Review: Keener on Revelation

Keener, Craig.  Revelation. NIVAC.  Zondervan, 2000.

I didn’t expect much out of a commentary series that had the letters “NIV” in it, but this was well-done. Keener demonstrated mastery of the current literature and made interesting, if sometimes stretched, applications.keener

Rev. 4-5 Throne Room

24 elders: Keener says they represent all believers (172). That reading is possible, but it is more likely the divine council. Further, the picture we have of believers in heaven (ch. 6) has them pleading before the altar.
Revelation 6:9-17

Keener raises the problem of the martyrs’ prayer for justice, but doesn’t give a satisfactory answer (221-22). He notes that it appears to conflict with Jesus’s love your enemies. He doesn’t bring up the imprecatory psalms. They aren’t psalm of vengeance, but psalms against God to arise in covenantal judgment. When we pray like this, we aren’t violating Jesus’s commands, but are asking God to be faithful to the covenant.

Revelation 7:1-8

Keener seems to suggest that the events following the 6th seal aren’t chronological. In fact, he breaks with premillennialism at this point: “those who can withstand the day of God’s wrath are those whom God has empowered to withstand the previous plagues” (230). That’s certainly a true proposition but there are easier answers. Pre-wrath, for one.

Revelation 12

The Mother: faithful remnant of Israel (314). The theological source most available would have been the OT, which the readers would have known.

Reasons it can’t be Mary: We don’t have evidence of Mary’s being persecuted by the Dragon.

Revelation 20

Defense of Historic Premillennialism

1. The binding of Satan during the thousand years hardly matches Satan’s deceptive and murderous activity during the present era (12:12-13; 13:11-15).
2. The saints have already been martyred, suggesting that the Tribulation period precedes the Millennium.
3. The resurrection of the righteous is parallel to and contrasted with the rest of the dead returning to life after the thousand years (20:4-6), suggesting a bodily rather than symbolic resurrection.
4. Revelation 20 presupposes all that transpired in chapters 12-19.

Extra notes on Revelation 20.

The angel’s binding of Satan (20:2; 9:14) is a common motif throughout Jewish literature (1 Enoch 10:4-6

Gog and Magog. In Ezekiel Gog is the ruler of Magog, but here they merely symbolize all the evil nations

Other notes: it’s doubtful John had Matt. 12 in mind when he spoke of the binding of Satan. It’s unlikely his earlier readers would have had access to the Synoptics.

Criticisms

Keener utilizes a lot of material from Tony Campolo and Ron Sider. Rev. (so-called) Jeremiah Wright of Chicago (of Obama fame) also makes an appearance (194).

 

Bible Commentary Survey

I will update this as I read more commentaries.  I will also make it a side page.

Rating: * – *****

Commentary Sets

Of course, I haven’t read every page of every set, so I am not giving singular judgments, but I think I can capture the overall tenor.

The Macarthur Bible Commentary.  I’m not a huge fan of Macarthur and you will find both strengths and weaknesses.  Each commentary is a glorified word-study. Still, the sections are well-divided.

Calvin’s Commentaries.  Harmonizes the Pentateuch, which is a huge weakness.  Still, Calvin paid attention to the original languages and his arguments, even where I think he is wrong, are always thoughtful.  I think his sermons are better.

Pentateuch as a Whole

Brueggeman and Kaiser.  Genesis to Exodus. New Interpreter’s Bible. Brueggeman has his insights from time to time, but his project is unstable.  Kaiser, of course, is outstanding. ***

Sailhamer, John.  Pentateuch as Narrative. Good in gaining an overall flow, hence the title.  Sailhamer doesn’t go into his views on creation in much detail. ***

Genesis

Bede.  Homilies on Genesis 1-3.  Ancient Christian Texts.  Great for historical value, but no exegesis.

Hamilton, Victor. New International Commentary on Genesis.  Eerdmans.  2 volumes. Good overall commentary.  Gently pushes back against Wellhausen.

North, Gary.  Genesis: The Dominion Covenant.  Zero exegesis but excellent suggestions on apologetics.

