Book Review: The Emergence of Christianity

bovonemergencechristianityTitle: The Emergence of Christianity: Collected Studies III

Series: WUNT 319

Author: François Bovon

Editor: Luke Drake

Bibliographic info: x, 276 pp., 32 pp.

Publisher: Mohr Siebeck, 2013.

Buy the book at Amazon.

With thanks to Mohr Siebeck for the review copy.

The author of this collection of studies, François Bovon, recently passed away on November 1, 2013. During his career Bovon was a Professor at the Divinity School at the University of Geneva (1967-93) and then was the Frothingham Professor of the History of Religion at Harvard Divinity School (1993-2010). Amongst his other accomplishments, Bovon also served as the Editor of the Harvard Theological Review (2000–2010). This is the third collection of Bovon’s studies, with the first two volumes being Studies in Early Christianity (2003) and New Testament and Christian Apocrypha (2009).

The first study (pp. 1-16) is a basic look at the emergence of Christianity, the faith which began as “a Jewish αἵρεσις.” Bovon develops this study by following a line of progression from Jesus to the early Christian faith, from this faith to the early church, from the church to the gospel and culture of Christianity/Christendom, ending with a look at the movements and journeys of the first Christians in Jerusalem and Rome. A part of this study examines Luke 10:21/Matt. 11:27 and 1 Cor. 1:21, which Bovon sums up in the following quote:

Both sentences are polemical. They attack a particular type of humanism, a certain type of religion, a special genre of culture that misapprehends the divine and manipulates God. But neither Jesus nor Paul conceive of intelligence and faith as being irreconcilable. … According to Jesus and Paul, deity conceals his wisdom from these wise men and intelligent women. For despite their wisdom these people missed the true wisdom: God himself and his messengers. Consequently, from this time forward true wisdom is the wisdom of the weak; it is the knowledge possessed by children; a wisdom that focuses on the oppressed Christ hanged on a cross. (10)

The second study (pp. 17-31) provides an examination of the earliest Christologies in the twofold framework of the Christology of exaltation (Easter) that is representative of the Jerusalem Church and the Christology of incarnation (Christmas) that is representative of the Antioch Church. The third study (pp. 32-38) is a short response of Bovon’s to the book Redescribing Christian Origins (ed’s Ron Cameron and Merill P. Miller; SBL Symposium Series 28; Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2004). The fourth study (pp. 39-48) is on the Gospel of John, specifically tackling the questions of what is the origin of this writing, its aim, and what message did the authors desire to transmit. The fifth study (pp. 49-53) contains a brief look at Jesus in the epistles of Paul. Here Bovon examines four situations in Paul’s life experience in order to see how the apostle develops his own Christianity in specific historical situations.

The sixth study (pp. 54-63) is on the Johannine theology of revelation. Apart from the traditional view of Jesus presented in John 20:31 (“so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name”), Bovon says that Jesus is “presented very differently in the body of the Gospel.” In what way?

Without being nonexistent, the classical Christological titles are scarce and new epithets are what appear. Christ’s traditional roles–the proclamation of the Kingdom of God, the use of parables, or expiatory suffering–recede in favor of new roles: the gift of life, elevation, and glorification. … The Gospel must be updated, and this can occur because of the presence of the Holy Spirit, the Paraclete, in the Johannine Church. (54)

The seventh study (pp. 64-77) provides a way of rethinking orthodoxy and heresy. Bovon proceeds by providing a survey of the nineteenth and twentieth century perspectives. This essay contains a useful four page bibliography of English, French, and German literature on orthodoxy and heresy in earliest Christianity.

The eighth study (pp. 78-106) looks at the Aramaic church of Jerusalem (grouped around the twelve) and the church of the Hellenists at Antioch (Greek-speaking Jews established in Jerusalem e.g. Stephen, Philip), specifically in how each group understood the miracles/signs of Jesus. In a similar manner to the second study of this volume, Bovon differentiates the Christians at Jerusalem and Antioch as follows: “Their [i.e. the Hellenists] Christianity was a Christianity of Christmas and of the Incarnation, whereas that of the church of Jerusalem was a Christianity of Easter and of the Resurrection” (84). The Hellenist Christians view on the miracles/signs of Jesus is summed up in the following quote:

The narration of the Transfiguration (Luke 9:28-36 par.) greatly pleased the Hellenists. The other miracles suited them as well. Nevertheless, their reaction was to approve them by glorifying the Son of God rather than the messiah of Israel. Being a miracle-worker, the Jesus of the Hellenists indeed took on the characteristics of the Greek heroes, of divine men or inspired philosophers. (84-5)

For the Jerusalem Church, while they did attribute a positive value to the miracles/signs of Jesus, they are primarily meant to be seen as “forerunners of an imminent Kingdom” (86), and the meaning of Jesus’ miracles “is given by faith alone; without faith, signs remain ambiguous. … No proof can convince the one who doubts. Signs attest but do not prove. Such was the conviction of the Jerusalem community” (83-4; cf. Mark 8:11-12). The important thing to note is that, “In both cases they fit into a polemical framework. In Jewish lands, signs faced the scrutiny of religious authorities; in foreign regions, they entered into competition with every manner of oracle” (86).

While one may think that this division of early Christians into Antioch/Hellenist and Jerusalem/Aramaic groups is a tad bit simplistic, Bovon does also examine the miracles/signs of Jesus from the perspectives of the Galilee community (e.g. Q 7:3, 6-9), Paul and the Pauline churches, the Johannine community, the community of Jesus’ family, a community in Eastern Syria (i.e. the community from which–as it is commonly believed–the Gospel of Thomas originated from), and other communities of the first and second centuries (the communities from which came the Apocalypse of John, the Apocalypse of Peter,  and the Epistle of the Apostles).

