Book Review: The Problem of Hell

problemofhellTitle: The Problem of Hell: A Philosophical Anthology

Editor: Joel Buenting

Bibliographic info: 236 pp.

Publisher: Ashgate, 2010.

Buy the book at Amazon or direct from the publisher

With thanks to Ashgate for the review copy.

The “problem of hell” that this volume discusses is the question of how a perfectly good God can send a person to hell. Though, of course, the existence and nature of hell can be a tricky issue to discuss. As Justin Barnard illustrates:

Engaging in informed speculation about the nature of hell is rather like trying to characterize the experience of being sucked through a wormhole. Both tasks are plagued by two important difficulties. First … we have no first-hand experience of being pulled through a wormhole … the further difficulty remains that our conception of the nature of hell, like our conception of traveling through wormholes, is perhaps irreparably tainted by the forces of popular imagination.

The thirteen studies in this volume approach the problem of hell from a variety of philosophical angles and the contributors have a wide range of views on the existence and nature of hell. For instance, Raymond VanArragon does not see hell as a place of physical, conscious torture that is inflicted on people every second of every minute of every day, but instead sees it as “spend[ing] eternity alienated from God” which “need not imply a state of being akin to living in an eternal torture chamber.” I was surprised, however, that out of the sixteen contributors to this volume there are none who adhere to annihilationism/conditional immortality. What makes this absence even more surprising is that one of the chapters, by Claire Brown and Jerry Walls, is specifically written against annihilationism, concluding that “the major philosophical arguments for annihilationism do not begin to carry sufficient conviction to motivate adopting that position.” Considering their chapter revolves around the problems with annihilationism, it would have been nice to have a chapter in which a proponent defended the view.

Kenneth Himma, who admits he does not believe in hell, argues that if hell does indeed exists, then it is morally wrong to bring a child into the world given the odds that this child will spend an eternity suffering the torments of hell. Himma specifically ties this argument in with the idea of exclusivism, seeing exclusivism as amplifying this problem as it posits that one has to have explicit conscious faith in Jesus to attain salvation (meaning that innumerable multitudes of people suffer in hell simply because they were born in the wrong time and place).

Four chapters could be categorized as (to some extent) supporting the notion of universalism, though I should note that not all of these authors explicitly support a universalistic position, with Talbott being the most explicit and the others pointing in that direction to some degree. Thomas Talbott looks at the relationship between universalism and the grace of God, offering up an account of how God participates in our moral development so that “a glorious end is ultimately inescapable.” Stephen Kershnar argues that humans do not warrant an infinite punishment but that God can only send people to hell as punishment if an infinite punishment is indeed just. John Kronen and Eric Reitan look at god-justifying reasons for damnation, the nature of hell, and causes of damnation. Gordon Knight approaches the problem of hell from a Molinistic perspective (the idea that God has a “middle knowledge” of how free agents would likely act in a given circumstance). He sees Molinism as being especially difficult to reconcile with a traditional view of hell: “While Molinistic hell-defenders are right to insist that their view is some improvement over Calvinistic predestination, the insistence on libertarian free will by itself does not remove the clear aura of cold manipulation from their eschatology.”

Another four chapters defend, to some degree, a more traditional understanding of hell as a place of eternal conscious punishment. Justin Barnard looks at the problem of hell in light of compatibilism, seeing those who populate hell as “wantons”, figures who only have first-order desires, but no second-order volitions. James Cain discusses a number of philosophical objections to the existence of hell that he does not find convincing, then considers whether these objections preclude the development of an acceptable account that incorporates certain standard features of the main traditional view. Stephen Davis asserts that the view of an eternal hell is not only consistent with God’s loving and merciful nature, but is also entailed by it. Keith Yandell focuses on the question as to whether those who believe in God can, without inconsistency, also believe in a hell. He sees the answer as a clear yes, going so far as to say that is necessitated: “Divine love will not be soft and flabby, but serious and demanding. The dignity of persons, and the nature of a holy God, requires nothing less.”

