P.T. O’Brien and Plagiarism

Over on Aquila Report, I just read the article on P.T. O’Brien and the plagiarism that was found in his commentaries. I have very mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, it can definitely be said that he should have been more careful with how he used his information. Now, no details were given in the report as to the person(s) he plagiarized and where in his commentaries. So, we need to be cautious about how much we can say.

On the other hand, plagiarism might just be the easiest thing to do in commentary writing. Indeed, in some ways, it seems endemic to the genre. I read my commentaries in chronological order so that I can get a sense of the history of interpretation on a particular passage. Unattributed references to ideas introduced by previous commentaries are everywhere. Honestly, I am fairly certain that I see this every week. Sometimes, they fall into the category of things that they all say, and can fairly be categorized as forming part of the common stock of knowledge. Many other times this is not true. All it seems to take is one unattributed instance of copying, and then subsequent commentators seem to think that the tidbit is fair game.

This makes me wonder whether someone has it in for P.T. O’Brien and just pointed out what just about every other commentator does all the time. Take the Ephesians commentary, for instance. First of all, it was published 17 years ago (the Philippians commentary is 25 years old now!). Why hasn’t any expert in the secondary literature on Ephesians (or Philippians) caught that plagiarism until now? More importantly, why didn’t D.A. Carson, one of the most well-read and erudite New Testament scholars of the present age, catch the plagiarism when he edited the book? Why did Carson continue to recommend these commentaries so highly in his book on commentaries? The Ephesians commentary is one I’ve read all the way through, and I don’t remember having any of those moments where I thought to myself that O’Brien had plagiarized anything, and I read at least 30 commentaries on Ephesians when I was preaching through it. This is suspicious to me.

What I would rather have from Eerdmans is a chart listing the instances so that I can make up my own mind about it, because there is no way I am giving my O’Brien commentaries back to Eerdmans for a refund. They are just too good to give up. A chart would be far more helpful to scholars and pastors so that they will not perpetuate the plagiarism, but will track down the ideas back to their original source and attribute properly. With the current policy, the O’Brien commentaries will live in a sort of no-man’s land, with people not sure what to do with them. I am quite sure that there is still plenty of O’Brien left in his commentaries, and it would be a pity to waste it. Eerdmans, please let us sort out the wheat from the chaff. Do the pastoral and scholarly world a favor, and let us see the findings for ourselves. That way, we can still salvage what is good from his commentaries, and there is a lot of that.

Women’s Issues in the PCA

This year’s General Assembly passed a recommendation from the Administration Committee (who got it in turn from the Cooperative Ministries Committee) to erect a study committee on women’s issues. Here is the text of the recommendation minus the RAO and BCO references:

• The Assembly form a study committee on the issue of women serving in the ministry of the church. The Assembly authorizes the Moderator to appoint the study committee. The study committee should be made up of competent men and women representing the diversity of opinions within the PCA.
• The committee should give particular attention to the issues of:
(1) The biblical basis, theology, history, nature, and authority of ordination;
(2) The biblical nature and function of the office of deacons
(3) Clarification on the ordination or commissioning of deacons/deaconesses
(4) Should the findings of the study committee warrant BCO changes, the study committee will propose such changes for the General Assembly to consider.
• The committee will have a budget of $15,000 that is funded by designated donations to the AC from churches and individuals.
• A Pastoral Letter to be proposed by the ad interim study committee and approved by the General Assembly be sent to all churches, encouraging them to (1) promote the practice of women in ministry, (2) appoint women to serve alongside elders and deacons in the pastoral work of the church, and (3) hire women on church staff in appropriate ministries.

Grounds: The Cooperative Ministries Committee may not make recommendations directly to the General Assembly but must do so through an appropriate committee or agency. The CMC has had a subcommittee on the role of women and has sent several recommendations to the AC (including a proposal for a study committee on the issue of women serving in the church) and CDM to bring to the Assembly. End of recommendation.