Bovon concludes:

When we finish reading through the earliest Christian literature we come to two conclusions. First, in its variety and nuances, the biblical tradition of signs influenced Jesus and the early Christians: God enjoys giving signs to his people in order to confirm his intentions, express his authority, or reassure their faith. Second, God’s envoys refuse to disparage signs or consider them as proofs: they know that signs remain fragile and ambiguous. They acknowledge them as such and include them in the faith. Moreover, they express their reaction on a terrain glutted with ambiguities, wherein false prophets perform wonders that are strangely similar to the signs accomplished by true prophets. (102)

Furthermore, Jesus and early Christians “refuse to accede to their request and do not provide any demonstration under pressure. Instead they often prefer to reverse values and maintain that weakness and failure are what represent legitimacy, obedience and conformity to God” (102). This study also concludes with a four-page bibliography.

The ninth study (pp. 107-25) is on the soul, immortality, and resurrection in early Christianity. Here Bovon looks at various writers and texts, including Eustratios, Augustine, Jerome, Gregory of Nyssa, Origen, Tertullian, Irenaeus, Athenagoras, Pseudo-Justin, the Odes of Solomon, the Third Epistle to the Corinthians, the Prayer and Apocalypse of Paul, and finally, John’s Gospel, Paul, and Jesus. Bovon concludes:

I read in the early Christian witnesses special interest in the soul and its immortality, strongly related to their faith in the resurrection itself. Immortality was not for them an anthropological given by a Christological gift. It was for them the fruit of redemption and not the result of an immanent process. … They claimed a holistic view of the person, with ethical embodiment now and the risen person tomorrow, and suggested the preservation of the person between the two through the existence of the soul and the care and memory of their God. (125)

The tenth study (pp. 126-46) is on the reception of Acts in Late Antiquity. Sidenote: For the unaware reader, Bovon wrote several studies on the Gospel of Luke including the three-volume commentary in the Hermeneia series. The eleventh study (pp. 147-60) examines the idea of a third category of books that is not canonical nor apocryphal, a category of books described as useful for the soul.” The majority of early Christians divided books into three categories: “the most authoritative were considered canonical; those deprived of any authority were rejected and called apocryphal; and those that had some authority, that is, those that were considered profitable or useful, composed a third category” (149). This three-fold division is found in Origen, Athanasius, and Eusebius (though he ultimately avoids it).

Bovon then shows three prefaces from Late Antiquity (out of a dozen he has found) that “not only illustrate care for the third category, but also demonstrate how to rescue the best of the non canonical texts from shipwreck” (150). Bovon finishes by providing an example of Elias Hutter, who in 1599 presented a polyglot bible in twelve languages that “offered a fascinating solution to the perplexing problem of how to preserve an epistle that on one hand was not considered to be canonical, but, on the other, was so valued that it could not be rejected as apocryphal” (160). He says that Hutter left a blank page at the end of Colossians and then writes the Epistle to the Laodiceans where one would expect 1 Thessalonians (the Epistle to the Laodiceans was beloved in the Middle Ages and was copied into many manuscripts of the Vulgate). Hutter published it side by side with Paul’s other letters but preceded it with a blank page and didn’t number the pages of the Laodicean text. Bovon concludes: “What better proof could I have of the third category!”

The twelfth study (pp. 161-68) takes a look at two texts: the Letter of Peter to James and the Solemn Commitment, both of which appear before the Clementine Homilies. The thirteenth study (pp. 169-83) is on manuscripts and the digital era. The fourteenth study (pp. 184-98) examines The Prayer and Apocalypse of Paul, complete with the Greek text, a critical apparatus, and notes. The fifteenth study (pp. 199-235) does the same for an unedited fragment of the Acts of Peter, also providing a linguistic analysis that looks at syntax, verbal morphology, and nominal morphology. These two studies are stupendous if you’re into non-canonical early Christian texts. The sixteenth study (pp. 236-61) is on a new witness to the Acts of Philip, which also comes with nineteen images found on the manuscripts.

The seventeenth (pp. 262-65) and eighteenth (pp. 266-69) chapters are both short obituaries for Pierre Bonnard (1911-2003) and Jacques Dupont (1915-1998). Finally, the nineteenth study (pp. 270-76) is on the intertextuality between Aeschylus and Judges.

All in all, this is an impressive anthology of studies by François Bovon that clearly demonstrates his significant contribution to the study of the New Testament and early Christianity. They cover a variety of aspects of early Christian studies, from specific manuscripts, icons, and texts, to the broad concepts of Christology, orthodoxy and heresy, and immortality. All of these studies will expand the readers understanding of early Christianity and some of them were truly valuable and interesting (particularly chapters two, seven, eight, nine, eleven, fourteen and fifteen). A great volume.

Book Notice for Moltmann Fans (and Universalists)

A new book on Moltmann’s theology has recently been published: The Annihilation of Hell: Universal Salvation and the Redemption of Time in the Eschatology of Jurgen Moltman, by Nicholas Ansell.

annihilationofhellThis work analyses and evaluates Jurgen Moltmann’s model of universal salvation and its relation to his understanding of the redemption, or eschatological fulfilment, of time.

