that the volume as a whole is incredibly interesting.  Because, 1), it is and 2), I would say otherwise if the case were otherwise.

Does the  volume have its gaps?  Not that I was able to spot.  Does it have weaknesses?  Again, not that I was able to discover.  The essays are, on the whole, tightly argued.  The work also includes a Scripture index and a general index.  Persons, accordingly, who wish to look up the work’s discussion of, for instance, Jerome Emser, are able to do so quickly.

I commend this volume to your attention, urge you to read it if you are at all interested in the History of the Reformation, and advise your University, Seminary, or College library to obtain a copy for their collection.

The Disciples’ Prayer: The Prayer Jesus Taught in its Historical Setting

Jeffrey Gibson’s book came out in 2015.  I’ve now reviewed it (because it was just recently that I laid hands on it).-

Christians around the world recite the “Lord’s Prayer” daily, but what exactly are they praying for—and what relationship does it have with Jesus’ own context? Jeffrey B. Gibson reviews scholarship that derives the so-called Lord’s Prayer from Jewish synagogal prayers and refutes it. The genre of the prayer, he shows, is petitionary, and understanding its intent requires understanding Jesus’ purpose in calling disciples as witnesses against “this generation.” Jesus did not mean to teach a unique understanding of God; the prayer had its roots in first-century Jewish movements of protest.

In context, Gibson shows (pace Schweitzer, Lohmeyer, Davies, Allison, and a host of other scholars) that the prayer had little to do with “calling down” into the present realities of “the age to come.” Rather, it was meant to protect disciples from the temptations of their age and, thus, to strengthen their countercultural testimony. Gibson’s conclusions offer new insights into the historical Jesus and the movement he sought to establish.

My review has been sent along to Reading Religion, and it has been published there.

Zondervan Essential Companion to Christian History

The Zondervan Essential Companion to Christian History gives you what it promises: the essentials. This highly informative, broad-ranging book provides vital facts on the growth and impact of Christianity from the apostles to the present day not only in the Western world but also globally, including the development of Eastern Orthodox and Armenian Christianity, as well as considering Christianity in Latin America, Southeast Asia, the Baltic and Slavic states, and India. The companion is organized by century, going through the major events, ideas, and personalities that have shaped Christian history around the world.

Following a brief introduction that outlines the key events of the New Testament era, there is a chapter devoted to each century of Christian history beginning with the year 100 and ending roughly at the year 2000. Each chapter flows chronologically featuring:

  • A brief overview, highlighting the main threads and issues running through the relevant century
  • Key historical developments explained
  • Thematic connections between centuries
  • Color-coded sidebars on Persons, Ideas, or Events
  • Persons: key figures either within or without the Church who have impacted Christian history significantly or who otherwise deserve special mention
  • Ideas: important Christian books, as well as heresies, doctrines, or political movements
  • Events: world-historical occurrences such as battles, natural disasters, inventions, or elections that have affected the development of Christianity in the world

The final chapter, devoted to the present century concludes the companion identifying key themes that the Christian Church is presently dealing with and suggesting future issues. A select Glossary of terms is provided at the end of the book, as well as a bibliographic list of suggested reading.

My review of this useful, if imperfect volume follows.

Backhouse traces the history of Christianity from the first days of the Christian movement to the early 21st century and he does it in less than 225 pages.  That in itself is a fantastic accomplishment.  What’s more, each page is lavishly illustrated with charts, maps, photographs, artwork, and all manner of illustrative materials.  There are also ‘sidebars’ with information essential to readers and to students.  And finally, at the conclusion of the volume, there is a glossary of terms.

This work is written for the student and as such, is self-limiting.  Backhouse cannot cover everything and he doesn’t.  Nor should he have.  But what he does cover is by and large exceedingly accurate.    His short bits on topics like Justin Martyr, the Decian persecution, the conversion of the Slavs, the Crusades, Jan Hus, the anti-papacy sentiments leading up to the Reformation, Indulgences, and many, many, many other aspects of the history of the Church in East and West are treated accurately and insightfully.

There are, however, important imperfections in the volume as well.  My purpose in pointing out one in particular is not to be pedantic, it’s in hopes that in future editions the error will be corrected.