Exodus

Numbers

Wenham, Gordon.  Numbers.  Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries.  Excellent rebuttal to JEDP. Sound elsewhere.  *****

1 and 2 Samuel

Leithart, Peter.  A Son to Me. Canon Press.  Very good treatment on background and biblical theology. Light on exegesis.

1 and 2 Kings

Leithart, Peter.  1 and 2 Kings. Brazos Theological Commentaries.  Similar to his work on Samuel. Good for pastoral application but needs to be supplemented.

Job

Vanderwaal, Cornelis.  Job – Song of Solomon.  More of a survey than a commentary but excellent nonetheless.

Jeremiah

Brueggeman, Walter.  A Commentary on Jeremiah: Homecoming and Exile.  While I have problems with Brueggemann, he does a fine job in handling the textual issues.

Zechariah

Klein. Zechariah. New American Commentary. Good treatment on background and good exegesis. Takes a gently premillennial approach to chapter 14.

NEW TESTAMENT

Mark

Horne, Mark. The Victory According to Mark. Canon Press.  Excellent treatment on typology and biblical theology.  Not as heavy on exegesis.

Acts

Bruce, F. F.  New International Commentary on Acts.  Eerdmans.  A true classic.  Somewhat dry reading but I can’t think of a better commentary at the moment.  Keener’s will eclipse it in time.

Romans

Moo, Douglas.  New International Commentary on Romans. Replaced Murray.  Deals with the earlier treatments of the New Perspective on Paul.  Somewhat unique take on Romans 7, but otherwise outstanding.

Murray, John.  New International Commentary on Romans. The 20th century classic.  While it has been surpassed by Moo, it still should be consulted.  

Wright, N. T. Romans.  New Interpreter’s Bible. Marvelously well-written.  Somewhat hamstrung by his so-called New Perspective.  

Galatians

George, Timothy. Galatians. NAC. Sound Reformational approach.  Worth looking into but nothing earthshaking.

Silva, Moises. Interpreting Galatians.  Not strictly a commentary, but an excellent guidebook on some of the exegetical difficulties.

Revelation

Barclay, William.  Revelation.  Well-written and Barclay’s unbelieving presuppositions don’t play too big a role.  Good on history but fairly weak beyond that.

Beale, Gregory.  Revelation.  I haven’t read it, but by all accounts the best commentary on Revelation.

Caird, G. B. Romans.  International Critical Commentary.  Caird was the archetypal British scholar.  Very strong in argument but fairly limited and dated at points.

Keck, Leander (ed). Hebrews-Revelation New Interpreter’s Bible.  I don’t know if Keck was the actual contributor to Revelation.  The book wasn’t any good. Had a bizarre fixation with William Blake.  Get Beale or Mounce instead.

Keener, Craig. Revelation. Life Application Commentary. Very good on background issues. Sound treatment of the text.  Takes a mild historic premil approach. Some odd suggestions on applications.

 

Semantics of Biblical Language (Barr)

Docetism is a perennial heresy, and even those who would agree with Barr’s (correct) conclusions, and perhaps even dislike the discipline of biblical theology, would probably find that they, too, practice a form of Docetism.  I’ll put my cards on the table and begin with the conclusion. Barr notes, “Thus the isolation of Hebrew from general linguistics tends to heighten the impression of Hebrew….being quite extraordinarily unique in its structure” (Barr 291).  Barr’s opponents did theology by word-studies based on the assumption that Hebrew was special. I think the danger today, as noted in the quote above, is that we isolate Hebrew from its Ancient Near Eastern culture.

Semantics: study of signification in language (Barr 1).

The problem with the Greek-Hebrew contrast:  there is posited a contrast between “Greek” and “Hebrew” thinking, yet the Biblical Theology guys rightly affirm a unity in the Bible.  So how to get around this?

Nonetheless, Barr isn’t criticising Biblical Theology per se, but only faulty methodologies (6).

Contrast of Greek and Hebrew Thought

Barr’s problem is not with “Hebrew vs Greek thought” per se.  Rather, he is saying you can’t trace the contrast to the languages.