For Jurgen Moltmann, Hell is the nemesis of Hope. The ‘Annihilation of Hell’ thus refers both to Hell’s annihilative power in history and to the overcoming of that power as envisioned by Moltmann’s distinctive theology of the cross in which God becomes ‘all in all’ through Christ’s descent into Godforsakenness. The negation of Hell and the fulfilment of history are inseparable. Attentive to the overall contours and dynamics of Moltmann’s thinking, especially his zimzum doctrine of creation, his eschatologically oriented philosophy of time, and his expanded understanding of the nature-grace relationship, this study asks whether the universal salvation that he proposes can honour human freedom, promise vindication for those who suffer, and do justice to biblical revelation. As well as providing an in-depth exposition of Moltmann’s ideas, The Annihilation of Hell also explores how a ‘covenantal universalism’ might revitalise our web of beliefs in a way that is attuned to the authorising of Scripture and the spirituality of existence. If divine and human freedom are to be reconciled, as Moltmann believes, the confrontation between Hell and hope will entail rethinking issues that are not only at the centre of theology but at the heart of life itself.

As someone who has been impacted by Moltmann’s theology and as someone who enjoys reading about Christian univeralism, this book looks like a very interesting study. Unfortunately, the price tag of $50 is a bit prohibitive (but I’m hoping I will be able to swing a review copy).

Book Review: Dialectical Theology and Jacques Ellul

elluldialecticalvleetTitle: Dialectical Theology and Jacques Ellul

Author: Jacob E. Van Vleet

Bibliographic info: 248 pp.

Publisher: Fortress Press, 2014.

Buy the book at Amazon.

With thanks to Fortress Press for the digital review copy.

For about past six months I’ve been reading through the books of Jacques Ellul. I came across some of his works in April when I attended the annual Wheaton Theology Conference and saw a shelf of his books in the college bookstore. Having read through about a dozen of his books now, I am quite surprised that his books would be found in a conservative Christian college’s bookstore. After all, Ellul was an anarchist, had a disparaging attitude towards Christianity as a religion, and was an overt universalist.

In this study Jacob Van Vleet provides an examination of the theology of Jacques Ellul through the “skeleton key” of dialectics. Vleet states, and I wholeheartedly agree, that “dialectic is the skeleton key to Ellul’s philosophy and theology; it is the hermeneutical principle by which one can clearly and coherently explore all of Ellul’s work.”

In the first chapter, Vleet discusses three key influences on Ellul: Søren Kierkegaard, Karl Marx, and Karl Barth. I was not at all surprised to see Barth and Marx named as primary intellectual influences on Ellul (and the only reason I can’t say the same about Kierkegaard is due to not being that familiar with his writings).

Marx’s dialectical view of history and critiques of capitalism are readily apparent in Ellul. Vleet says that there are, “three primary ideas that Ellul takes from Marx: his critique of capitalism, his concept of alienation, and his theory of ideology. These are crucial to Ellul’s sociological and philosophical discussions of technique.” Vleet also correctly states that despite the importance influence Marx had on Ellul, he is not a Marxist and ultimately “accuses Marx of slipping into ideology and making unfounded assumptions about the nature of history and society.” An interesting way in which Marx’s dialectical view of history can be seen in Ellul’s work is that while for Marx this dialectic ends in the freedom of a classless and stateless society, “for Ellul, history ends in universal salvation and redemption for all, the ultimate freedom.”

Vleet shows that while Marx wielded a great influence on Ellul’s sociological hermeneutics, Kierkegaard did the same on Ellul’s theological hermeneutics (specifically Kierkegaard’s philosophical anthropology and his accent on paradox). In fact, Ellul apparently read every work of these two thinkers (and they were the only people Ellul could say that about). Vleet sees Karl Barth’s influence on Ellul in the fact that for both Barth and Ellul, “God and reality can only be fully understood through a Trinitarian lens. This lens is a central hermeneutical tool that Ellul inherits from Barth.” Vleet calls this “dialectical inclusion.” I was somewhat surprised to see this as Barth’s influence on Ellul. I mean, Bart’s influence on Ellul can clearly be seen in his emphasis on the self-revelation of God and the difference between revelation and religion, yet I haven’t really noticed a strong undercurrent of a trinitarian hermeneutical tool in Ellul’s theological project.

The second chapter delves more into Ellul’s own dialectical worldview and methodology. Of particular interest was the elucidation of how Ellul’s dialectical view “maintains that all things ultimately end in reconciliation. … Ellul maintains that salvation is universal. In other words, the process of being reunited with God is the logical and necessary outcome of the historical process. … all things – humans, animals, the earth – will ultimately be reunited with God.” I enjoyed this because while I have seen Ellul state a few times that he sees a universalistic outcome, I have not seen him go into any detail as to why he thinks this is. Granted, Ellul may very well do this somewhere in his oeuvre, but I have not come across that place as of yet.

 The third chapter delves more into Ellul’s understanding of God, salvation, God’s freedom, and the logic behind Ellul’s explicit belief in universalism. In regards to how Ellul sees God, Vleet summarizes: “Throughout Ellul’s work, God is usually discussed in one of four ways. These are as follows: God as Wholly Other, God as living, God as Trinity, and God as love.” I was somewhat surprised by God as Trinity (mainly because I haven’t seen a trinitarian emphasis in Ellul so far, not to mention that he seems quite modalistic), but the other three points are clearly important aspects of God to Ellul. Vleet also examines Ellul’s relationship to other dialectical theologians, specifically by looking at these dialecticians through six axiomatic principles of dialectical theologians (e.g. the absolute transcendence of God, the difference between religion and revelation, the rejection of the analogia entis for the analogia fidei, etc).

Vleet discusses Ellul’s view of Scripture, noting that:

For Barth and Ellul, the Scriptures are the Word of God in that they contain God’s revelation: divine communication. The Scriptures are not the Word of God in and of themselves. If approached in this manner, the Bible will be seen as divine and will lead to bibliolatry. Ellul refuses to divinize the Scriptures, but because they act as a conduit for the living God, he looks to them as a central guide for his theology.