In his treatment of The Swiss Reformation (pp. 145f) Backhouse asserts that

In 1536 the leadership of the Swiss Reformation passed to John Calvin (1509-1564), a former priest fleeing persecution in his native France.

This is incorrect.  Indeed, it is well known among specialists of the Swiss Reformation that it was in fact Heinrich Bullinger who was the de facto and de jure leader of the Swiss reformed movement.  And it was not until well into the 1560’s that as Bullinger’s health began to fail that Reformed Christians began to turn towards Calvin’s works for guidance.  Nonetheless, during his lifetime, Bullinger was the undisputed Reformed theologian who had to be taken account of.

For instance, Bullinger was consulted by Reformed communities all around Europe and as far north as Britain.  His correspondence extends beyond 10,000 letters and his network of interconnections with Reformed theologians was unsurpassed.  Indeed, during the Servetus episode Calvin sought Bullinger’s guidance and when it came to debates about the meaning of the Lord’s Supper, it was Bullinger’s view that Calvin adopted (along with everyone else) rather than vice versa.

Of course Backhouse shouldn’t be expected to go into all of that.  But he should, I think, at least have mentioned Bullinger who, all should know, was far more influential among the Swiss Reformed and in Europe at large than Calvin was during his lifetime.  Calvin came into his greatness after he died.  Bullinger was great while he was still alive.

And Backhouse certainly shouldn’t have said that Calvin achieved leadership of the Swiss Reformed movement in 1536!  In 1536 no one knew who Calvin was except a few French refugees.

That said, I still love this book.  I think it should be read by everyone interested in Church history.  Not just students, but experts.  Why?  Because it is the single best overview of the history of Christianity I’ve yet seen.

It may have its imperfections, but it is still beautiful.

Latomus and Luther- The Debate: Is every Good Deed a Sin?

V&R have now published a new work in the Refo500 Academic Series.  And I’m very excited about it because Luther’s ‘Against Latomus’ is one of his very best books.

Who was Jacob Latomus? What did he write in the series of lectures to which Luther penned an answer in 1521, an answer which is now so central to many interpretations of the great reformer? And how is the reading of that answer affected when it is preceded by an interpretation of what Latomus wrote?The study goes through the most important parts of Latomus’ treatise against Luther (1521). The aim is to identify Latomus’ theological convictions and thus to pin down who and what Luther was up against. The second and major part of the book is a reading of Luther’s pamphlet against Latomus (1521). Parallels are drawn with Latomus’ theology in order to facilitate as much as possible an appreciation of the differences between the two.The comparison between the two theologians shows that they speak completely different languages and that their viewpoints do not square at all. Basically their ways depart in their understanding of God’s word and how it is communicated to man. This generates two ways of perceiving the matter of theology, and of speaking theologically –: and prevents mutual understanding. Latomus cannot understand Luther’s view of the autonomy of God’s word and the special character of proclamation, and hence a theology which is incompatible with natural reason. Even though he accepts a division between a natural and a supernatural rationality, and thus admits that natural reason has a limit, he grants the very same natural reason an important role in the ascent of cognition towards revelation. Everything else – such as Luther’s theology – is a dehumanization of the human being. Luther, on the other hand, regards Latomus’ theology as a result of the impulse in sinful man towards ruling and controlling the word of God with his own inadequate natural abilities. In Luther’s eyes that proclamation of Christ, which in the shape of a human being comes to man in contradiction of everything human, here disappears in the twinkling of an eye.

For many it seems that Latomus, the foe of Luther, appeared as though out of no where.  But as is often the case in matters historical, there’s a lead up, a back story, to the events we are familiar with.  To change metaphors, the great historical iceberg called the Latomus affair is mostly submerged and the only part most see is the exposed point rising above the surf where Latomus and Luther enter battle.

The present work is an examination of the backstory, the submerged part, of the history of Latomus.  Beginning with a debate Erasmus was involved in shortly after his arrival in Leuven and moving forward as that debate unfolded (on theological methodology and the investigation of good works and sin) till the arrival of Latomus on the scene, our author sets the stage.  Eventually Luther enters the fray (as was his regular custom; i.e., where there’s a theological fight, Luther wants a piece of it).  And that, as they say, is when the stuff hit the fan.