I admit that it is dangerous to speak of a “Greek worldview,” but if we take the leading Greek thinkers (Plotinus, Plato) we will see that they are antithetical to the biblical model.  We have to be careful in not placing the antithesis at the level of word-studies.  You can find anti-biblical, anti-creational elements all over Plato, Aristotle, and Plotinus.  Explode those.  

Granted, claims about “the Hebrew psychology” are silly, but we don’t need to go there.

Barr’s challenge: are there linguistic phenomena that can be tested to such claims (23)?  Remember, Barr isn’t saying there is no biblical mindset, pace some of his defenders; rather, he is saying you can’t trace that to the magical verbal roots or something.

Dangers in Interpretation

Root word fallacy (101ff): Hebrew words often have three root consonants.  Therefore, the meaning of the word is by finding its root. Barr counters by noting that bread (lhm) and war (mlhama) have the same root.  Therefore, bread and war have the same semantic domain! Indeed, many scholars think etymology is worthless. Do you need a quick refutation of Heidegger? Heidegger says truth (alethia) means unconcealment, since lethos means forgetfulness and the alpha-privative negates that.  It’s the same fallacy.

Illegitimate totality transfer: we all know that a word can have multiple shades of meaning.  Therefore, per this fallacy, any time a word is used, all of the nuances are overloaded into that meaning!

Illegitimate identity transfer: similar to above.  When we read a word’s other meaning into this usage. The Hebrew dabar can mean both word and thing.  And since an event is a thing, every time we read of dabar Yahweh, we can read of the revelation event of Yahweh!

The book has a long chapter on the fallacies in Kittel’s theological dictionary.  I won’t spend time on it simply because no one uses Kittel anymore.

Hal Lindsey and Biblical Prophecy

By Cornelis Vanderwaal.

Vanderwaal was attacked for his rhetoric, but is it any worse than Lindsey or Hunt’s saying that anyone who disagrees with them wants to exterminate the Jews (Lindsey, Road to Holocaust, 332)? Let’s get beyond rhetoric and into substance.  Having read the Left Behind stuff, I was surprised to see that they got their Ezekiel 38-39 material from Lindsey–you know the part where Russia (Gog) invades Israel, gets killed by an angelic meteor shower, and then 200 million Red Chinese (you have to say it like that) invade Israel?

Pic was just a coincidence

Key thesis: Revelation is a covenantal book through and through (Vanderwaal 10).

The book gives more of the context on why something like Hal Lindsey’s Late Great Planet Earth became so popular, rather than in detailed refutations of Lindsey. Of course, Vanderwaal does show why Lindsey is wrong.

The book’s value is not in an earth-shattering refutation of dispensationalism (and there is a dated problem with the book, which I will mention at the end). Rather, it exposes some weird problems that must entail given Dispensationalism.

Odd problems in dispensationalism: if the church age will end, and if there will be believers in the Tribulation, then the church isn’t the mother of believers. We await another mother, a Jewish one (30).

I’m cool with pre wrath now

Another odd problem: One of the weirder problems in Gogology is that many Russians converted to Judaism in the Middle Ages, which means a lot of Jews in Eastern Europe have Russian blood. Now, Israel = Gog!

Key point: The church of the new covenant can never be viewed as part of Israel in the sense that it stands next to the Jewish people of our time, with the latter regarded as another part of Israel or the rest of Israel. The Bible stresses that the New Testament church is a continuation of Israel. The Jews who refuse to believe in the Messiah can no longer lay claim to the old covenant titles. This is the point on which everything hinges (30).

Vanderwaal’s main criticism of Lindsey’s use of biblical prophecy is that as prophecy relates to the future, it does so in a covenant context. This means that some of the predictions are conditional upon repentance (Micah 3:12). If this isn’t the case, then some biblical prophecies are simply false.

Israel in the bible means “people of the covenant” (56).

Argument: If Jesus is the Covenant Prophet (Dt 17), then anyone who does not listen to him is cut off from the covenant. Minor premise: Israel did not listen to him. Conclusion: Ethnic Israel is cut off.

Further, the desolating sacrilege = future apostasy on the part of the covenant people (60).

The Last Days

Vanderwaal, while firmly rejecting premillennialism, also distances himself from Augustine’s platonizing (66-67).