Three other chapters support what is known as escapism. This is the idea that while hell exists and might indeed be populated for eternity, the denizens of hell nevertheless have the opportunity to accept God’s grace at any time. In effect, this view kind of espouses a purgatorial universalism, though the universalistic outcome is by no means required by this position. Andrei Buckareff and Allen Plug look at whether this escapism means that hell is an unmitigated good for its inhabitants, whether it is consistent with Christian eschatology that requires finality/consummation, and whether it allows for God’s plans to be thwarted. Bradley Sickler, in answering the question of who goes to hell, proposes “infernal voluntarism” (another term for the escapist view), which affirms the reality of hell but rejects the assumption that those who are consigned there will be going against their will. His contribution brings every undergrad’s favorite theologian into the mix: C. S. Lewis (and he is, in fact, brought up in a few other chapters). Raymond VanArragon explores the question of whether it is possible to freely reject God forever. He defends a libertarian conception of hell, arguing that it is possible to freely reject God and thus damn oneself forever (by “freely” what is meant is that “to freely reject God is to act in a way that goes against God’s will, where performance of that action is sufficiently rational, sufficiently informed, and not determined by God, nature, or desire” ).

As I mentioned earlier, the lack of an annihilationist in this collection is a bit of a drawback, and I should note that the collection as a whole definitely has a Protestant feel to it (not much talk of purgatory here!), and maybe a a somewhat stronger than expected Calvinist streak. Nonetheless, this collection of studies is an interesting exercise in the philosophical explorations of topics such as theodicy, free will, moral psychology, and so forth.  Perhaps the wisest words of the book are found in Davis’ treatment. He says in regards to questions about the nature of hell (e.g. will there be a chance of postmortem salvation for those in hell): “…the key word here is perhaps. There are no grounds to dogmatize here. I do not think we know much about the future life.” 

Book Review: Isaiah Saw His Glory

IsaiahSawHisGloryTitle: Isaiah Saw His Glory: The Use of Isaiah 52-53 in John 12

Author: Daniel J. Brendsel

Series: Beihefte Zur Zeitschrift Fur Die Neutestamentliche Wissenschaft

Bibliographic info: 280 pp.

Publisher: Walter De Gruyter, 2014.

Buy the book at Amazon or direct from the publisher

With thanks to Walter De Gruyter for the review copy.

Isaiah is one of the most notable influences from the Hebrew Bible on the Gospel of John, yet according to the author there is no book length study devoted to articulating the nature of this influence. In this study, the author seeks to fill this void by tackling the nature of the Isaianic influence on John, particularly in John 12 which he reckons “serves not simply as a transitional section or narrative hinge, but also somewhat as a precis of the message of the whole gospel.” In addition to this, the author focuses on implicit references to Isaiah, seeing the explicit Isaiah references in John 12:38-41 as being merely the tip of an “Isaianic iceberg.”

This study is divided into three parts.

The first part consists of three chapters. Chapter One looks at the use of Isaiah in the Gospel of John, particularly the role of John 12 in the Gospel’s narrative. Chapter Two then discusses methodological matters, including how to identify implicit references to Isaiah, and the use of Hebrew and Greek scriptures. Chapter Three then provides a reading of Isaiah 40-45 that takes into account the whole book of Isaiah, with the idea being to provide a possible way in which a first-century reader might have understood it.

The second part examines explicit reference to Isaiah in John and consists of another three chapters. Chapter Four is on the hardening of many Israelites found in Isaiah and quoted in John (John 12:37-50 and Isa. 6:9-10), the use of Isa. 6:9-10 in early Jewish literature, John’s textual use of Isa. 6:10, and his interpretation of Isa. 6:13. Chapter Five then looks at John 12:38 and Isaiah 53:1. Chapter Six discusses the glory that Isaiah saw, honing in on the antecedent of “these things” in John 12:41, which Brendsel sees as referring to both Isaiah quotations in 12:38-40.