Latomus was compelled to respond to Luther and he does so in relationship to many of the chief heads of theology.  Surprising no one, then, Luther attacks.  Once Luther has set the ground rules of scriptural interpretation, as he sees those issues, he goes to the heart of the debate:  are good works actually sinful works?  And here we have the central issue addressed:

Here for the first time we see a difference in the understanding of sin in Luther and Latomus. Latomus would never say that the justified man had sin as his everyday companion, as does Luther. That is why he cannot accept the presence of concupiscentia as a sin, but only a punishment. According to him the righteous man is devoid of sin until in concrete cases he is tempted to commit minor sins of commission, the so-called peccata venialia. Even though they are concrete separate sins, they remain nevertheless minor, because they are committed by one who is otherwise righteous, and Latomus would never think of saying that the righteous commit peccata robusta. In his ears that would be a contradiction.

Furthermore, and quite insightfully, we are informed that

The point therefore is that the truly righteous are not justified in themselves by their own goodness or righteousness, but only by Christ’s righteousness, in faith in Him. There is nothing of their own they can abide by and be safe in their relation to God. It is all nothing. No one, to look back briefly at what has been said in this section, is given a gift by the grace of God (acceptum donum gratiae) (WA 8, 79,32–33), which makes him righteous in himself and by nature (cf. WA 8, 69,4–6), and which he can present to God. Nobody has “through the grace of God” (per gratiam dei) (WA 8, 80,6–7), anything he can muster in this life and before God’s judgement, anything by dint of which “we can safely set aside His mercy as well as His judgement”. If we believe we do, we trust in ourself instead of God, and according to Luther that leads to the opposite of true good deeds.

Luther’s argument continues to the end of the work, giving Luther the last word (and the loudest) and thereby making sure that Luther’s viewpoint is the viewpoint which readers too should adopt.

When it comes to debates about faith and good works; sin and evil deeds, and all of the theological subheadings associated with those themes our author makes clear the importance of each.  This is a valuable and useful work.

The volume concludes with a helpful bibliography.  And this review ends with a helpful bit of advice: read this book.  It clarifies more than it obscures and answers more questions than it raises.  And for an academic monograph that’s quite an accomplishment.

God’s Spies


This interesting volume arrived some weeks back and I have enjoyed reading it very much.  The publisher’s notice says

East Germany only existed for a short forty years, but in that time, the country’s secret police, the Stasi, developed a highly successful “church department” that—using persuasion rather than threats—managed to recruit an extraordinary stable of clergy spies. Pastors, professors, seminary students, and even bishops spied on colleagues, other Christians, and anyone else they could report about to their handlers in the Stasi.

Thanks to its pastor spies, the Church Department (official name: Department XX/4) knew exactly what was happening and being planned in the country’s predominantly Lutheran churches. Yet ultimately it failed in its mission: despite knowing virtually everything about East German Christians, the Stasi couldn’t prevent the church-led protests that erupted in 1989 and brought down the Berlin Wall.

The work reads more like a spy thriller than a work of non-fiction and it tells the genuinely appalling story of the ease with which Pastors were persuaded to inform on others to the East German government.  It tells the story of the willingness of pastors and university theologians to cast their lot in with the State against the Church.  It shows, in stunning detail, the means by which the State co-opted willing Pastors and by doing so undermined the Gospel’s very proclamation.

The biggest mistake the Church ever made was to baptize Constantine.  The second biggest mistake it ever made was to follow Luther’s doctrine of the ‘two kingdoms’.  And the third biggest mistake it has made is a combination of those two things: the submersion of truth and faith to political interests.  The story here told makes that painfully clear.

Braw begins her tale of woe with personal remembrances of her family in Sweden and her grandfather’s interaction with East German Pastors who, it turned out, were working for the government.  She then tells of her interviews with leaders of the East German government’s Church division as well as details she gleaned from talking to Pastors who both collaborated with the government and who stood in opposition to the State.