Vanderwaal’s Constructive Proposal

As Gary North said, you can’t beat something with nothing. Vanderwaal suggests Revelation is a covenant document detailing Yahweh’s coming destruction of Old Covenant Israel.
Babylon = Jerusalem. Summarizing Holwerda (106):

(1)It is apparent from Revelation 2:9 that John knows of a community that claims to be a congregation of the living God but is really a synagogue of Satan.

(2)Revelation 17 clearly echoes Exodus 16 and 23, where Israel is branded a harlot who fails to keep the covenant.

(3)The great city is also mentioned in Revelation 11:8, where a political-cultural interpretation is out of the question. This suggests that Babylon should not be identified as a political-cultural entity in Revelation 17 and 18 either.

(4)It is made clear in the book of Acts (see 2:23; 3:13; 4:10; 5:30; 7:52) that it was Jerusalem that opposed Jesus, although Rome did in fact carry out the death sentence. Jesus was crucified in the great city that is Spiritually called Sodom and Egypt.

(5) It is apparent from Revelation 18:20 that when the harlot is destroyed, God is squaring accounts because of what she has done to the prophets and apostles. Four verses later we read: “In her was found the blood of prophets and of saints.”

Admittedly, he makes a strong case. How can someone who is not Yahweh’s bride be a harlot to Yahweh? This is why Babylon must be Jerusalem, not Rome (or Masonic London). Nonetheless, if this isn’t a futurist document, then what do we make of Revelation 20:11ff to the end? Vanderwaal cannot take his preterist (though he never calls it that) conclusions to that point.

Review: Thinking in Tongues

This is from James KA Smith’s earlier days, before he became NPR’s token Christian thinker.  This book is actually good, which pains me to say.  Smith seems unbalanced in many ways since writing this book.  I think it is Trumpphobia or something.

Thesis: Pentecostal worldview offers a distinct way of being-in-the-world (Smith 25). Embodied practices carry within them a “tacit understanding” (27).

Is a Pentecostal Philosophy Possible?

Much of the chapter deals with the relationship between theology and philosophy.   The difference is one of field, not “faith basis” (Smith 4).  Smith gives us Five Aspects of a Pentecostal Philosophy:

  1. radical openness to God, or God’s doing something fresh.  
  2. An “enchanted” theology of creation and culture.   Smith means that we see reality not as self-enclosed monads, but realizing that principalities and powers are often behind these.  this entails spiritual warfare.  I cringe at terms like “enchanted” because it’s more postmodern non-speak, but Smith (likely inadvertently) connected “enchanted” with demons, which is correct.
  3. A nondualistic affirmation of embodiment and spirituality.  Smith defines “dualism” as not denigrating materiality.   Fewer and fewer Christians today do this, so I am not sure whom his target is.  Even chain-of-being communions like Rome that officially denigrate embodiment say they really don’t mean it.
  4. Affective, narrative epistemology.   
  5. Eschatological orientation towards mission and justice.

God’s Surprise

Some hermeneutics: Smith rightly notes that “The Last Days” (per Acts 2) is connected with “today” ( 22; we accept this model in eschatology but abandon it in pneumatology).  Smith wryly notes that Acts 2:13 is the first proto-Daniel Dennett hermeneutics:  offering a naturalistic explanation for inexplicable phenomena (23).   

Following Martin Heidegger, Smith suggests two kinds of knowing: wissen and verstehen, justified, true belief and understanding.  The latter is tacit and is at the edges of conscious action.

Per the dis-enchanted cosmos, Smith astutely points out that “There is a deep sense that multiple modes of oppression–from illness to poverty–are in some way the work of forces that are not just natural” (41).  In other words, spiritual warfare assumes a specific, non-reductionist cosmology.

Promising Suggestions

“What characterizes narrative knowledge?” (65)  

  1. a connection between narrative and emotions
    1. Narratives work in an affective manner
    2. The emotions worked are themselves already construals of the world
  2. There is a “fit” between narrative and emotion

There is a good section on Pauline-pneumatological accounts of knowing (68ff).  Anticipating Dooyeweerd, Paul critiques the pretended autonomy of theoretical thought (Rom. 1:21-31; 1 Cor. 1:18-2:16) and that the Spirit grants access to the message as “true.”  