The fourth chapter discusses Ellul’s philosophy of technology, including his conception of technique, and also compares Ellul to two other two thinkers who were concerned about the technological society, Hebert Marcuse and Martin Heidegger. “Technique” is a pivotal concept to be found in Ellul’ theological and sociological works. Vleet describes it as:

technique refers primarily two aspects of modernity. First, it refers to the modern mindset guided by a desire for greater efficiency, instrumentality, and control. Second, technique refers to the technological milieu of contemporary industrial society. Overall, technique is the pernicious force underlying modern forms of capitalism, socialism, and other economic systems. As the foundation beneath our values and intellect, technique leads to grave alienation.

The fifth chapter is on Ellul’s view of propaganda and politics, and the sixth chapter discusses Ellul’s understanding of hope, nonviolence, and Christian anarchism.

For anyone who is a reader of Ellul this book is obviously a must-read. If you’re not into Ellul but want an accessible introductory work on Ellul then I would definitely recommend this book as the one to get. Granted, there are not a great deal of introductory works on Jacques Ellul’s theology (in fact the only one I can think of off the top of my head is Understanding Jacques Ellul), but this study by Vleet approaches Ellul’s theology from the most useful angle that one could approach Ellul’s theology: Ellul as a dialectician. And Vleet has provided an excellent study wherein he elucidates the importance of dialectical thinking to Ellul and shows how it brings together his theological and sociological work to form a coherent whole.

Movie Review: God’s Not Dead

god'snotdeadWarning: spoilers ahead.

In short, God’s Not Dead is a movie-length version of one of those email chain letters or Facebook postings that gives the spiel about how a student bested a learned Professor in class on whether God exists (see e.g. the Dropped Chalk Story or Student Einstein Humiliates Professor). There is one noticeable difference, however, which is that in this movie the student doesn’t turn out to be a young Albert Einstein.

Freshman student Josh Wheaton is sitting in the first lecture of a first-year philosophy class taught by Professor Radisson. Radisson is an atheist and begins the class by listing a whole bunch of philosophers who are atheists and demanding that the students (about 80-90 of them) all acknowledge the “primitive superstition” of religion by writing on a piece of paper “God is dead” and signing it. The only student who does not do this is Wheaton. Radisson then challenges him to prove his belief in God over the next three lectures, with the students deciding who wins the debate.

Of course, it seems absurd that no one else in the class apart from Wheaton had a problem with the outrageously inappropriate requirement from Radisson to sign a religious statement denying the existence of a deity. I guess no theists ever take introductory philosophy classes? Or if they do then they mustn’t have any conviction about their belief (or the common sense to tattle on the Professor).

This movie didn’t prove that a god exists but it did ably demonstrate that stereotypes are alive and well in American Evangelicalism (the production company of the movie, Pure Flix, seems like it belongs to the evangelical stream of Christianity). If you don’t believe in a deity then you must be a horrible person, devoid of ethics, and pumped up on arrogance and self-centeredness. This movie conveys the idea that Christian’s don’t believe in atheists. How so? Because the atheist characters are just silly caricatures. Seriously, has the writer of this movie actually conversed with any atheists?

Radisson (Kevin Sorbo) and Mark (Dean Cain) are caricatures drawn up by an overactive and fearful evangelical imagination. Apart from making his students sign a statement saying “God is dead”, Radisson is also portrayed as very narcissistic, arrogant, and obnoxious to his Christian girlfriend, Mina. For instance, he tells Wheaton that he is God in the classroom and mocks Mina in front of the whole Philosophy Department faculty at a dinner.

Mark is portrayed as a successful man of upward mobility who is an emotionless sociopath. In one scene he is at dinner with his atheist girlfriend, freelance journalist Amy, and tells her that he just made partner at a lawfirm. When she responds by saying that she has cancer, he berates her for telling him and immediately dumps her. Meanwhile, Mark’s mother is a sufferer of dementia and he refuses to see her and when he finally does go see her at the behest of his sister Mina (the same Mina who is dating Radisson), he openly mocks her and her faith right in front of her. His final scene is in his car where he receives a text from his sister saying, “God is not dead.” He throws his phone onto the backseat, which I take to mean that he has hardened his heart and is the atheist of the movie who does not convert. (His ex-girlfriend Amy, however, is converted by the Christian musical band, Newsboys).

If I was an atheist, I would be pissed at this movie.

Another stereotype is found in the portrayal of the movie’s sole Muslim character. Ayisha, a student at the same university that Wheaton attends, is a secret Christian in a strict Muslim household. Her father finds out about her Christian faith and what does he do? He violently abuses her and then throws her out onto the street. Was this portrayal of the sole Muslim character really necessary? It would be like if a Islamic version of this movie was made and the sole Christian character in it was a Pastor/Priest who molests children or a Christian parent who throws their child out onto the street for being gay.

Another character is Martin, a student from the People’s Republic of China and he, of course, is an atheist. When speaking on the phone to his father back in China he mentions how they are talking about the existence of a god in the philosophy class. His dad is portrayed as being quite scared of even talking about the prospect of a deity existing over the telephone because the government might be listening (“Why are you saying this? You never know who is listening”).

Another character is Pastor Dave who advises Wheaton early on in the film and then experiences some unfortunate trouble with vehicles, leaving him stranded on campus. But never fear, for this comes into play in Radisson’s climatic scene.