The most amazing thing about this story is its contemporary relevance to the American church; for it too is being pressured to submit to State power and manipulation.  And there are many clerics and high profile Evangelical leaders like Robert Jeffress, Franklin Graham, Eric Metaxas, and Jerry Falwell Jr who are doing their best to meld the Church and the State in the same way that the Church and State were melded in the East German spies whose ultimate goal was to advance an ideology (Communism) at the expense of the Gospel.

There really is nothing new under the sun. The temptation for the Church has always been to clutch on to worldly power.  And we are seeing that again in our time just as the East German church officials saw it in theirs.  Just as Constantine saw it in his.

Constantinianism, then, is the threat posed by the East German government and the American Right.  And Constantinianism will always be a threat until the Church as a whole realizes that man cannot serve God and something, anything else.

In sum, this volume is a reminder of what happens to a State when its Christians become its agents instead of the agents of the Gospel.  It is an important warning and one that needs to be heeded.  I commend it to you.

2 Peter and the Apocalypse of Peter: Towards a New Perspective

Published by Brill

In the 2016 Radboud Prestige Lectures, published in this volume, Jörg Frey develops a new perspective on 2 Peter by arguing that the letter is dependent on the Apocalypse of Peter. Frey argues that reading 2 Peter against the backdrop of the Apocalypse of Peter sheds new light on many longstanding interpretative questions and offers fresh insights into the history of second-century Christianity. Frey’s lectures are followed by responses from leading scholars in the field, who discuss Frey’s proposal in ways both critical and constructive. Contributors include: Richard Bauckham, Jan Bremmer, Terrance Callan, Paul Foster, Jeremy Hultin, Tobias Nicklas, David Nienhuis and Martin Ruf.

If ever there were a theory that hung by a strand of spider web, it is the one proffered by Frey in this volume and in his earlier Commentary on 2 Peter and Jude.  The notion that somehow or other, 2 Peter is reliant upon the Apocalypse of Peter beggers credulity.  That isn’t to suggest that Frey doesn’t try awfully mightily to make it so.  But he cannot.  It simply is not a sensible theory and that, I suspect, is why only a small handful of people hold to it.

The present volume is a wonderful resource for study into the entire question.  Frey sets the agenda with his defensive essay which opens the book and then his like-minded friends muster their arguments for agreeing with Frey.  Accordingly, the contributions of Bremmer, Nicklas, and Callan (who curiously also asserts that Josephus is also somehow a source of 2 Peter), Nienhuis, and Hultin are all in basic agreement with Frey with varying degrees of separation.  The deck, then, is stacked.

Ruf, then

… questions Frey’s (and Grünstäudl’s) account of the literary connection between 2 Peter and the Apocalypse. Ruf is skeptical about the possibility of determining any kind of direct literary connection. In Ruf’s estimation there is a relationship between the two documents, but it is difficult to be more specific than to say that they are engaging in, and contributing to, the same “discourse.”

Foster and Bauckham too are skeptical (to say the least) concerning Frey’s notion of dependence.

Frey gets the last word, of course, and asserts – in quite a friendly manner – the superiority of his point of view in spite of the doubts of three of his interlocutors.

The best argued essay, in my estimation, is that of Ruf.  Towards the end of his essay he observes, quite sagely

Wolfgang Grünstäudl and Jörg Frey highlight the ideas Second Peter shares with Eastern, and particularly Egyptian, literature, while they pay less attention to its western contacts than Bauckham did. Future research will have to ponder both ‘directions’ of literary contacts and find a balance. A thorough methodological, or, rather, criteriological reflection on the categories of literary contacts and their relevance for the determination of the place of origin would be highly desirable.

And that, I think, is the crux of the issue.  It is the old old wondering after which came first, the chicken or the egg.  Frey asserts that the chicken (Apocalypse of Peter) came first and the egg (2 Peter) only later.  But how can he prove this?  And the simplest answer is- he can’t.

He tries, as do his like-minded colleagues.  But he doesn’t succeed.  His web of assertions are attempting to bear too much weight.  They cannot.  And soon, when more weight (in terms of scholarly response to the theories presented here and in his Commentary) is applied to his idea, it will come crashing down.

The second half (leaving aside Frey’s rejoinder) is just the first salvo in the chicken and egg wars.  As such, it deserves your attention and your consideration.  And it also deserves a monograph in response.