While I found his chapter on epistemology inadequate, he does say that we know from the “heart” as embodied, rational beings (58).  This isn’t new to postmodernism, but is standard Patristic epistemology.  

A Pentecostal Ontology

This section could have been interesting.  Smith wants to argue that pentecostalism sees an open ontology that allows the Spirit to move from within nature, rather than a miracle that is “tacked on” to nature from the outside.  He makes this argument because he wants pentecostalism to line up with the insights from Radical Orthodoxy.

I have between 50-75 pentecostal relatives who “embody pentecostal spirituality.”  I promise you that none of them think like this or are even capable of thinking like that.  I do not disparge them, simply because I am not to sure Smith’s project at this point is really coherent.  He wants to reject methodological naturalism (rightly) but argues for his own version of supernatural naturalism.

If Smith is successful, then he can show that pentecostalism lines up with quantum mechanics.  Okay.  Thus, nature is “en-Spirited” (103).  While I have problems with his “suspended materiality” ontology, Smith makes some interesting points: miracles are not “add-ons.”  They are not anti-nature, since “nature is not a discrete, autonomous entity” (104).  

That’s good.  I like it.

Tongues as speech-act.

We are considering “tongue-speech” as a liminal case in the philosophy of language (122).  Exegetical discussions are important (and ultimately determinative), but we can’t enter them here.  Smith wants to argue that tongues (T₁) resists our current categories of language and emerges as resistance to cultural norms.  I think there is something to that.

 T₁ as Phenomenology

There is a difference between signs as expression (Ausdruck) and those that do not mean anything (indications, Anzeigen).  Ausdruck is important as it means something, whereas Anzeigen serves as a pointer (127, Smith is following E. Husserl).  Husserl even notes that there can be signs that are not Ausdrucken nor Anzeigen.  This turns on the question: can signs which do not express anything nor point to anything be modes of communication?  

As many critics of Husserl note, his account of speech links communication with intention, so he has to answer “no” to the above question.  Or maybe so.  What kind of speech can there be that is not bound up with inter-subjective indication?  Husserl (and Augustine!) suggest the interior mental life.  Thus, signs in this case would not point to what is absent.  

Tongues as Speech-Act Attack

Utterances (of any sort) are performative.  While such utterance-acts do convey thoughts, sometimes their intent is far more. Let’s take tongues-speak as ecstatic, private language.  What does the pray-er mean to do?  We can easily point to an illocutionary act of praying in groans too deep for words.  We can also see a perlocutionary act: God should act in response.

Tongues as Politics

Oh boy.  Smith wants to say that tongues is a speech-act against the powers that be.  I like that.  I really do.  I just fear that Smith is going to mislocate the powers.  He begins by drawing upon neo-Marxist insights (147). However, without kowtowing fully to Marx, he does point out that Marx has yielded the historical stage to the Holy Ghost.

Tongues-speech begins as “the language of the dispossessed” (149).  This, too, is a valid sociological insight.  The chapter ends without Smith endorsing Marxism, which I expected him to do.  While we are on a charismatic high, I will exercise my spiritual gift of Discerning the Spirits.”  The reason that many 3rd World Pentecostals are “dispossessed” is because they are in countries whose leaders serve the demonic principality of Marxist-Socialism.  Let’s attack that first before we get on the fashionable anti-capitalism bandwagon.

(No, am not a capitalist.  At least not in the sense that Smith uses the word)

*Smith, as is usual with most postmodernists, gets on the “narrative” bandwagon.  There’s a place for that, but I think narrative is asked to carry more than it can bear.  In any case, it is undeniable that Pentecostals are good storytellers.  Smith wants to tie this in with epistemology, but he omits any discussion from Thomas Reid concerning testimony as basic belief, which would have strengthened his case.