We were told by many men of integrity on the floor of GA that women’s ordination was not on the table. By this, they probably meant ordination of women as elders, either ruling or teaching. However, by the recommendation’s own wording, ordination of women to the office of deacon is definitely on the table with this study committee. It is explicit in the recommendation in two places. The first is section 3, which says “Clarification on the ordination or commissioning of deacons/deaconesses.” How, precisely, could this be clearer that ordination of deaconesses is on the table with this study committee?

Actually, far more alarming to me now is the wording of the suggestion regarding the pastoral letter. The language of women serving alongside elders in the pastoral work of the church already suggests that the substance of what elders do is something that women can do. It is not a long step from that perspective to one of giving the ordination of elder to women because, after all, they are already doing that work anyway.

It should be acknowledged from the get go that there are two denominations that ordain women as deacons that have (so far) resisted egalitarian impulses to ordain women to the office of elder: the ARP and the RPCNA. However, as it seems to me, the impulse for this recommendation in the PCA comes from a different source, a more progressive source.

It was pointed out on the floor of GA that the CMC has no authority to initiate anything. This is true. The recommendation should have been ruled out of order as not properly before us.

Interestingly, the makeup of the committee has a majority of complementarians on it. My concern, however, is that a minority egalitarian report will be filed. If that happens, many people will rush to say that such a minority report legitimates egalitarian practice in the PCA, whether or not the minority report is adopted. Of course, this is not sound reasoning, but that hasn’t stopped the progressives in the past. This conclusion will, in turn, prompt the progressives to push the boundaries by having women preach (or other ways of pushing the boundaries), and thus, BCO changes will follow practice, instead of the way it should be, which is the BCO change first.

No doubt many will cry foul, claiming that I am misreading motives, reading in an overly suspicious manner, and impugning men of good character. The fact is, however, that I devoutly wish I was wrong, but am very much afraid that I am right. If the intent of this recommendation was merely to explore the ways in which non-ordained women can engage in ministry without violating the BCO, then this recommendation chose perhaps the most exceedingly poor way of communicating that idea. It communicated this so poorly, in fact, that there is a profound disconnect between what is said in this recommendation, and what was said on the floor of GA.

I am willing, of course, to wait and see, which is what I advise all conservatives who are alarmed at this development. A study committee, after all, does not actually effect changes. They can only recommend. I pray that people on this committee will study the peace and purity of the church, and not push the boundaries. Pushing the boundaries here will be an inherently divisive action, which will be a violation of vows taken before God.

A Guest Post on Racism

It is fascinating to me to hear the vastly different perspectives even of non-racist people, which ranges from outrage at the passing of Overture 43 as amended (the outrage is thoroughly non-racist), to folks who think we probably haven’t gone far enough. Here is a voice definitely in between these relatively extreme positions.

A Guest Post from Rev. Billy Boyce

Considerations Regarding Racial Reconciliation

As the PCA takes up the discussion about racial reconciliation this week at General Assembly, the ultimate path to finding accord and compromise is sure to come through personal interaction rather than Internet publication. Nonetheless, I wanted to offer a few brief considerations in response to some more recent posts and comments on the subject. I’m grateful to Lane for sharing his space with me and for the opportunity to contribute to this important discussion within our denomination.
Given limited time and space, I offer here three considerations for those voting this week at GA:

Consideration #1: The Insufficiency of Institutional Documents

It has been frequently observed that the PCA expressly desired to include all races and ethnicities in worship, as indicated by the founders of the denomination, something we should all applaud. Also, a number of further institutional documents address racial reconciliation and repentance for past sins. According to the institutional record, the PCA looks pretty good regarding racial reconciliation. However, these institutional documents alone are insufficient for judging the record of our denomination. It is true that our institution has expressed the desire to grow in racial and ethnic pluriformity. At the same time, our institution has not lived up to that desire, but has had barriers to the welcoming of others. The documents themselves are insufficient for weighing the existence and effect of these barriers; personal testimony is needed to flesh out the record. Channeling Martin Luther King, Jr., we need to “be true to what [we] said on paper.”