Nicodemism and the English Calvin, 1544–1584

In Nicodemism and the English Calvin Kenneth J. Woo reassesses John Calvin’s decades-long attack against Nicodemism, which Calvin described as evangelicals playing Catholic to avoid hardship or persecution. Frequently portrayed as a static argument varying little over time, the reformer’s anti-Nicodemite polemic actually was adapted to shifting contexts and diverse audiences. Calvin’s strategic approach to Nicodemism was not lost on readers, influencing its reception in England.

I’ve enjoyed reading this rather a lot.  The volume, according to its author, wishes to correct a basic misunderstanding concerning Calvin’s sermons on those who attend the Mass so as to cover up the fact that they are actually Reformed in beliefs.

This book originated with the proverbial “deceptively simple” question: what is significant about John Calvin’s 1552 Quatre sermons?

And more fully

Conventional wisdom concerning Calvin’s anti-Nicodemite polemic has taken for granted the reformer’s rigid and consistent message, tending simply to assume that his approach to religious dissimulation remained static over time. The present work challenges this impression and contends that, just as with the Nicodemite he critiqued, Calvin’s anti-Nicodemism was more than it seemed. This book argues that the publication history of Quatre sermons reveals how Calvin’s anti-Nicodemite polemic could be adapted for completely different audiences. Calvin’s 1552 sermons against Nicodemism provide the ideal case study for such dynamism within his approach to this topic for two reasons: (1) the reformer’s decision to deploy his anti-Nicodemite argument over four interrelated sermons, a form unique in his published writings, which I argue was optimized to address Calvin’s situation in Geneva by silencing his detractors; and (2) the popularity of this publication in translation, particularly the five unique English editions appearing between 1553 and 1584, which spanned remarkably wide-ranging situations for English Protestantism, from persecution under Mary i to the consolidation of reform in the Elizabethan settlement. The present study demonstrates that Calvin’s strategic response to Nicodemism directly influenced his popularity with, and, consequently, his portrayal by, sixteenth-century English translators and publishers, who deployed Calvin’s arguments in new settings to support causes having little to do with Nicodemism.

I offer this rather long-ish quote because I want to be perfectly clear about the contents of this book.  And I wish to be specific about the contents of this book because potential readers need to ‘know what they are getting into’.  This is a tightly argued well crafted meticulously researched volume which is intended for a particular readership: specialists in English Calvinism.  A glance at the table of contents (here) will make that fact abundantly clear.

Specialists will discover that this work

… contends that Nicodemism functioned for Calvin and his admirers as a means for demarcating social boundaries and group identity, often as part of a larger attempt to curry favor in the eyes of others.

The correctness of this thesis is proven in the chapters following it.  Each page of text is supplemented by more footnotes than main text (by and large) which means that each idea or theory is fully documented with material from the primary and secondary literature.

The greatness of the work isn’t, though, in its history of current research or other foundational or methodological matters; its greatness lies in the crispness of the author’s deductions based on a very deep understanding of the sources and era in question.   So, for instance, Woo writes

In a Marian context, Nicodemites were complicit in the nation’s bondage to false gods and an obstacle to England’s return to the pure and free worship of God. They were portrayed negatively as those who embraced a quintessentially Roman strategy of deception, against which the faithful should assert their commitment to God by openly resisting the Mass.

And further on,

Set against the backdrop of Marian and Elizabethan Protestant anti-Nicodemism, the three translations of Quatre sermons examined in this chapter are striking for their variety as well as for an astonishing feature they held in common: none of them dealt with Nicodemism.

!  And as always when one reads a spectacular book about Calvin, there’s lots of Calvin to think about.  My particular favorite is this gem-

My doctrine is not hard, but it is the hardness of their heart that leads them to find it so.

I plan on using that.  Regularly.  Of anyone who disagrees with me about anything doctrinal.  Indeed, I plan on using this book again and again because it is a veritable trove of facts about Calvin and about his English interpreters and heirs.  It is my studied opinion that you too, dear reader, will be magnetically drawn back to this lodestone time and again to discover and re-discover Calvin’s reception and application in Britain.

The book ends with a helpful glossary of terms, a bibliography, and an index (which has no reference to Zwingli even though he is mentioned a number of times in the footnotes).