Possible Criticisms

Smith (rightly) applauds J. P. Moreland’s recent embrace of kingdom power, but accuses Moreland of still being a “rationalist” (6 n14, 13n26).  Precisely how is Moreland wrong and what is the concrete alternative?  Smith criticizes the rationalist project as “‘thinking’ on a narrow register of calculation and deduction” (54).  Whom is he criticizing: Christians or non-Christians?  It’s not clear, and in any case Moreland has come under fire for saying there are extra-biblical, non-empirical sources of knowledge and reality (angels, demons, etc).  

Smith then argues that all rationalities are em-bodied rationalities.  That’s fine.  I don’t think this threatens a Reidian/Warrant view of knowledge.  Perhaps it does threaten K=JTB.  I don’t know, since Smith doesn’t actually make the argument.  Smith makes a good argument on the “heart’s role” in knowing, yet Moreland himself has a whole chapter on knowing and healing from the heart in The Lost Virtue of Happiness (Moreland 2006).

Smith elsewhere identifies aspects of rationality as the logics of “power, scarcity, and consumption,” (84) but I can’t think of a serious philosopher who actually espouses this.

Elsewhere, Smith says Christian philosophy should be “Incarnational” and not simply theistic (11).  What does that even mean?  Does it simply mean “Begin with Jesus”?  Does it mean undergirding ontology with the Incarnation, per Col. 1:17?  That’s actually quite promising, but I don’t think Smith means that, either.  So what does he mean?

Is Smith a coherentist?  I think he is.  He hints at good criticisms of secularism, but points out “that the practices and plausibility structures that sustain pentecostal (or Reformed or Catholic or Baptist or Moonie–JBA) have their own sort of ‘logic’,” a logic that allows Christians to play, too (35).  But even if coherentism holds–and I grant that Smith’s account is likely true, it doesn’t prove coherentism is true.  All coherentism can prove is doxastic relations among internal beliefs, but not whether these beliefs are true.  Of course, Smith would probably say I am a rationalist.

In his desire to affirm materiality, Smith seems to say that any religious materiality is a good materiality.  Smith approvingly notes of Felicite’s clinging to feasts and relics (36).  It’s hard to see how any one “Materiality” could be bad on Smith’s account.  But this bad account is juxtaposed with some good observations on the book of Acts (38) and tries to connect the two.

*Smith says that “postmodernism takes race, class, and gender seriously” because it takes the body seriously (60).  This is 100% false.  If facebook is a true incarnation (!) of postmodernity, may I ask how many “gender/sexual preference” options facebook has?  I rest my case.

*Smith waxes eloquently on the Pentecostal “aesthetic” (80ff), which is basically a repeat of his other works, but one must ask, “How does faith come per Romans 10?”

*Smith doesn’t miss an opportunity to criticize “rationalism” for separating beliefs and faith/practice, yet Smith himself seems mighty critical of those who focus on “beliefs” in their philosophy of religion (111).  Sure, most post-Descartes philosophy of religion is overy intellectual, but I do think the Reidian/Plantingian Epistemology model, integrates belief and faith-practice.

 

Review: The Accidental Revolutionary (George Whitefield)

This book is best described as a political biography. Mahaffey’s argument is that Whitefield’s concepts of the new birth formed the framework that would allow the colonists to secede from Great Britain. It’s an interesting argument and he is correct on many particulars, but I am not convinced of its full explanatory power.

Mahaffey gives a decent account of Whitefield’s early life, even implicitly criticizing the venerable Harry Stout’s reading of Whitefield as simply an actor parroting religious vocabulary.

The reviewer is not entirely satisfied with Mahaffey’s reading of Calvinist soteriology. Mahaffey makes it seem like Calvinists didn’t know what to do with pleading for sinners to repent, given their understanding of God’s sovereignty. Perhaps there is a certain antinomy here, but older Puritans and Scottish evangelists faced no such problem. True, Whitefield’s theology was a breath of fresh air on the scene, but Whitefield didn’t say anything new. In fact, he would heatedly reject that idea!

Mahaffey has a number of interesting chapters on Whitefield’s relationship with the Church of England. Of most fascination (pp. 86ff.) is his suggestion that the bishops hired assassins to off Whitefield. Mahaffey’s argument is fairly impressive, though he admits he has no definitive proof (one should remember, however, that Anglican bishops eighty years earlier openly supported the killing of Scottish Covenanters, so it is not an entirely far-fetched argument).