There are brief scenes of the three lectures where Wheaton is given time to convince his classmates that a god exists. Wheaton decides to tackle the massive undertaking of proven God’s existence by using the big bang theory. He states that, until very recently, scientists had it wrong as to the origins of the universe, but “the Bible had it right” because the Bible is apparently some sort of an ancient scientific textbook. (Later on in the film, The Newsboys say that, “We believe God gave us an instruction manual”). That is classic evangelical claptrap wherein the Bible is some inerrant guide and manual in all facets of life (even science!).

This arc of the story culminates in the final showdown between Josh Wheaton and Professor Radisson. Theoblogger Kevin Davis (After Existentialism, Light) has done a great job summarizing the ridiculousness of this part (here and here):

I have not disclosed the most ridiculous moment in the movie. Here is the scene: During Josh’s fourth and final performance in front of the class, Professor Radisson engages with Josh in a tit-for-tat, where Josh comes across like a rock star lawyer. (Think of A Few Good Men with Cruise versus Nicholson.) Josh is blasting away about the immorality and meaninglessness of life without God, and the professor is responding from the Dawkins playbook about the “disease” of religion and so forth. It all culminates with Josh yelling at the professor, “Why do you hate God?!” Radisson responds, “Because he took everything from me,” in reference to the death of his mother when he was a child. “Yes, I hate God.” Josh deals the final blow, “How can you hate someone if he doesn’t exist?”

Booyah! You see what happened? The professor’s rejection of God is not about reason. It’s about emotions. It’s about the loss of his mother. Josh even declares that Radisson knows that the reasons are on Josh’s side. Atheism is not about reason. We’ve already seen how easily Josh has been able to demolish all of the rational objections. So it must be about something else. Emotions. Nevermind that this is exactly the same tactic that skeptics use against Christians. After this heated exchange between Josh and the professor, each student begins to stand, one by one, declaring, “God’s not dead.” (Think of Dead Poets Society and all the students declaring, “Oh Captain, my Captain.”) Over and over, “God’s not dead. God’s not dead.” Eventually the entire class is standing. Remember, this is the same class that wrote, “God is dead,” with their signatures just a few weeks prior. Josh is so persuasive that he wins over the entire class!

That, my friends, was the most ridiculous moment in the whole movie.


Later on that evening, Radisson is reading a letter from his mother (who died when he was a kid), moving him to reconcile with Mina (who had just dumped him). He realizes she is probably at the Newsboys concert and while on his way walking there, he is struck in a hit-and-run. Pastor Dave and his missionary friend, Reverend Jude, just happen to be on the scene and according to Jude, who must have x-ray capabilities and thus can give a prognosis with his clairvoyant powers, all of Radisson’s ribs are broken and his lungs are rapidly filling with blood. He is dying. Dave asks Radisson, “Do you know Jesus?” With his dying breaths, Radisson tells Dave that he is an atheist and that he is not ready to die. But, like the penitent thief on the cross, Radisson pours forth a death-bed confession of Christ and is saved. I actually shed a fear tears at this death scene, but I also cried at the ending of Armageddon and at most Disney movies… so yea.

A particularly odd part of this death scene was that Jude said, “This is a joyful thing! Painful yes, but incredibly joyful!” And I was thinking, sure that’s neat that the guy had a deathbed repentance, but he was just tragically and unexpectedly mowed down by a fuckin’ car! But I guess he is gonna be in heaven now and that’s all that matters, right?

Apart from the horrible use of stereotypes, this movie also has another big problem. Kevin Davis states it well:

Josh has converted the entire class. How? By proclaiming the love of God in Jesus Christ? No. By preaching repentance and forgiveness in the cross of Jesus Christ? Nope. By mentioning at least something vague about Jesus Christ, the promise of redemption, the hope of glory, or any of the sort? No again. The message of the film is clear. You don’t need Jesus or the Holy Spirit to convert a classroom of students to belief in God. Reason alone is a sufficient bridge from unbelief to belief. No “foolishness” to the Greeks here. Sorry, Paul. “God is alive,” and you don’t even need to change your heart of stone to a heart of flesh.

The movie did have a few brief mentions of Jesus (I was surprised they didn’t have a scene discussing the “four spiritual laws” formula and the penal substitutionary model of atonement). But on the whole, this movie was entirely about proving a generic creator god, not the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jesus. Considering this movie sprung forth from the evangelical stream, I was quite surprised by this focus on a generic god.

All in all, this movie, like a lot of evangelical apologetics, is basically a safety blanket for evangelicals. It taps into and plays on their fears. It appeals to the persecution complex that is found in fundamentalist evangelicalism where the “us versus them” paradigm reigns supreme.

Also, what evangelical movie would be complete without the following things:

  • A cameo from one of those bearded Duck Dynasty guys
  • The obligatory reference to Lee Strobel
  • The obligatory reference to C.S. Lewis
  • The high Christology of Jesus-is-my-BFF (Wheaton says: “I think of Jesus as my friend”)
  • The “free will” answer as the panacea to the theodicy question (if there is a good god, then why so much evil)
  • The notion that atheists are amoral fucks (Wheaton says that atheists “have no moral absolutes”)
  • The portrayal of the Bible as being an inerrant textbook and instruction manual

God’s Not Dead is an odious movie made with the best of intentions, yet you know what they say about good intentions… they pave the way to hell. The movie portray Christians as people who are irreverent, stupid, and who pigeonhole non-Christians into offensive stereotypes. In short, this movie was like a movie-length Jack Chick tract.


Book Review: The Death of Jesus

deathofjesuswedderburnTitle: The Death of Jesus

Series: WUNT 299

Author: Alexander J.M. Wedderburn

Bibliographic info: xv, 193 pp., 31 pp.