My recommendation: read this book.

Paul Althaus, Karl Barth, Emil Brunner: Briefwechsel 1922–1966

This new work arrived last month and I’ve had the chance to work through it, to my great delight.

The volume falls into two major sections: the first, Barth’s correspondence with Althaus, and second, Brunner’s correspondence with Althaus.

Two things stand out in this important collection of personal cards and letters- Barth and Althaus had nothing more than a professional relationship and agreed on very few things.  Meanwhile, the relationship between Althaus and Brunner was collegial, warm, and far more than merely professional.

A few excerpts will serve well to prove the point.

Regarding Barth’s ‘Romans’, Althaus writes

Ob ich viel anderes als A. Schlatter zu Ihrem Paulus sagen kann, ist mir fraglich.

Regarding a greeting that Barth sent via a messenger, Althaus notes

Für den Gruß, den Sie mir durch FräuleinGrell sandten, danke ich Ihnen sehr.

Of Althaus’s early enthusiasm for Hitler, Barth scathingly remarks

Wie kann man so gescheit sein, wie er und auf eine so geist verlassene Angelegenheit wie den Hitlerianismus hereinfallen und in den S.A. das Schema für eine neue Ethik entdecken? Wie kann man Theologe sein und seine Leidenschaft so beharrlich und ausdrücklich bei einer anderen Sache haben?

Turning to the letters exchanged between Althaus and Brunner, the tone is entirely different.  Addressing one another as ‘friend’ (whereas for Althaus and Barth it is always ‘Colleague’), the two men had an authentic appreciation for one another and concern for one another.   They frequently sent each other their latest books and complimented one another on the excellent quality of those works.

One of their common topics was the annoyance of Barth and his Barthians.  So, for instance, Althaus

Karl Barths Ansicht in dieser Sache ist auch mir völlig unmöglich und seine Berufung auf die Formeln der alten Dogma tiker (S. 45 A.19), wie so oft, mehr als gewagt. Ich freue mich Ihrer Sätze zur theol. naturalis und habe Sie vor 8 Tagen feierlich im Kolleg als Kronzeugen zitiert.

Also of concern were the ‘power cliques’ of theologians who strove to silence and marginalize any dissenting voices.  Here’s Brunner in a longish letter with the word ‘Private’ at the beginning-

Die Tatsache Erich Seeberg in Berlin ist ein Skandal für die deutsche Theologie. Und die Geltung, die in gewissen Kreisen, ziemlich weit herum, dieser(handschriftl Zusatz: im Vergleich mit seinem Anspruch!) Hohlkopf und Eisenfresser genießt, ist eine Schande für das Urteilsvermögen weiter Kreise der gelehrten Welt. Weiß man das wirklich in Berlin nicht, wieman außerhalb von Berlin über diese Berliner Clique und die beispiellose Niveausenkung der Berliner Fakultät, die die Wirkung ihrer Tätigkeit und ihres Einflusses ist, denkt? Was für ein Geistesriese ist der alte Reinhold neben diesem seinen Sprößling! Und das will doch ziemlich viel sagen.

Returning later to Barth…  Althaus

… ich habe Barths Anti-Brunner gelesen Journalistisch glänzend, zum z. T. raffiniert; aber auch groß in der Kunst umzubiegen, mißzuverstehen, Konsequenzmacherei zu betreiben u.s.w. Ich bin in der Zuversicht zu der uns beiden gemeinsamen These nirgends erschüttert worden. Einige Wendungen können Sie ev. ändern. – Wie billig und falsch die Verdächtigung Ihres Bekenntnisses zum totus peccator! Als ob der Mensch nicht eben dadurch totus peccator wäre, dass er im Ernste um Gott weiß, wissen muß! Bezeichnend, dass Barth auf diese Begründung Ihrer These (wo keine vorlaufende Offenbarung, da auch keine Sünde) gar nicht eingegangen ist! Mit der Aufklärung und der rationalen Orthodoxie um 1700 soll er uns nicht graulen machen. Johann Gerhard, der klassischer Orthodoxer war, lehrt wie wir. Werden Sie bald antworten? Ich gehe im Kolleg dieser Tage auf die Dinge ein und werde wohl auch einen Aufsatz zur Sache schreiben.