Consideration #2: The Weight of Personal Testimony and Community Witness
If institutional documents are not enough to assess institutional health, we need to listen to personal testimony. Yet, these testimonies are sometimes disregarded as being merely anecdotal. It is important to state here that there are two types of personal testimony. There is the type of testimony that only represents the individual witness; these testimonies are not enough to develop precedent. However, a second type of testimony exists whereby the witness’s testimony expresses both the individual’s experiences and gives a glimpse into the experiences of a community. These testimonies represent a community of witness and bear much more gravity than mere personal stories. It behooves listeners to discern which type of testimony is offered, and in the case of the PCA’s history of racial reconciliation, the multiple voices coming from across generations and ethnicities are enough to indicate a community of witness. This community of witnesses tells us that we have not lived up to our aspirations—what we have said on paper—and we ought not ignore it. This community testimony offers the PCA two points of witness: 1) the need for the PCA to confess and repent, and 2) the desire to confess and repent! Numerous PCA minorities are willing to participate in the corporate confession and repentance called for in some of the overtures. They offer a profound embodiment of the ideal of corporate repentance by participating in the repentance for sins that directly impacted their forefathers. Those who assert that it is impossible to repent of something that they personally did not do ought to pause and reflect on the willingness of our minority brothers and sisters to confess and repent. After pausing and considering, individuals may disagree. But in the spirit of Christian charity, it behooves everyone to ask, “might I be wrong on this?”

Consideration #3: The Primacy of Theological Faithfulness
In considering the community of witness testifying to the need for corporate repentance and modeling the desire to participate in corporate repentance, presbyters must allow the conversation to remain focused on theological faithfulness. Too often, I have heard presbyters invoke the specter of “political correctness” as the aim of these overtures. This is a harmful temptation, because these overtures aim at a much loftier goal: biblical, theological, ecclesial, Christ-honoring faithfulness. They seek to aid the pursuit of, quoting TE Lance Lewis, “redemptive ethnic unity.” To replace theological categories with mere political posturing is to rip the teeth out of this conversation and reduce it to another partisan squabble. This reduction guts the conversation of its eschatological vision: the ideal of redemptive ethnic unity, which is driven by the commands of Christ and the vision of the New Jerusalem.

These three considerations could be summed up as the encouragement to listen deeply and discerningly, which is itself simply a call to exercise wisdom. Wisdom hears and listens; wisdom is teachable; wisdom craves purity; wisdom longs for the beauty of peace and unity. Listen to those calling for corporate repentance. Listen to those opposing these overtures. Then listen again. May God grant us wisdom as we weigh all of the considerations before us this GA, and may he give us peace.

The Importance of Distractions

When it comes to work and various forms of non-work, there are two, rather obvious extremes to avoid. The first is the lazy bum who can’t be bothered to get off his couch in order to stop being a potato chip. The other is the workaholic who works himself into an early grave. Both are rather common in America. The latter was more common when there was a better work ethic, which ethic has all but disappeared recently. However, it is the workaholic that I am addressing in this post.

There are at least two aspects to being a workaholic. The first is simply never taking a break. They would work 24/7 if they could, but they get as close as they can. Sometimes, they are motivated by thinking that busyness equals holiness.

The second aspect, which usually but not always accompanies the first, is obsession over certain parts of the job. Maybe it is a negative relationship that has the worker obsessed. Maybe it is an obstacle to doing the work correctly. Workaholics usually obsess in some way or another over their work.

This is why I believe that distractions are vitally important for the person who is tempted to be a workaholic. What do I mean by “distractions?” I don’t mean the five minute interruptions of work when a colleague drops by, although those can be welcome breaks as well. I am talking about having some form of distraction that takes a person out of the world of their work, and places them in an entirely different realm.