Publisher: Mohr Siebeck, 2013.

Buy the book at Amazon.

With thanks to Mohr Siebeck for the review copy.

In this book, which Wedderburn refers to as “a ragged and rather incomplete ‘swansong'” (xi), he confronts systematic theologians and traditional Christian thinking by issuing the challenge to deal candidly with the disparate and diverse accounts in the New Testament concerning Jesus’ death, particularly Jesus’ own understanding of his impending execution. In this task Wedderburn likens himself to a “somewhat unorthodox cat [being let] loose among some theological pigeons” (xi).

In this review I will first provide a brief summary of what each chapter is about and then give a bit more depth on certain sections and offer up some general thoughts about the book.

Chapter One (pp. 1-46) is the introduction wherein the author discusses various attempts to interpret the meaning of Jesus’ death for us. This is followed with Chapter Two (pp. 47-66) which asks the questions of whether Jesus saw his death coming and, if so, how did he view his death. Chapter Three (pp. 67-87) discusses Jesus’ last meal, with a focus upon the Last Supper traditions in Matthew 26, Mark, 14, Luke 22, and 1 Corinthians 11. In Chapter Four (pp. 89-106) Wedderburn examines the two “highly informative” events about Jesus’ attitude to his death: the prayer in Gethsmane (Mark 14:32-42 par.) and his death cry (Mark 15:34 par.). Chapter Five (pp. 107-28) is on the period of time between Jesus and Paul, specifically looking at the impact of the Easter events and some traditions in Paul (Rom 3:25 and 4:25). Chapter Six (pp. 129-48) focuses upon the folly of the cross as a polemical theme in Paul and its theological implications. Chapter Seven (pp. 149-65) discusses Pauline thought on participation in Christ, being in Christ, and dying with Christ. This includes a focus upon 2 Cor. 5:14 and the notion of Jesus as the representative human being (1 Cor. 15:20-22, 45-49; Rom. 5:12-21). Chapter Eight (pp. 167-82) then tackles the topic of righteousness and justification in Paul. The book ends with a short Epilogue (pp. 183-86), an Appendix (pp. 187-93) on the shorter text in Luke 22:15-19, and the obligatory bibliography and indices.

As already mentioned, the first chapter discusses various attempts at interpreting the meaning of Jesus’ death for us, specifically “in terms of something that happens in the being of God and thus is at least relevant to our perception and understanding of God’s nature or in terms of a manifestation of the nature or ‘shape’ of that divine spirit that is subsequently at work in the world or at least in the Christian community” (30). This includes discussions of various writers including Leonardo Boff, Geoffrey Lampe, Dorothee Sölle, Peter Hodgson, Alistair Kee, John Hick, and, everybody’s favorite, Jürgen Moltmann. I’m quite familiar with Moltmann’s theology and Wedderburn’s discussion of it was quite informed and showed a good familiarity with his theologia crucis.

Wedderburn asks the question of whether the inter-trinitarian relationships in regards to the death of Jesus is an appropriate emphasis for systematic theologians to turn to in order to explicate the NT’s view of soteriology. Instead, Wedderburn suggests that perhaps this trinitarian framework is an impediment to properly understanding what the NT actually says in regards to Jesus’ death and to how he thought of his own death. The rest of the book, in which the author goes on to examine Jesus’ life and teachings in relation to his suffering and death, is an investigation into how Jesus and the NT authors viewed his death.

The second chapter tackles the question of what Jesus’ own thinking was in regards to his death. Did he see it coming? How did he interpret it? This chapter includes discussions of the work of Rudolf Bultmann, Leonardo Boff, and Maurice Casey. Wedderburn says:

At any rate, once Jesus had learnt of the Baptist’s fate it is thoroughly intelligible that he would have reflected on the implications of this for someone like himself whose preaching shared so much in common with that of the Baptist. (51)


Firm evidence that Jesus himself reflected on his likely fate in this prophetic tradition is therefore hard to find, however plausible and probable the recent fate of the Baptist may make this suggestion. (52)

On the fate of prophets Wedderburn suggests that Matt. 11:12-14//Luke 16:16 might have bearing. He also looks at Jesus’ predictions of his passion in Mark 8:31, 9:31, 10:33-34 (and their parallels), as well as what Mark 10:45b (and its parallels) have on the question of whether Jesus viewed his death as salvific. Wedderburn also notes that “Jesus seems to have seen his impending suffering not as averting woes, but as inaugurating them” (56). This, of course, raises the question: how proper can it be, then, to talk of Jesus’ death as an atoning sacrifice?

The third chapter discusses the different NT traditions of Jesus’ last meal, with Wedderburn saying that “it seems more prudent to examine the merits of the various versions, aware that none of them may have a monopoly on authenticity” (73). Further along he says that:

At any rate, the Synoptic Gospels and 1 Corinthians yield us, as already noted, two basic forms of the tradition, one in which Matthew and Mark are basically similar, and one where the longer text of Luke shows a marked similarity to the tradition that Paul presupposes in the Corinthian church. (75)

After examining the NT passages on Jesus’ last supper, Wedderburn offers up the following reconstructed form as possibly being the earliest form of Jesus’ words (and it basically corresponds to the shorter text of Luke):

And he said to them: ‘I have very much desired to eat this Passover meal with you before I must suffer. I will not eat it again till the meal finds its fulfillment in God’s kingdom.’ And he took the cup, gave thanks and said, ‘Take this and distribute it amongst yourselves. For I tell you: From now on I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until God’s kingdom comes.’ And he took bread, gave thanks and distributed it to them with the words: ‘This is my body’. (77)