Their friendship was deep.  When, for example, Brunner was hospitalized, his wife sent this note to Althaus-

Da mein Mann gegenwärtig noch im Spital liegt,möchte ich Ihnen vorläufig an seiner Stelle – endlich! – aufs herzlichste danken für Ihren freundlichen Brief vom 15. Juni und die beiden Bände Ihrer „Dogmatik“!  Über beides wird sich mein Mann sehr freuen, wenn er, wie wir hoffen, Ende nächster Woche nach Hause kommen kann.

And of course they could be a bit ‘gossipy’, as when Althaus describes his joy that his students are visiting Zurich to take courses under Brunner instead of going to Basel where the Barth cult reigns:

Daher freuen sich auch meine Schüler, die nach Zürich gehen, immer so sehr Ihres Unterrichtes und
müssen nicht, wie in Basel, eine „Bekehrung“ vollziehen oder ablehnen.  Sie glauben kaum, wie verheerend sich Basel und sein Terror oder seine Suggestion bei uns im „Reichsbruderrate“ auswirkt. Diese Leute sind über haupt nicht mehr fähig zu der Freiheit, eines Ihrer oder meiner Bücher zu studieren. Ein genaues Gegenbild zu dem politischen Exklusivismus und Totalismus.

And one final example, from a letter Althaus wrote to Brunner upon receiving word that Brunner’s son had tragically died:

Mein lieber Freund Brunner!

Durch meinen Schüler Gottfried Hornig höre ich von dem schweren Schlage, der Sie und Ihre Gemahlin getroffen hat, durch den jähen Tod Ihres Sohnes Thomas. Meine Frau und ich sind bewegt von der Nachricht, zumal Sie schon einen anderen geliebten Sohn durch einen Unglücksfall verloren haben. Wir wissen etwas, wie dem Vater und der Mutter bei solchem Geschehen umsHerz ist –unserenÄltesten haben wir 1940 hergebenmüssen – aber was Sie erleben, ist ja viel dunkler und sinnloser.

Wir gedenken Ihrer. Diese Zeilen sollen es Ihnen sagen. Gottes Trösten erweise an Ihnen allen seine starke Kraft! Gott sorgt dafür, dass uns dieses Leben nicht zu lieb wird. Er nimmt uns geliebte Menschen hinauf in seine Ewigkeit – und lockert unsere Erden-Wurzeln. Wir müssen uns ihm auch dabei ganz still anvertrauen – es tut sehr weh, Er tut sehr weh. Aber es ist seine gute Hand.

Treu Ihnen verbunden, mit Ihnen trauernd

Ihr P. Althaus

This volume is worth your time.

Theology and History in the Fourth Gospel: Tradition and Narration

The Fourth Gospel is deeply shaped by its remarkably high Christology. It depicts the earthly Jesus, the incarnate one, as fully divine. This unrelenting Christology has led interpreters, both ancient and modern, to question the historical value of John’s Gospel. For many, the Gospel is just theology. It is to the vexed relationship between history and theology that Jörg Frey turns in Theology and History in the Fourth Gospel.

John’s theological obsession with Christology might suggest that history counts for little in the Gospel. But, as Frey argues, the Gospel’s clear and central claim is that John narrates the story of Jesus of Nazareth, his ministry, and his death, as “factual,” and that this narrated “history” is foundational for the Christian message. Frey traces the Gospel’s use of the available historical tradition by chiefly drawing from Mark and the Johannine community. Even if the Gospel of John used this received witness in a remarkably free manner, replotting and renarrating traditional episodes and even creatively staging new episodes, Frey contends that the historical life and person of Jesus remain central to John’s enterprise.

In the end, Frey warns that Johannine interpretation will miss the intention of the Gospel and the interpretive perspective of the evangelist if it remains preoccupied merely with questions of historical accuracy. The interpretive goal is to “let John be John,” and, as Frey shows, readers will always yield to the priority of theology over history in the Fourth Gospel. In John’s telling of the Christ story, the significance of history lies precisely in its disclosure of theological meaning, just as the significance of the historical Jesus is only understood in the theological language of Christology.

My review is posted here.