Just to take an example, I do not read much fiction that is about pastoral ministry. Why? Because that does not take me out of the realm of pastoral ministry. I might read such fiction as part of my regularly scheduled work, if that fiction were valuable enough (usually it gets buried at the bottom of the reading list, though). If I am going to read fiction, then I want to read something that takes me out of this world, so that I can come back to this world more refreshed, and with a less cynical eye. Epic fantasy usually does the trick for me in this regard. It is quite literally another world.

Another example from my personal life will help. 2015 was an extremely difficult year for my wife and I in many, varied ways. In fact, I can confidently assert that it was the worst year of our lives. Obsession about the church was always lurking right around the corner, wanting to grab me and ruin my work days, and keep me from sleep. If it hadn’t been for Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, I think my wife and I would both have gone insane (2016 is proving to be FAR easier so far, with many of the issues of 2015 resolved). It didn’t always work completely. Sometimes I would go back to obsessing over the church after watching STDSN. However, even the break was still helpful.

Remember this, however. Any distraction that might be healthy in itself can become unhealthy if it becomes itself a new obsession. This blog post is not addressing lazy people, but obsessing people. The dangers of becoming enslaved to entertainment are many, and many have pointed them out.

So, what kind of distractions would help fill the bill? Hands down, the most important thing about your chosen distraction is that it be full of humor. The cliche “Laughter is the best medicine” is not less true just because it is a cliche (to use another cliche).

So, stop obsessing, and take a break. I will close with a story of two woodcutters who decided to have a wood-chopping competition. One woodcutter started with his axe, and took no breaks whatsoever. The other one took frequent breaks. At the end of the day, the one who took no breaks was astonished to find that the other man had cut much more wood than he had. So he said, “I didn’t take a single break. How come you cut so much more wood than I did?” The other man replied, “Ah, but you may not have noticed that when I rested, I was sharpening my axe.” Let him who has ears to hear, let him hear.

Registered Parliamentarian

I finally passed my registered parliamentarian test this morning. It is without a doubt the single most grueling test I have ever taken in my entire life. The pool of questions is 1400, divided into 5 sections. Many of these questions seem designed to try to trick you. Fortunately, you can take the exam in parts now. I took part IV this morning as the last one.

Is the Federal Vision Gone?

Since the internet debate has died down quite a bit from its heyday about a decade ago, many people have assumed that the Federal Vision is gone and dead. A highly erroneous conclusion. It is not dead. Every one of its proponents is still out there, spreading their false doctrine industriously, now under cover of darkness, since they no longer present themselves as targets online. The missions field is especially problematic, with the FV gaining ground in Russia, Eastern Europe, and parts of Africa. Even in the PCA, the issue is not dead. Jeff Meyers is still at large, as is Mark Horne. They are influencing many Covenant Seminary grads through their internship programs. Douglas Wilson is basically the only FV proponent still visible much on the internet, as we might expect, since he is the one who presents the public persona of the FV. If anything, the battle concerning the FV, while it has practically disappeared from the internet, is still very much alive and well in churches.

Enter now my friend Dewey Roberts into the field. He argued the Leithart case before the SJC. The SJC had determined that Dewey had not proven his case. A large part of that, I suspect, is that Dewey was probably using early drafts of his book to argue his case. When I talked to him about it on the phone, he was saying many of the things that came out in the book. Before the SJC, the way to win a case is to compare the teachings of Leithart (or whoever is on trial) to the Westminster Standards only. Here is what the defendant believes, in his own words, and here is what the Westminster Standards say. Dewey’s purpose in this book is much, much broader than that. He is comparing the Federal Vision to historic Christianity, and his findings are that they are two different things. The main thesis of the book is that the Federal Vision is either Pelagian or Semi-Pelagian in its system, and is therefore not Christian doctrine.

