Reflections on My First SBL Meeting

I just got back yesterday from my first ever attendance at a Society for Biblical Literature (SBL) meeting. The motto for the SBL is “fostering biblical scholarship.” This I think they do very well. Of course, they foster many, many different viewpoints. Most of the participants are Christians, Jews, or secular. The spectrum goes from radical liberal to conservative (though there are very few conservatives). I went there on the recommendation of Iain Duguid, who said that the Ezekiel group was very collegial and encouraging of new scholarship. This I found to be true. All were very welcoming and encouraging. Disagreement never equaled attack there (so there is definitely maturity in this group).

The positive things from the conference: 1. Some very interesting lectures on individual passages. A lecture on the Zebulon prophecy in Genesis 49:13 was fascinating, and quite stimulating. There was also a lecture on the shape of the Psalter that I found largely convincing. Many of the Ezekiel studies were helpful as well, especially one by Casey Strine on the inadequacy of the term “exile,” and one by Madhavi Nevader. Daniel Bodi’s lecture was also very interesting. 2. The Ezekiel group in particular was a very welcoming and talkative group. It was very easy to meet people there and talk. 3. The book sale was remarkable. Many specialist books were available for actually reasonable prices. I got an absolute steal on John Gray’s recent commentary on Job, which is usually over $100 on Amazon, and I got for about $32. 4. The worship service on Sunday morning had an excellent sermon by Mark Strauss. 5. San Diego is gorgeous. There is simply no other way to describe it. I had a view of the marina, the bay, and the downtown from my 24th floor window. 6. The hotel was very comfortable (as it should be for those prices!).

Some negative things: 1. The predominance of lectures were from a very liberal-critical perspective. As a result, many of them were not useful to me, as I disagreed with their starting points. Especially unhelpful were the lectures on source criticism. While it is a valuable exercise indeed to seek to determine which verses quote which other verses, such studies can (and in many cases here, often did) atomize the text to the point of unrecognizability. In particular, I was dismayed to find that many scholars at SBL still hold to the Documentary Hypothesis. Honestly, I had thought that old beast dead and gone. I was hoping for more literary and rhetorical analyses of individual texts. 2. The presidential address was by a thoroughly liberation-critical scholar who spent the entire time talking about current politics and about 10 seconds talking about the Bible. 3. This is not really a negative, but it shows me how far I have to go, but the lectures on Ezekiel presupposed a huge amount of knowledge which I did not have, just beginning my research on the book. Fortunately, if I go next year (and I probably will), I will have a year to get up to speed (or at least further along than I was), and maybe get a copy of the lectures ahead of time.

Overall, the positive things outweighed the negative things, and I think that the Ezekiel group will prove invaluable in my research on Ezekiel.

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A Friendly Intro to Biblical Theology, Take Three

(Posted by Paige)

Here is a link to a 30-minute talk that I gave at a Bible study conference this October. It’s another introduction to redemptive history, this time tracing the theme of God’s inclusion of the Gentiles through the Old and New Testaments. I also play around with a connection between the Syrophoenician woman and Paul’s words about the “mystery” of Gentile inclusion in Ephesians 3. It’s on YouTube this time NOT because it’s a video of me speaking, but because I made slides to illustrate the audio. Please listen if you like, and pass the link on to others who might benefit, especially those who are just getting to know the Word.

Soli Deo Gloria!

The Old Testament God

It has become rather commonplace to denigrate the God of the Old Testament (usually assuming from the outset that He is a different God than the God of the New Testament). For instance, Richard Dawkins says about Him the following in a now rather famous quotation from his book The God Delusion:

The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.

I was just reading a book of Ezekiel essays, and a few of those essays say much the same thing, if a bit less rhetorically high-handed.

There are a number of things one could say in answer to these charges. The first thing I want to draw attention to is the most quoted Old Testament verses in the Old Testament. Anyone want to venture a guess as to what that quotation is? That’s right, you guessed it! Exodus 34:6-7, which say this: “And the Lord passed before him and proclaimed, ‘The Lord, the Lord God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abounding in goodness and truth, keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, by no means clearing the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children and the children’s children to the third and the fourth generation.” These verses, or parts of them, are quoted in the following places: Numbers 14:18, 2 Chronicles 30:9, Nehemiah 9:17, Psalm 86:15, Psalm 103:8, Psalm 111:4, Psalm 145:8, Joel 2:13, Jonah 4:2, and possibly Micah 7:18. It seems fairly plain, when once these passages are looked up, that there is a significant difference (to understate things rather drastically!) between Dawkins’s understanding of the Old Testament God and the Old Testament’s view of the Old Testament God.