For the rest of this chapter Wedderburn investigates the questions of what exactly did Jesus mean by those words. Was the meal actually a Passover meal? Is the idea of atonement actually implicit in Jesus’ words? Wedderburn provides this interesting conclusion:

One needs be cautious about reading a soteriological significance into this particular meal and Jesus’ actions performed and words spoken on this occasion. It is true that there would have been a soteriological significance in many, if not all, of the meals that Jesus celebrated, particularly in the company of ‘sinners’ and social outcasts, if his table-fellowship symbolized that they were accepted into his fellowship and could expect to continue to enjoy that fellowship in God’s kingdom. Yet this meal was in this respect different, in that, as far as we know, most of those present, if not all, were members of Jesus’ closest circle of followers. And if one of them sinned by betraying, his participation in the meal was no pledge of salvation, but rather occasioned the dire warning of Mark 14.21 parr. Nor was the meal characterized by joy and celebration, but by foreboding and a sense of impending tragedy. To that extent this meal was less ‘soteriological’ or ‘salvific’ than previous ones during the earlier part of Jesus’ ministry. (86-87)

In regards to Jesus’ own view of his death, Wedderburn concludes in chapter four:

Having adopted a minimalist approach to the question of Jesus’ own interpretation of his death, I came to the conclusion that even if he were clear-sighted enough to see the dangers that were facing him, his purpose in taking his message to Jerusalem was precisely that, to take his message to Jerusalem. And that message was a call to his people to repent and return to their God and to do the will of that God, to welcome the coming of God’s reign among them. Any suggestion of his own death as atoning hardly fits into that pattern of thought. Nor, as we saw, does it fit easily together with Jesus’ reluctance expressed in in [sic] his prayer in Gethsemane to drink the cup of suffering that awaited him. Or at least there is no hint that the drinking of this cup was made any less bitter by the thought that others would be saved thereby. (105)

While I greatly enjoyed the first chapter where Wedderburn takes systematic theologians to task with some hard questions it never really seemed to be integrated with his conclusions throughout the rest of the book. Nevertheless, Alexander Wedderburn has provided a valuable study on the death of Jesus in the New Testament, particularly in regards to the question of how Jesus viewed his own death. Usually historical studies on the NT and modern systematic theology are two entirely separate worlds, so to see these two worlds brought together is a novel and welcomed endeavor.


Quick Book Review: Reconstructing Karl Barth’s Pneumatology

BarthpneumatologyTitle: The Spirit of God and the Christian Life: Reconstructing Karl Barth’s Pneumatology

Author: JinHyok Kim

Bibliographic info: 288 pp.

Publisher: Fortress Press, 2014.

Buy the book at Amazon.

With thanks to Fortress Press for the review copy!

Two of my favorite theologians, Jurgen Moltmann and Jacques Ellul, show a clear influence from Karl Barth. Because of this I myself have naturally taken an interest in the theology of Barth. In my readings of Barth, I have come across on a few occasions a criticism such as this: “A problem with Barth’s theology is that it is not adequately trinitarian as it is held back by an underdeveloped pneumatology” (Robert Jenson even once quipped that Barth’s theology was more binitarian than trinitarian). This criticism is due to the fact that Barth died before he could finish writing the volume in his Church Dogmatics on the Holy Spirit. This is where JinHyok Kim enters the scene for his book presents an attempt at reconstructing what Barth’s fully developed pneumatology would have looked like.

There have been two important English studies on Barth’s pneumatology published in decades past: Philip Rosato’s The Spirit as Lord (1981) and John Thompson’s The Holy Spirit in the Theology of Karl Barth (1989). JinHyok Kim’s contribution, which is a revised version of his doctoral dissertation completed at the University of Oxford, aims to show “that it is possible to read Barth as offering a robust Spirit theology, in which he attempted to rehabilitate human subjectivity and to facilitate ethics within a wider framework of God’s dealing with humanity and human response to God.”

The book breaks down into the following chapters:

  1. Introduction: Redemption, Pneumatology, and the Christian Life in Karl Barth
  2. Prayer, the Spirit, and Redemption: A Constructive Reading of Barth’s Pneumatology
  3. The Spirit and the Drama of Salvation in History
  4. The Spirit and the Revelation of the Word of God
  5. The Spirit and the Beauty of the Lord
  6. Conclusion: A Prayerful Seeking for the Fulfillment of God’s Promise

The introduction contains a good section on various modern receptions of Barth’s pneumatology. Kim looks at four types of modern critical appropriations of Barth’s Spirit theology: the first is the dangers of modalism and the evaporation of the Spirit’s personality; the second is pneumatology’s subordination to Christology and the lack of eschatological insights; the third is that there is no room for human autonomy and faith; and the fourth is insufficient reflections on history, nature, and the church. I’ve frequently encountered the charge that Barth had a modalistic view in his doctrine of the Trinity. Kim explains the issue this way:

Barth resisted using the term “person,” because this term might have implications of modern individualistic, psychological, and idealistic views of personhood. Instead, he opted for the German term Seinweise, which was translated as “mode of being” in English. When “person” was replaced by “mode of being,” it was inevitable that God would be understood as one personal Subject who exists in three modes of revelation – the Revealer as the Father, the revelation as the Son, and the revealedness as the Spirit. Many critics, however, have found that, because the role of revealedness is to unite the Revealer and the revelation, the bond between the two is already implied in their eternal loving relationship as the Father and the Son. In Barth’s theology, therefore, the Spirit is superfluous in the Godhead, or, at the very best, can be understood in an impersonal way.