The third and final part tackles implicit references to Isaiah in John and consists of four chapters. Chapter Seven is on the Suffering Servant of Isa. 52:13-15 and its relation to Jesus’ being lifted up and glorified in John 12:20-35. Chapter Eight talks about Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem and its relation to Isaiah, particularly in regards to Yahweh’s return to Jerusalem in Isa. 52:7-12. Chapter Nine is then on John’s portrayal of Jesus as the Isaianic herald of good news, especially seen in the use of Isa. 52:7 in John 12:1-8. Chapter Ten offers up the author’s concluding thoughts.

What is, in my opinion, the most interesting conclusion of this study is in regards to what John meant by saying that Isaiah saw the glory of Yahweh (John 12:41). In fact, wanting to know the author’s answer to this question is the reason why I requested the book in the first place. Clearly John sees the glory as belonging to Christ, but does this verse in John suggest that it was a glory Jesus possessed prior to the incarnation? Most commentators opt for this view, which is understandable since it is in-sync with the prayer of Jesus about the glory he had with the Father “before the world was” (John 17:5), as well as the fact the phrase “Isaiah saw his glory” is quite evocative of Isaiah’s vision of the glory of Yahweh in the temple (Isaiah 6). However, Brendsel convincingly argues that for John the glory is not just the glory Isaiah saw in the temple, but is “primarily” the future incarnate glory of Jesus, the Servant whose humiliation is his glory and whose suffering reveals Yahweh.

The author summarizes:

We have argued that when the logic of John 12:41, the immediate context, and John’s unique theology of glory and exaltation within the overall context of his apologetic aims are taken into account, the scales are tipped in favor of including Jesus’ incarnate glory as the rejected and crucified Christ in the reference to “his glory” in John 12:41b. (130)

Inspired by the multiple connections between Isaiah 6 and 52-53, John has produced some of the most dramatic Christological and salvation-historical innovations in the NT. Isaiah said “these things” in advance (both Isa 53:1 and Isa 6:10) because he was a prophetic witness to a glory that would both incorporate rejection and death and reveal its possessor to be included in the identity of Yahweh himself. For John, “Jesus’ death is the ultimate theophany.” (133; the author is quoting Craig Keener in that final sentence)

This was a thorough examination on the influence of Isaiah in John’s Gospel. One implicit allusion of Isaiah in John that I had never noticed before myself, but think the author did a fine job of proving is indeed an allusion, is the anointing of Jesus in John 12:1-8. This has an implicit reference to Isaiah seen in how John focuses in on Jesus’ feet, with Brendsel proposing that John focuses on the feet “in part, to echo the beautiful feet of the herald of good news in Isa 52:7” (212). The author did a fine job of revealing the allusions of Isa. 52:7-53:1 in John 12 and how the latter is modeled upon the progression found in the former, as well as how this was most likely done in order to identify Jesus with the Servant of Yahweh. If you’re into the Gospel of John, the intertextuality between the Old and New Testaments, or a New Testament theology of the glory of God, then this book is a valuable resource.

Book Review: The Gospel of Matthew and Judaic Traditions

gospelofmatthewjudaictraditionsTitle: The Gospel of Matthew and Judaic Traditions: A Relevance-based Commentary

Author: Herbert W. Basser and Marsha B. Cohen

Series: Brill Reference Library of Judaism, 46.

Bibliographic info: XXII + 721 pp. + 71 pp.

Publisher: Brill, 2015.

Buy the book at Amazon or direct from the publisher

With thanks to Brill for the review copy.

The Gospel of Matthew and Judaic Traditions, by Herbert W. Basser (and with editorial help from Marsha Cohen), explores the Gospel of Matthew with the intent to shed illumination on the Gospel by focusing on Jewish traditions and writings.

What is interesting is Basser’s method is that he indiscriminately uses Jewish material, regardless of the provenance and date. Even if the Jewish tradition is from centuries before or after the time of Jesus, it is fair game for shedding illumination on Matthew’s Gospel. He explains:

[I]t is far more likely that, whatever their dates, the texts in the Gospel and rabbinic literatures that look and act like each other, or else reinterpet each other, share a common provenance. It is for this reason I believe that texts in the one literature can help bring out a fuller meaning to the corresponding texts in the other literature. To use the language of modern semiotics, I suggest that the shared symbolic universe of discourse in common contexts between Talmud and Gospel narrows the ambiguous possibilities in the senses of these texts. (249)

He states that the “rabbinic literature as a whole is essential in helping us bring to light what is obscure in the Gospels”, but notes that there “is no need for  a text in the Gospels to correspond exactly with a text in rabbinic literature in order for the text from the latter source to give meaning to a text from the former” (248).