It is important to notice that Dawkins seems to be laboring under the (mis)impression that, if there is a God, He owes His creatures something. The facts concerning the Fall into sin make it rather plain that God owes humanity nothing. The fact that any humans at all get to breathe, live, eat, and procreate is a marvel of grace in and of itself. Anything less than annihilation of the human race (which would have been perfectly just!) is pure grace. What, after all, should the God of the universe do when His creation spits in His face, and tries to take Him off His rightful throne, and usurp His place? Instead of destroying mankind utterly, God not only let them live, but He provided a promise of salvation right in Genesis 3, that there would one day come a seed of the woman which would crush the head of the serpent. This alone ought to answer the questions about the supposed “ethnic cleansing.” A closer look at the passages dealing with the Israelites’ destruction of the Canaanites reveals that God delayed His judgment on those sinful people by many long years, giving them opportunities to repent (“the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet full,” for instance, in Genesis 15:16). The wickedness of the people driven out is constantly the reason for judgment. God owes them nothing.

Is God jealous? Yes, but what definition of jealous are we meaning by the term? The Bible says that God’s name is jealous (Exodus 34:14). But we tend to import our human understanding of jealousy into the word, and then refashion God into our own image. God’s jealousy is for our good. He does not want us to worship any other god, for the other “gods” are all false. If we have a relationship with the one true God, then we have the greatest good of all. God does not want to share that relationship with anyone or anything else. It is similar to the proper jealousy of a spouse: a spouse does not want to share that exclusive relationship with anyone else.

Does God hate women? No doubt today’s radical feminists would disagree with me here (as would Dawkins!), but I would have to say no. Woman is clearly represented as a full image-bearer, having the image of God stamped on them, just like men (Genesis 1). Just because they are not heads of the marriage does not mean they are hated, any more than a colonel is hated just because he is one rank below general. There is to be love and understanding between a husband and wife (Genesis 2).

Does God hate homosexual people? More and more when I get this answer, I just direct people to Rosaria Butterfield’s book, which says it SO much better than I ever could. Read that book and you will understand what God says about it in His Word, and how Christians, incidentally, should treat the homosexual population. I will only say this: God loved all His children, even while they were yet His enemies.

Is God racist? This is really the most puzzling one of the bunch. All races come from Noah, and all races come from Adam. The main promise of the Old Testament God to Abraham is that God would make him a blessing to all nations. Exactly how is this racist? The fundamental covenantal structure of the Old Testament is that God’s solution to Adam’s messing up the world would include bringing about a salvation that has equal scope.

Dawkins probably got the “infanticidal” from the story of King David and his son, which is the only possible place I could even imagine such a charge coming up. But what does God owe to any human being? Does the potter owe anything to the pot? No, the pot owes everything to the potter. Besides, why should Dawkins object if God simply weeds out someone would probably (under Dawkins’s belief system) be not the fittest? Survival of the fittest targets infants as weaker people. Dawkins is much more akin to infanticidal than God ever thought of being. With God, an infant is a human being, created in God’s image right from conception. With Dawkins, an infant is a piece of tissue until birth. Which view is more infanticidal?

Filicidal? How does Dawkins get that from the Old Testament? Yes, there is the promise of the suffering servant, and yes, Jesus is present in the Old Testament, according to the New Testament. But usually this charge is directed against the New Testament God for “killing His Son.” But the Son laid down His own life. No one took it from Him. It was a sacrifice for sins so that we might have salvation.

Is God capricious? No. He is merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in lovingkindness, and yet not allowing the guilty to escape punishment. This one would need to address specific passages that Dawkins had in mind, and since we don’t know those passages, it is fruitless to try to answer his query. From the standpoint of one who believes in the Old Testament God, I find God to be amazingly consistent, and the very farthest thing from arbitrary. I will say this: just because God does not always explain His reason for doing such and such a thing, does not mean that a reason is non-existent. He may have a reason that He does not choose to tell us. This is, in fact, the burden of God’s message to Job in the last part of that book. God is not answerable to human beings. We are answerable to Him.

Change of Publishers

Well, the Word Biblical Commentary series has gotten a facelift. Instead of being published by Word Publisher, they are now being published by Zondervan. I just received the first volume of the Zondervan era. And it has everything that I have come to expect of Zondervan books: thoughtful content, lousy binding materials (are the folks at Zondervan completely allergic to Smyth-sewn bindings?). The boards feel wimpy, and the book looks like a knock-off of a better original. The only positive from the change that I can see is the addition of footnotes (the format while under Word Publishing did not have footnotes, and the text was therefore quite cluttered). The added sections in this book (it is a revised edition of a commentary originally published in 1986) are printed on gray-tinted pages, which looks and feels weird, even though the potential positive of it is that you can see at a glance whether the section was added or not. Publishers like Zondervan need to get it into their heads that commentaries are used far more than most other kinds of theological reference works. Thy need to be built like tanks (and most of the WBC is built extremely tough; only a few were glued). This one is so not.