Knowing as I do the history of the Leithart case rather well, I think I made the same mistake Dewey did, actually, but from the reverse direction. Dewey argued his book in front of the SJC, while I expected his performance in front of the SJC negatively to impact the book. Neither of us was right. This book is quite well done, carefully argued, and theologically perceptive. I thought, over the course of some 350 blog posts, and countless comments, that I had considered the FV from just about every possible angle. Dewey showed me wrong. He has many angles that I had not thought of before. If the peacefully slumbering PCA (at least on FV concerns) will read this book, they will find that there is still work to be done, and that we need to do it. The gospel really is at stake, and the Federal Vision really is heresy, not just heterodoxy.

I have a couple of things I would criticize, one very small thing, and one more substantial thing. The small thing is the chapter endnotes. I hate endnotes. I have made no bones about the fact. One has to twist one’s hand in very awkward positions in order to be able to flip back and forth. If the purpose of footnotes is to avoid distracting one from the main line of argumentation, then endnotes fail miserably, because the added time of flipping back and forth makes it very difficult to keep on the thread of the main argument. But chapter endnotes are even worse than book endnotes, since you are constantly losing your place. Why couldn’t we have had footnotes on the same page as the text?

The more substantial criticism I have is the number of times Dewey quoted Guy Waters’s book on the FV as an original source. Now, Waters’s book is truly excellent, and one of the most important publications on the debate. Nevertheless, I prefer to see sources quoted first-hand, rather than second-hand. That way, if one wants to follow the paper trail backwards, one can examine the quotation in its original context much easier. The FV proponents will, of course, cry foul because they, like so many artists, are being misunderstood, boo hoo. The Ninth Commandment is often abused as the last refuge of the heretic. This criticism does not, I think, affect the validity of Dewey’s arguments.

I learned a lot from this book, and I hope that my readers will buy the book and read it, as well. Federal Vision proponents, know this: Dewey has your number, and he got it well. We know what you’re trying to do, and we are on guard.

How Does Jesus Work?

I came across this delightful quotation in J.C. Ryle’s work on John (volume 2, p. 145). Ryle is quoting Christopher Wordsworth, and Anglican bishop who wrote an entire Bible commentary:

God loves to effect His greatest works by means tending under ordinary circumstances to produce the very opposite of what is to be done. God walls the sea with sand. God clears the air with storms. God warms the earth with snow. So in the world of grace. He brings water in the desert, not from the soft earth, but the flinty rock. He heals the sting of the serpent of fire by the serpent of brass. He overthrows the wall of Jericho by ram’s horns. He slays a thousand men with the jawbone of an ass. He cures salt water with salt. He fells the giant with a sling and stone. And thus does the Son of God work in the Gospel. He cures the blind man by that which seemed likely to increase his blindness, by anointing his eyes with clay. He exalts us to heaven by the stumbling block of the cross.

God always seems to use the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, doesn’t He?

History, Bias, and the Historian

I was reading in Carl F.H. Henry’s massive 6-volume God, Revelation and Authority this morning, and came across a fascinating little quotation: “What places the historian under obligation toward events is that his own judgments of importance do not in fact constitute the external situation; actually, if he is to be worthy of professional respect, he must be concerned with a response to historical evidence” (volume 1, p. 162). Henry assumes, of course, that no historian can be free of bias. Henry is instead concerned to point out a very important point of self-awareness: what historians think of as important is still distinct from the actual situation. Every historian has to be selective. If the historian attempted to be completely comprehensive, then his work would take longer to read than the actual series of events, since nothing would be left out from any perspective. The historian’s principles of selection, then, become the points at which the historian’s bias comes into view. We can readily see this bias in the news media today. The news media function as a sort of immediate historical writing of contemporary events. They will choose to recount an event at which a few LGBT folks are present to protest, but will not comment on a pro-life rally at which over 100,000 people are present. The principle of selection reveals their bias.

Now, all people have biases, assumptions, presuppositions. The question for historians is not whether they are going to be biased, but (as Ken Ham would say) which bias is the right bias to be biased with in the first place. Secondarily, it is equally important to be self-aware of those biases, and, in the interests of full disclosure, relate those biases to the reader, so that the reader can properly evaluate the historian’s account. All too often, the historian pretends to have a complete objectivity, thereby seeking to gain an indomitable and unassailable ground on which to define history. It comes to light in the sometimes not-so-subtle claims that other historians may be biased, but he is not. Flee from such historians as from a plague.