I particularly enjoyed the chapter on revelation in which Kim examines Barth’s theology of history within his doctrine of revelation, including a fine examination of the differences and similarities between Barth and Pannenberg. Kim demonstrates how Barth’s doctrine of the Holy Spirit bridges his theology of election and revelation.

Kim’s explication of the role of the Holy Spirit in prayer was also well done and quite beneficial. In regards to the topic of prayer, Kim actually coins two new terms – “pneumatic prayer” and “prayerful pneumatology” – which are derived from how Barth repeatedly links together the Spirit’s intercession with prayer (e.g. Romans 8).

The Spirit of God and the Christian Life: Reconstructing Karl Barth’s Pneumatology is not a general introduction to Karl Barth’s theology, thus if one does not have at least a modicum of familiarity with Barth’s thought (and the giants upon whose shoulders he stood), then you might not be able to fully appreciate this volume. However, if you are a fan of Barth and desire a fuller understanding of his pneumatology then this book is the perfect prescription. Kim provides numerous valuable insights into the role that the Spirit plays in Barth’s theology, specifically in the life of the Christian.

I am by no means well-versed on Barth’s theology. I’ve read his Evangelical Theology and Romans commentary, as well as some smatterings of his Church Dogmatics here and there. I am, however, quite interested in the great dialectician since he influenced two theologians I enjoy reading (Ellul and Moltmann). Most of what I learn about Barth is from literature written on him and his theology, and this book has certainly been the most helpful for explicating Barth’s theology of the Holy Spirit and I have learned a lot from it. If you’re a fan of Barth, I recommend you pick this volume up!

I will finish with this nice quote which summarizes what “theology” is to Barth:

For Barth, theology is not primarily a human construction or projection; rather each doctrine uniquely witnesses the triune God’s act of election, creation, reconciliation, and redemption in their unity.

Review: The UBS5 Greek NT


Publisher: Hendrickson, 2014.

Buy it at Amazon or straight from the publisher.

With thanks to Hendrickson for the review copy.

A sample chapter of the UBS5 can be seen here in PDF format.

I’ve been a fan of the Greek New Testament (GNT) ever since my wife bought me the NET-NA27 diglot back in 2008. Since that time I have amassed several GNTs, including several containing the Nestle-Aland (NA) text. I have never actually used a UBS version until now.

For the reader who is not well-versed in GNTs, there is no difference in the Greek base text of the UBS5 and NA28 editions, though they do differ a little bit when it comes to punctuation and paragraphing.

I read through the GNT and the LXX almost every day (currently I am working through Genesis, Psalms, Revelation, and the Synopsis Quattuor Evangeliorum). So I having been using the UBS5 quite a bit over the past few weeks and there are a few features in the UBS5 that make me favor it over my NA28 edition. But first, I will recap a few key changes that update the UBS5 from the UBS4:

  • Readings of papyri 117-127 are now included in the critical apparatus.
  • The discourse analysis tool has been revised.
  • The apparatus of textual decisions from modern Bible translations has been expanded.
  • The text and critical apparatus of the Catholic/General Epistles is from the Editio Critica Maior.

All great updates, especially the inclusion of the completed ECM text of the Catholic Epistles. I have the two-volume edition of the ECM for the Catholic Epistles, but it is great to have the shrunken down version of it in a portable GNT. Only the ECM text for the Catholic Epistles has been included in the UBS5 because that is all that has been completed for the ECM project so far (with the rest of the NT is projected to be completed by 2030).

Compared to the Greek text of the UBS4/NA27, the UBS5/NA28 edition has different variants in the following places: James 1:20; 2:3, 4, 15; 4:10; 1 Peter 1:6, 16 (x2); 2:5; 4:16; 5:1, 9, 10; 2 Peter 2:6, 11, 15, 18, 20; 3:6, 10, 16 (x2), 18; 1 John 1:7; 3:7; 5:10, 18; 2 John 5, 12; 3 John 4; and Jude 5, 18 (x2).

One aspect of the UBS5 edition that I prefer over the NA28 edition is the critical apparatus. I find the UBS apparatus to be much more valuable than the NA apparatus. Of course, “valuable” is a subjective judgment and others might rightly say that the NA apparatus is more valuable to them. But for me, I really like how the critical apparatus in the UBS gives you fewer variants but with greater depth, while the NA provides you with a greater scope of variants but less depth. There is nothing wrong with either approach; it just depends on what is more important to you. Personally, I much prefer the UBS approach as it is aimed more at translators, while the NA is aimed more for textual critics. And while I fancy myself an armchair NT textual critic, in my daily readings of the GNT I find the UBS apparatus more useful and valuable.

I also greatly appreciate how the UBS apparatus provides you with more information in regards to which early Christian writers support each variant reading, as well as the apparatus that shows what variant reading other modern English translations opted to take (including some important German, French, and Spanish versions).

Additionally, I really appreciate the dictionary in the UBS5 edition. None of my NA27 or NA28 editions have a dictionary in them, and while I have a good degree of proficiency with Hellenistic Greek, there are of course many instances where I cannot figure out what a word means (I obviously don’t know every Greek word and all of their forms!). Having a small dictionary containing all of the vocabulary of the GNT is a very useful feature!

The only pro I can see for my NA28 edition is that I like the feel and look of its blue cover better. But I ultimately don’t really care that much about a book’s cover and the black flexisoft version of the UBS5 I have will no doubt stand up better to use than a hardcover. Note: the UBS5 with dictionary also comes in a hardcover version (and a hardcover version without the dictionary).

All in all, the UBS5 is excellent and contains some great updates. I now read my UBS5 daily instead of my NA28. What else can I say apart from that!


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