A Penetrating Analogy

Theology is like an electric drill. The motor that runs theology is the Bible, the principium (the first principle). It underlies all the theological disciplines, just as the motor runs the drill. In considering a drill, nothing at all will work without the motor. In theology, we explore the meaning of Scriptures in exegesis. We explore what the church has said about the meaning of Scripture in church history (i.e., looking at God’s gifts of the Holy Spirit’s understanding and instruction given to teachers and preachers throughout the church’s history). We look at what the Scriptures say as a whole in systematic theology. We look at how the Scriptures apply to us in practical theology. We examine how we can remove obstacles (by God’s help) to an unbeliever’s coming to faith in God through the Bible in apologetics. What unites all the theological disciplines is the Bible. It is the motor of the drill.

To get the full use out of a drill, it is necessary to know how the parts work, and what all the switches and gears do. Knowing this about a drill is analogous to the exegetical enterprise. Or, to switch metaphors for a moment, exegesis looks at the individual trees in the forest.

Knowing something about the drill’s history can help us appreciate all that a modern drill can do. Hand drills, for instance, while having a charm of their own, and having the advantage of less noise, are also quite a bit (if you’ll pardon the pun) less efficient. This is similar to the function of church history. Studying church history helps us understand how and why we got where we are today. It helps us avoid the mistakes of the past, while also learning from the past so that the past can correct us where we are wrong (we need to make sure we avoid chronological snobbery here).

It is, of course, necessary to understand what a drill does as a whole if we are going to make any use of it. A drill makes holes in wood or some other substance. If we don’t understand its purpose, we might as well forget about using it as a tool, or we might be tempted to use it as a hammer. Understanding what a drill does in its entirety is similar to the project of systematic theology, which always has an eye on the other disciplines, learning from them, and informing them (not to mention guarding the other disciplines from error!).

This last named function of systematic theology needs defense, since most exegetes these days don’t particular like the idea of systematic theology having any role to play in exegesis (and some of them actively despise systematic theology). Systematic theology is a fence that guards our exegesis from error. If our systematic theology actually comes from the organic unfolding progressive nature of Scripture, then it will not be a straight-jacket, but rather the fence that keeps the children from going out into the dangerous road. Operating without a systematic theology is actually impossible, since the human mind cannot avoid synthesizing what it knows into a coherent whole. People who deny that they have a systematic theology actually very much have a systematic theology. It’s usually a very bad systematic theology, since the proponent of it tries to deny that it is even there.

Apologetics doesn’t fit the analogy of a drill quite as well as the other disciplines (and every analogy has its limitations), but I’ll take a stab at it anyway. If someone comes along and doesn’t believe that drill does what a drill actually does, then apologetics is the task of pointing out the various features of a drill that point (again, pardon the pun) towards its actual function.

Lastly, practical theology is like the drill bit. Practical theology is where we answer the question, “so what?” The drill bit is where the drill actually makes a penetrating difference to a piece of wood. If there is no drill bit (or screwdriver bit), then the drill won’t actually accomplish anything. The whole point of these other disciplines is to make up a drill that will work well at accomplishing its task.

Equally important, however, is the recognition that a drill bit by itself is not much good. Could someone conceivably drill a hole in a piece of wood using a drill bit and his own bare hands without the drill? Sure, but it make take several days, weeks, or months, depending on how thick the wood is. The better the drill, the heavier the drill, the more efficient will be its penetration of the wood. Practical theology divorced from the other disciplines is a drill bit that has no bite. This is one reason, incidentally, that I quickly tire of practical theology books that do not do any theology. In my mind, such books are really no better than books of advice. It won’t grab me at all unless the practical theologian proves that his application and practice are, in fact, biblical.

All of the disciplines are equally important, and (even more importantly) mutually dependent. Let no exegete turn up his nose at the fence. Instead, let him know that outside the fence is danger, not freedom. Let the systematician not turn up his nose at exegesis, knowing that it is the lifeblood of his own discipline. Let him not impose non-biblical categories on the text of Scripture. Let neither the exegete nor the systematician forget how the church has wrestled with the text in its history, lest they fall into grievous error that has already been laid to rest. Let none of these forget that all of Scripture is useful to make the man of God complete.