The most pernicious form of the lack of self-awareness on this point is the mentality of many (most?) news media that they actually create reality, and that nothing exists but spin, and whoever controls the spin controls the world. There are several problems. First of all, events can happen which are objectively outside our points of view (i.e., we don’t know that they happened at all). Those events can have a huge impact on the significance of other events of which we do have knowledge. Secondly, such lack of self-awareness is usually connected to a certain claim for power. Control the language, control the definitions, control the perspective, and you control the world. The news media understand this exceedingly well.

Ultimately, there is a correct bias, as well as many incorrect biases. The correct bias is God’s perspective on history. God, after all, defines reality, both in general and special revelation. Any bias that does not seek to line up with God’s perspective is doomed to fail, ultimately. The problem comes when secular or postmodern advocates come to us and tell us that any claim to line up with God’s perspective is itself a power play, a grab at arrogance and condescension. Our response is two-fold, one answer being defense, and the other offense. On the defensive side, we can say that if God really does exist, then it is actually a sign of humility not to oppose this God by setting up our own autonomous principles of knowledge. Secondly, the postmodernist does not escape the very problem he criticizes. What kind of knowledge does he possess that guarantees his own freedom from power hunger? By seeking to eliminate the possibility of lining up with God’s perspective, is he not, by virtue of that very act, making a power play at stifling the Christian worldview?

On the one hand, events happen of which we have no knowledge. Nevertheless, just because we don’t know about them, we cannot therefore infer from that fact that they are unimportant. Our understanding of history is not the same thing as history itself, the chain of events that make up our timeline. On the other hand, when it comes to events of which we do have an awareness, we must be aware that our presuppositions will always play a role in how we interpret the level of importance, as well as the significance, of those events.

I Am Going to Enjoy This

Robert W. Jenson wrote the Brazos commentary on Ezekiel in 2009. I am really going to enjoy reading this commentary, even though he is not a conservative in his theological outlook. The reason I am going to enjoy this commentary is that he doesn’t hold with the prim and proper divorce of theology and exegesis. Instead, he refreshingly allows (even demands!) his doctrinal categories to determine the direction of his exegesis. Of course, everyone actually does this. In fact, the more that people protest that they don’t, the more viciously non-self-aware those scholars are. Jenson also injects his commentary with humor. He says:

The proposition that exegesis of the Old Testament might call up points of Christian doctrine of course offends the modern exegetical academy’s chief dogma. That, vice versa, Christian doctrine should shape interpretation of Old Testament passages offends it even more deeply. But the exclusion of the church’s doctrine from interpretation of the church’s scripture is after all a very odd rule on its face; and it is indeed as Christian scripture that the church reads what she calls the Old Testament. How the academic community came to be committed to an antidoctrinal, and thus in this case ironically ahistorical mode of exegesis, is an often told tale that need not be repeated here.

The present commentary, like the others in the series, thus offers alternatives to the modern academy’s prejudices. I will not often argue theoretically the legitimacy of christological or trinitarian or ecclesiological readings I present, but will mostly allow them to convince readers by their own sense and appropriateness to the text at hand-or not. I do ask for suspension of a priori incredulity-who knows, the church might be right about how to read her own scripture (pp. 25-26).

Lastly, Jenson issues a serious (!) warning about reading his commentary:

The purpose of a commentary is to assist readers’ involvements with the text. Perhaps readers should therefore take warning before going further. Attention to a text can turn into experience of its matter, and the judgments and promises of God as given through Ezekiel are so extreme that they can easily undo ordinary religiosity-to say nothing of the disastrous spiritual adventures that might be ignited by his visions (p. 30).

I find myself wishing that more commentators wrote like this.