Furthermore, Basser seemingly thinks that a lot of scholarship on the Gospel of Matthew is based on a speculative exegesis that uses Jewish and Hellenistic traditions and texts that might have been available to Jesus, Matthew’s sources, and the author of Matthew. He notes in one spot that even if his own exegesis derives from “medieval writings”, at least it isn’t the “fabrications of modern scholars” (134 n28). Thus, he sees no problem in his own exegetical method that, while being drawn from sources that are at times centuries divorced from the time the Gospel was written, can nevertheless all be placed within the same interpretive culture of Judaism.

This is a large volume (over 700 pages) and so contains a lot of commentary on Matthew, some of which I found to be very interesting and some I found the connections to be dubious. The commentary proceeds on a chapter by chapter basis of Matthew’s text. Each chapter begins with an overall introduction to that chapter of Matthew’s text, followed by a pericope-by-pericope commentary on the text.

Basser sees the Gospel of Matthew as portraying Jesus’ message as being initially meant for Jews, but it was rejected by them and embraced by the Gentiles. He “seriously doubt[s]” that the author of Matthew was a Jewish-Christian, and says that if he was indeed one, then he “can only have been a self-loathing one” (126). Furthermore, he states that Matthew “succeeds in making his Jesus a Jew among Jews, in order to dramatize the perfidy of the Jews in rejecting his exclusive ‘sonship'” (126 n24).

There was a lengthy and helpful discussion on Matthew 12 and the relationship between the story of David eating bread and Jesus’ disciples being able to pluck grain. There are a lot of other interesting commentary that Basser makes throughout. For instance, when it comes to the genealogy of Jesus, Basser speculates:

The threefold pattern of fourteen generations makes sense in relation to rabbinic traditions that speak of the cycle of the moon. Just as the lunar cycle has twenty-eight nights (the cycle ends at dusk on the twenty-ninth day), so the night of the fourteenth-fifteenth signals the full moon at midmonth. … According to this scenario, both David and Jesus are at “full moon” positions in a complete fourteen/fifteen generation-repeating cycle. (31-32)

Regarding the Sermon on the Mount, Basser notes that “for Jesus’ audience there was nothing really new in the Sermon, although the way it is phrased and constructed makes it an eternal masterpiece. Jesus’ real message seems to lie buried within his parables” (218). An interesting conjecture on Basser’s part is the saying in Matt. 7:6 of “do not give what is holy to the dogs.” He sees the word “holy” as a mistake, where the Aramaic qadashin (“rings”) was confused with the similar qadishin (“holy things”). Thus, the proper reading of the verse is: “Do not give rings to the dogs, nor throw your pearls before pigs.”

Some other interesting points that Basser makes are:

Gen. Rab. 56 to Gen 22:6 informs us that the phrase “taking one’s cross” was a known idiom and so independent of any association with the crucifixion; therefore it could, perhaps, have been used by Jesus without reference to his own death. (265)

On Matt. 11:11 where John is describe as being the greatest born among women:

Almost always when the Rabbis use the phrase “born of a woman,” they use it to contrast angels with someone of the stature of either Moses or Jacob. (273)

On Matt. 18:19-20 and asking in Jesus’ name:

the result ambiguity leads me to translate eis with the sense of “for,” a not uncommon translation  … the Hebrew text “name of heaven” is usually understood as “for the sake of heaven,” and perhaps that is what Matthew means also “for the sake of my name.” … It would seem that the Gospel is not referring to Jesus when it says “I am in their midst” but, rather, citing a phrase as it spoken by God. … The point is that when the designated judges of the assembly agree on a matter, God will be bound by their decision and honor it. (474)

There are numerous occasions where Basser isn’t afraid to go against the grain in his interpretation. For instance, he claims that “scholars have erred in virtually every discussion” of Matthew 21, a chapter which he sees as having been gentilized rather than Judaized (530). When it comes to the cursing of the fig tree, Basser considers the interpretation of this act as a prophecy about Jerusalem’s destruction as “unwarranted and misleading as the text itself says nothing of the sort” (549). And he sees Matthew 22 as utilizing a “Gnostic parable which [Matthew] fine-tuned to reflect his own agenda” (559).