So, what should the pastor do in response to this? Should he become an expert in every one of the disciplines? Yes and no. Seminary training is supposed to be a solid introduction to all the disciplines (and should be done in a very unified way). Pastors do not need to have a Ph.D. to exercise a unified theological encyclopedia in their ministries. What they do need, however, is balance. Most pastors like certain kinds of books in one of the theological fields better than books in the other fields. Or they might like two or three of the fields, but not all of them. Pastors should make a serious effort to direct their reading in a balanced way, especially favoring what I call “summary books.” Any book that helps summarize the state of a particular theological discipline is an extremely helpful book to read. Pastors should read books in all the five major fields of theological studies: exegesis, church history, systematic theology, practical theology, and apologetics. Maybe a rotation is a good idea in this regard.

For people in the pew, take a look to see if your pastor is not very balanced in this regard. Do his sermons seem to have no bite to them, because you can’t see where they arose from the text? Or, are the sermons mere lectures, not having application at all? Or does he try to cram all of Reformed systematic theology into every single sermon? Or, do the sermons stick closely to the text, but never observe wider implications for understanding the Bible as a whole? You can encourage your pastor to broaden his reading, and the sermons will certainly benefit from it.

Similarly, the person in the pew can start reading this way as well. A good introductory book in each discipline is extremely helpful. In this regard, it is also helpful to note that the Puritans and the Reformers did not engage in these disciplines in an atomistic way. They did all of them together whenever they did theology. They practiced a unified encyclopedia quite unconsciously, since the division into separate disciplines only came with the Enlightenment (or, as I prefer, the Endarkenment). So, it is helpful to read pre-modern works as well, since they do not have the error of atomism. If we are not aware of this problem, and take steps to correct it, our churches will suffer greatly because of it. If, however, we look straight at the problem, and take conscious steps to become generalist theologians, the Word will penetrate our hearts more completely and effectively, I believe, and we will know God better. Drill away!

Is Theology a Science?

This question is, of course, way too large to address in only one post. However, I was reading Berkhof’s Introduction to Systematic Theology (which is included in the Eerdman’s edition of his Systematic Theology), and I found a really fascinating discussion of this question that was eminently clear and precise. So, what I want to do here is to set forth Berkhof’s arguments and see what people think.

The question revolves around the definitions of the two terms. What one means by “theology” and what one means by “science” will carry the day in answering the question. It seems fairly obvious that if theology is a science, it is a science that is different from the “normal” sciences we think of today (e.g., physics, chemistry, biology, etc.). With the advent of Kant’s denial that human beings can truly know anything beyond what the senses can apprehend (Kant did not deny the existence of things beyond the realm of the phenomenal world; rather, he posited that they were objects of faith, not knowledge), theology as a science has fallen on hard times.

Berkhof makes the point that many people wanted to retain the idea that theology is a science, but they wanted to do so while being persuaded of Kant’s position. This meant that they had to make theology into a science of observable things (see p. 46). What is observable is the human psyche. So theology had to be redefined as the science of religion (as opposed to the majority definition in church history of theology being the ectypal (creaturely) knowledge of God). In other words, it became the science of what we can observe happening in human beings when confronted with the supernatural. It was thought that the supernatural itself could not be the object of scientific study, but our reaction to the supernatural could be observed.

Berkhof notes several problems with this train of thought. Firstly, this is too narrow a definition of science. If science is limited exclusively to the realm of what we can observe with our senses, then what of those branches of science that deal with the philosophy of science? The material they work with is not sensory information, but is dependent on rational intuition (pp. 46-47).

A second problem Berkhof raises is that science, like theology, is also dependent on revelation. Without a revealed world, science would have nothing to study. As hard as science often tries to get away from revelation, it cannot escape natural revelation at all.

A third problem is that the physical sciences and theology both have tests that can be performed. The physical sciences use the laboratory, whereas theology uses Scripture as a test.

Now, Berkhof asserts that theology is not a science in the same way that the natural sciences are. Theology has a different method, a method determined by the subject matter. However, the question may be raised as to whether science can be reduced to the scientific method. Remember the original meaning of the Latin scientia, which means “knowledge.” Most scientists today would deny that anyone can know God as an object of knowledge. They would typically say that one can only believe in God. However, such a position completely ignores the possibility of the Bible being revelation from God to us. We can know God through His revelation of Himself. That we believe the Bible is God’s revelation does not mean that theology is still all a matter of belief and not of knowledge. The scientist himself has to believe that the tools of his trade are trustworthy (his senses, and his reason). Does that make his field less an object of knowledge and only a matter of belief? Then neither does belief in the Bible as God’s revelation mean that theology is all reducible to belief and has no component of knowledge in it. In short, theology, when rightly defined, is a science, when science is understood in the above way.