Conditional Prophecy or Unconditional Prophecy?

A very thorny question arises as to whether prophecies in the Old Testament are conditional or unconditional. Some of them appear to be one, and some appear to be the other. Problems arise whenever scholars seek to make one category that describes all prophecies. Hengstenberg, for instance, argues that all prophecies are unconditional. One wonders, then, how Hengstenberg deals with Jonah’s prophecy about Nineveh. Or, how does he deal with Jeremiah 18:7-10? I just finished reading Fairbairn’s chapter on this topic in his Interpretation of Prophecy. He has a taxonomy of prophecies that is well worth consideration.

Fairbairn has three categories of prophecies. Of these, one is completely unconditional, one completely conditional, and one that has aspects of both.

The first category he describes is one that has aspects of both. The prophecies of salvation that “disclose God’s purposes of grace to men” are unconditional with regard to their ultimate fulfillment. The only conditional elements have to do with “relations of place and time” (p. 63). The protoevangelion (Genesis 3:15) is an example of this type of prophecy. He writes, “[E]ven in this class of prophecies, as they do not proceed to their accomplishment in a lofty isolation from human interests and responsibilities, so the things belonging to them must be presented to men’s view as capable of being expedited or retarded by the line of behaviour they pursue; and while with God himself the end was seen from the beginning, and absolutely determined, yet particular issues might fitly enough appear to be suspended on the particular condition of the church or the world” (p. 64).

The second class of prophecies he mentions has to do with “kingdoms that stood in a rival or antagonistic position to the kingdom of God.” These prophecies “were mainly intended to assure the hearts of God’s people, that whatever earthly resources and glory might for the time belong to those kingdoms, all was destined to pass away; that their dominion, however arrogant and powerful, should come to an end” (p. 68). These prophecies were about the foreign kingdoms, but they were usually directed towards God’s people. These prophecies do not, as a general rule, address moral issues (see p. 69). Many, if not most, of the oracles against the nations, fall into this category (for examples, see Ezekiel 25-32).

The third class of prophecies is completely conditional. They are the prophecies about which Jeremiah 18:7-10 speaks. This class bears directly “upon men’s responsibilities” (p. 70). These are often directed towards the foreign nation. Jonah’s prophecy against Nineveh is a good example of this kind of prophecy. Jonah prophecies destruction, but Jonah obviously knows that this prophecy is conditional, because he did not want to give it to Nineveh, lest they repent, and then God would not bring upon them the destruction promised. Fairbairn comments on its seemingly unconditional form: “[T]he very absoluteness and precision of the form was the best adapted, it may be the only one actually fitted, to arouse slumbering consciences, and lead to serious repentance” (p. 73, emphasis original).

This taxonomy helps us to avoid three particular problems with Old Testament prophecy. One is that of open theism. God doesn’t change his mind. With the prophecies that have conditional elements, God immutably carries out His complex purposes, such that if the people change (of which outcome God already and immutably knows), then the outcome changes, humanly speaking. Secondly, this helps us to make sense of prophecies like that of Jonah that seemingly do not come to pass. As we know, one of the criteria for true prophets is that their prophecies must come to pass. Of course, liberals tend to use a very literalistic heremeneutic in order to “prove” that Old Testament prophecies are not fulfilled. This is another subject that Fairbairn addresses in this same chapter, incidentally. Thirdly, it also helps us to avoid the problems associated with extreme positions, like that of Hengstenberg, on the one hand, who argues that no prophecies are conditional; and other opposite positions, that argue that all prophecies are conditional. The problem with the latter position is that the criteria for prophecies coming true would be meaningless if the prophecies were always conditional. The prophet whose prophecy doesn’t come to pass could then conceivably always use the excuse, “Well, it was conditional.” I commend Fairbairn’s careful taxonomy. There might be tweaks that would be necessary to his categories (although I can’t think of any right off). But this is a helpful way of making sense of enormous swaths of Old Testament prophecy.

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