All in all, while I couldn’t agree with the usefulness of all of the Jewish traditions that the author sees as being helpful for illuminating the Gospel of Matthew, there are many valuable gleanings to be had in this commentary. This volume will be great for anyone interested in early Christianity in its relation to the cultural context of Jewish practices and literary traditions.

Book Review: The Text of Galatians and Its History

textofgalatiansTitle: The Text of Galatians and Its History

Author: Stephen C. Carlson

Series: WUNT II, 385.

Bibliographic info: XIV + 308 pp.

Publisher: Mohr Siebeck, 2015.

Buy the book at Amazon

With thanks to Mohr Siebeck for the review copy.

In this volume, the published version of the author’s doctoral dissertation completed in 2012 at Duke University, we have an examination of the textual history of Galatians that utilizes a method based on cladistic methods originally employed by computational biologists. Carlson collates 92 textual witnesses to Galatians and, by using his own software program, is able to provide a stemmatic analysis of these witnesses and produces a text of Galatians that is determined using both stemmatic and eclectic routes.

Chapter 1 contains a fine introduction and valuable overview of the methods and objectives of textual criticism. And for the potential reader who likely knows next-to-nothing about cladistics, the author’s method is clearly explained in Chapter 2, including a useful example that shows how it all works by comparing the text of Galatians 1 in four manuscripts (P46, א, A, and B).

Chapter 3 employs the author’s method to develop an unoriented stemma of the textual tradition, which is then oriented on the basis of internal considerations of the textual variants.  I have to admit, at first I was a bit puzzled by the author’s decision to use external evidence to orient the stemma. However, upon further consideration the use of external evidence is a necessary countermeasure to combat the dangers of using an exclusively statistical reconstruction of stemmata in Galatians. The unoriented stemma that is first created merely displays the relationship of the manuscripts to one another, but does not lay a foundation on any one witness (or even a group of witnesses) and does not indicate a particular starting point where the textual tradition of Galatians begins. So in order to determine which portion of the unoriented stemma should be the starting point, the author seeks to find the part of stemma that contains the most authorial readings (which is resolved through internal evidence). Due to the size of the textual tradition, the author decides to focus on the parts of the stemma that are the most promising for the base. Thus, the author “proposes three independent but converging approaches for pinpointing these promising areas of the stemma for further examination: Hort’s theory of the Neutral text, the oldest branches in the stemma, and the part of the stemma closest to the Nestle-Aland critical text.” In order to determine which variants are authorial and to orient the stemma, the author examines 36 variants on four early branches of the stemma in terms of their internal evidence. For each variant the author discusses, he explores the internal evidence and evaluates it in accordance with reasoned eclecticism, taking into consideration intrinsic probabilities and transcriptional probabilities. This analysis also includes a look at the semantic and syntactic meaning of the variants, and also includes a novel means of “pragmatic considerations related to the placement of emphasis on particular constituents of the sentence.” 

Chapter 4 then analyzes the text near the base of the stemma and works out textual variants where the earliest witnesses are at variance with one another. Chapter 5 then looks at the history of the text, with two branches of the textual tradition—the Western and the Byzantine—of Galatians being examined in-depth in order to evaluate the nature of the textual variation in their history. Chapter 6 concludes by contrasting the text of Galatians provided in the stemma with that of other scholars.

There are many interesting conclusions that the author draws from his stemmatic-eclectic hybrid approach. One such one is when he states: “There is little evidence that the Byzantine text is the result of a recension aside from a small influx of Western readings into the common ancestor of the Syrian group and the Byzantine text.”  I also found it kind of exciting that Carlson’s text of Galatians ends up disagreeing with the Nestle-Aland text in 13 places! I say “exciting” because it goes to show that new methods can still produce some interesting divergences from the Nestle-Aland text. One such disagreement is in Gal. 2:12 where there is the choice of deciding whether Paul wrote ἦλθον (“they came”) or ἦλθεν (“he came”). The Nestle-Aland text chooses the former, while Carlson opts for the latter. What is likely the most intriguing difference from the Nestle-Aland text, however, is how Carlson drops the phrase ὸ γὰρ Σινᾶ ὄρος ἐστὶν ἐν τῇ Ἀραβιᾳ (“Sinai is a mountain in Arabia”) out of Gal. 4:25, seeing it as a marginal gloss that was interpolated into the text of Galatians.

With over 250 variant readings being examined (and a spotlight being thrown on the possibilities of theological motivations behind the variants), this is a thorough (and innovative!) study on the text of Galatians. This is the first study (as far as I am aware) that provides a global stemma for an entire book of the New Testament, and I would have to say that the author has shown that a stemmatic approach is a valuable way to study the textual tradition of the New Testament. And I will note that while the method the author utilizes is not the Coherence-Based Genealogical Method, the author did find its idea of “coherence” to be useful and applied it in a stemmatic manner. So its nice to see that there is a bit of cross-fertilization between different methods.

I was not entirely convinced by some of the author’s conclusions, such his proposed anti-Judaic/Torah propensities in the Western text (seen in variants such as the Western reading of “Israel of God” rather than “Israel of the Lord” in Gal. 6:16). Nevertheless, this is undoubtedly an innovative advance in New Testament textual criticism. Hopefully, this kind of approach will be employed for analyzing further books of the New Testament in the future.

Book Review: The Gospel of Thomas: Introduction and Commentary

gospelthomasgathercoleTitle: The Gospel of Thomas: Introduction and Commentary

Author: Simon Gathercole

Series: Texts and Editions for New Testament Study, 11

Bibliographic info: 723 pp.

Publisher: Brill, 2014.

Buy the book at Amazon or direct from the publisher.

With thanks to Brill for the review copy.

The Gospel of Thomas is a collection of 114 sayings (logia) of Jesus that are extant in a single Coptic manuscript (from Nag Hammadi) and three Greek papyrus fragments (from Oxyrhynchus). In this volume, The Gospel of Thomas: Introduction and Commentary, Simon Gathercole, Senior Lecturer in New Testament Studies at the University of Cambridge, provides a comprehensive commentary on this extra-canonical text of early Christianity. Gathercole has actually published a couple other volumes on non-canonical texts, including The Gospel of Judas (OUP, 2007) and The Composition of the Gospel of Thomas (CUP, 2012).

This volume is split into two main parts. The first section is comprised of twelve chapters (pp. 1–186), covering issues such as manuscript evidence, provenance, dating, genre, religious outlook, its relationship to the canonical Gospels, and so forth. This section is then followed by a thorough commentary (pp. 187–618) on each of the 114 pericopae or logia. The volume finishes with a 54-page bibliography, and indices of citations, modern authors, and subjects.

There have been several notable studies and commentaries already published on Thomas, including those by DeConick, Pokorný, Hedrick, Nordsieck, Ménard, Valantasis, and Grosso. Gathercole interacts with these throughout, though naturally he departs from these other commentaries on various issues, such as its compositional history, its relationship to the Synoptics, and so forth.

As in Gathercole’s earlier volume on this gospel, The Composition of the Gospel of Thomas, he sees Thomas as being originally composed in Greek (instead of Syriac or Aramaic), as well as being dependent on the Synoptic Gospels. He dates Thomas to sometime between 135-200 CE and sees it an unknown author in possibly Egypt or Syria (“it is probably best to admit our ignorance about Thomas’s provenance, while acknowledging that Syria and Egypt are reasonable possibilities” pp. 110-11). Interestingly, Gathercole does not see Thomas as being especially Gnostic in the conventional sense of the term (“it is hard to make a case for Thomas as Gnostic, principally because it does not have a clearly demiurgic account of creation” p. 173), but rather sees it as being quite an adaptable piece of literature. He says:

Part of the fascination of Thomas is that it was apparently acceptable to such a wide variety of different groups (Gnostics, Manichees, etc.), and yet is so difficult to pin down in terms of its origins and of any genuinely close alignment with other known works and movements. (175)

A feature I found particularly helpful was chapter three in which the author discusses the ancient testimonia to Thomas. Gathercole provides forty-eight testimonies to Thomas, of which he sees thirty-nine of them as referencing Thomas and the other nine being a bit more dubious. This is followed in chapter four by about thirty more references to the contents of Thomas found in later writers, from Hippolytus in the third century to the later medieval writers. Another chapter I particularly enjoyed was chapter ten, in which the author provides a thematic theological outlook on Thomas.

Chapter eleven discusses the usefulness of the Gospel of Thomas for historical Jesus studies. While granting the possibility that Thomas may preserve agrapha of Jesus, Gathercole sees it as being dependent on the Synoptics and thus not particularly useful for historical Jesus studies. He says:

Overall, the prospects for the use of Thomas in historical Jesus research are slim. As scholarship currently stands, and with the primary sources that are available to us at present, the Gospel of Thomas can hardly be regarded as useful in the reconstruction of a historical picture of Jesus. (p. 184)

The commentary proper occupies the bulk of the volume and consists of the text of the extant Coptic and Greek text, and a threefold commentary on it: textual comment, interpretation, and verse-by-verse notes. Gathercole dialogues with what other commentators have said about the logia and provides convincing reasons for his own interpretations, or just simply admits the meaning is unclear and refrains from making determinations that go beyond what the evidence may suggest. For example, in the infamous final saying of Thomas, Gathercole provides a detailed look (pp. 607-16) at this difficult saying and, in regards to Mary’s transformation and maleness, he says:

How then should this reference be taken? Given the difficulty of the dialogue, it is easier to criticise the views of others than to come up with a constructive alternative. One path to avoid is to take a rather dewy-eyed view of Thomas which attempts to rescue GTh 114 from any suspicion of unfashionable ‘sexism’. (p. 612)

All in all, Simon Gathercole’s The Gospel of Thomas: Introduction and Commentary will likely be the key commentary on Thomas for some time to come. Thomas is an intriguing remnant of early Christianity and Gathercole’s volume exhibits great lucidity and depth, providing a compelling commentary on the gospel.

Brief Book Review: Indexes and Supplementary Materials (DBW 17)

indexesTitle: Indexes and Supplementary Materials

Series: Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Vol. 17

Bibliographic info: 600 pp.

Publisher: Fortress Press, 2014.

Buy the book at Amazon

With thanks to Fortress Press for the digital review copy.

This volume is the concluding part to the Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works collection (originally published in German as Dietrich Bonhoeffer Werke). This series is the product of over twenty years of labor and is, of course, a vital resource for those wishing to have an in-depth knowledge of Bonhoeffer in his time and place. This specific volume provides the means to locate anything in the other sixteen volumes (English edition).

The book’s contents are:

General Editor’s Foreword to the Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, English Edition (Victoria Barnett)
The Translation of the Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, English Edition: An Overview (Victoria Barnett)
The Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, English Edition: A Retrospective (Clifford Green)
The Dietrich Bonhoeffer Werke: Afterword to the German Edition (Wolfgang Huber)

Part I: Additional Letters and Documents

Part II: Comprehensive Chronology and Master List of Documents
1. Chronology 1906–1945
2. Master List of Documents for DBWE 8–17

Part III: Master Indexes
1. Master Index of Scriptural References
2. Master Index of Names
3. Master Index of Subjects

The table of contents is pretty self-explanatory for what is included in this volume. I will note, however, that this volume includes about a dozen additional letters and documents, some of which are appearing in English for the first time anywhere. A couple of interesting features of this volume are the detailed chronology and the three introductions by Victoria Barnett, Clifford Green, and Wolfgang Huber. They provide an interesting glimpse on the series as a whole and the translation process.

With the publication of this volume the milestone that is the Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works (English edition) is finally completed. And, of course, if you own the other volumes, then this one is a necessity. I imagine the indices will be a real help to those who would like to include Bonhoeffer’s words of wisdom in their sermons, or for anyone interested in doing some real research on him.

One final note. I have the Kindle version of this volume and was unsure as to how the indices would come through in an eBook format, but they look completely fine. The only downside I can really see to having the eBook edition is that if you wanted to use the scriptural index, you will to turn through it a page at a time to get to the biblical book you desire. So if you want to know where Isaiah 1:18 is referenced, you’re gonna have to be flickin’ pages for a couple minutes (or use the search function of your eReader and hope it is helpful).

Book Review: The Annihilation of Hell

PrintTitle: The Annihilation of Hell: Universal Salvation and the Redemption of Time in the Eschatology of Jürgen Moltmann

Author: Nicholas Ansell

Bibliographic info: 484 pp.

Publisher: Wipf and Stock, 2013.

Buy the book at Amazon or from the publisher

With thanks to Wipf and Stock for the review copy!

This study by Nicholas Ansell, a revised version of his doctoral disseration completed in 2005 at Vrije Universiteit, Amsterdam. Over the past several years now, I have read through a lot of Moltmann’s writings and literature written on Moltmann’s though, and this  is undoubtedly one of the most valuable pieces of work I’ve read on Moltmann. This is a fantastic theological read for anyone interested in the questions of hell, death, the final judgment, and universalism.

In a nutshell, this study explores the theme of universal salvation in Moltmann’s eschatology, placed within the overall structure of Moltmann’s theological project. After a thoughtful foreword by Jürgen Moltmann, Ansell begins with a chapter that discusses the annihilationist alternative to hell, with special reference to The Mystery of Salvation (a report of the Church of England’s doctrine commission of 1995). The second and third chapters discuss Moltmann’s philosophy of time, such as his concept of the future as futurum and as adventus (i.e. phenomenal, historical becoming and transcendental, eschatological coming). Ansell also spends some time in this chapter responding to some common objections to universal salvation in Moltmann. The fourth chapter tackles the relationship in Moltmann’s thought between nature, grace, glory, specifically in regard to the Arminian and Calvinist understandings of salvation. The fifth, sixth, and seventh chapters each place Moltmann in dialogue with various other thinkers, such as Hendrik Hart, Karl Barth, Emil Brunner, N.T. Wright, and Miroslav Volf. This is followed by a concluding chapter in which Ansell seeks to answer some possible objections to universal salvation in Moltmann, particularly the question of: “can Moltmann’s theology help us envision a truly ‘covenantal’ universalism?” (I won’t spoil the fun by telling you the author’s results… you’ll just have to go read the book!) And, finally, there is an interesting appendix (on exegetical issues in Revelation), a bibliography, and an author index.

One of the things I appreciated about this study (apart from the fact the author did a nice job elucidating some of Moltmann’s puzzling statements on time, the eschaton, etc), is that even though the focus of this study is on Moltmann, there are other theological partners that Ansell engages, including Ernst Bloch, James Olthuis, Walter Benjamin, and the others listed in the previous paragraph. Heck, there is even a chapter devoted to reading Moltmann in light of the debate between Barth and Brunner on the nature of grace. Some of the thinkers Ansell brings into dialogue with Moltmann are ones I myself would not have thought of, such as the neo-Calvinist philosopher Hendrik Hart, whose philosophy of time Ansell compares with Moltmann’s.

Another feature of this study I particularly enjoyed was the copious amounts of footnotes and the wealth of valuable material to be found in them. Truly, the footnotes are impressive and show the depth the author achieved in this study.

A Christian theology book which looks at hell and universal salvation is naturally going to put off a lot of people from ever considering reading it. But if the topic of universal salvation is not something that would dissuade you, then I would heartily recommend this book for anyone interested in Moltmann, Christian universalism, or just for anyone who desires to read a study that weaves together historical theology, neo-orthodoxy, postmodern theology, biblical studies, philosophy, and more.

This study is a valuable theological resource and it will make me keep an eye out for anything the author produces in the future. Highly recommended!


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 132 other followers