Mahaffey argues that Whitefield’s transcending of denominational lines democratized American political rhetoric, creating a “new birth” of America which is a secularized counterpart to the Great Awakening. (And to properly use Calvinist soteriology, this “conversion”–which normally follows regeneration–would not happen until 1776). Again, it’s an interesting argument, though I am hesitant to place the same weight on it that Mahaffey places.

Pros of the book:
1. Fairly well-written and captures on a neglected aspect of Whitefield’s thought. Rightly notes that religion and politics are never fully separate. There is a certain irony in the narrative: Whitefield and Edwards’ attack on the Old Lights was also an attack on the political structures, since the current Covenant Theology did not really separate church and political authorities. At the end of the book, though, we have Mahaffey arguing for Whitefield’s view as a contination of the religion-politics argument. Nothing changes, I suppose.

2. It’s a critical reading of Whitefield, but unlike another major biography of Whitefield, it isn’t a hatchet-job.

3. While I do not think that Mahaffey has always correctly read the theological positions of Whitefield and older Puritans, he has correctly read recent historical scholarship on the American Revolution.

Cons:

1. He uses the term “Puritan” too loosely. The “Puritanism” of the mid 1700s New England was a much-removed degeneration of the earlier 1640s brand in England. Mahaffey doesn’t seem to make that distinction.

2. Apropos of (1), it seems Mahaffey implicitly follows too much of Perry Miller’s reading of New England covenant theology.

Review: Boa, Cults and World Religions

This is a handy reference for anyone who needs a quick response to the myriad of cultic and occultic movements today. It is persuasively argued, well-written, and very concise.

Eastern Religions

Boa gives a basic summary of the major Eastern religions, including historical overviews and their internal contradictions. It’s rather short but that’s probably the purpose. The reader will be aware of the basic tenets but should supplement his reading with more substantial works. Of interest, however, and Boa only hints this in passing, is that Eastern religion really can’t make sense of the dialectic between monism and dualism.

Pseudo-Christian Groups

The meat of the book, seen in substantially longer chapters, deals with pseudo-Christian groups (Mormons, JWs, Seventh Dayers, etc). The reason is obvious: you are more likely to run across a Mormon than a Shinto or Jainist. And these chapters are outstanding. One problem in Boa’s approach, though: he claims that one cannot divide the moral law from the ceremonial law (121), but says Christians are under the law of Christ (which includes 9 out of 10 commandments). I understand why he is saying this in response to SDA, but it is a dangerous, if not faulty approach.

It is interesting to note that many of these bizarre groups got off the ground in the mid 19th century to early 20th century. Uniting them seems to be a bastardized, primitive version of Hegelianism mixed with revival fervor. Think of Absolute Idealism as imagined by a high school sophomore.

Criticism

The most brilliant part of the book was its dealing with the occult. It was far more substantial in terms of argumentation than the other sections. My problem is that Boa did not connect the dots between the various occultic systems. They are not accidentally related. The larger connection or network is hermeticism. Boa alludes to hermeticism quite frequently, but he seems to see it as a generic synonym for any one teaching.

Hermeticism, by contrast, is very consistent and specific where it matters (granted, much New Agey occultism practiced by Hollywood is generic nonsense, but that’s another story). Hermeticism has roots in ancient Egypt and Babylon. It is built on specific numerologies, which often manifest themselves in the aforementioned systems.

In fact, we can take the argument a step further. The godly emperor St Justinian the Great smashed hermeticism in the mouth when he shut down several neo-platonic and Pythagorean Academies. It is no great supposition to believe that these hermetic movements went underground.  After they were eradicated we can see (or suppose) hermeticism to have gone underground again only to arise with either the Freemasons or the Illuminati (I speak of the Bavarian Illuminati established by Adam Weisshaupt and not the Sex Cult of Hollywood Rappers Today).

I am not ready to say who was the primary influence–Freemasons or Illuminati. I suppose it really doesn’t matter for practical purposes. What we can say of these two movements (and I leave aside guys like the MI-6 agent Alastair Crowley for the moment) is that they gave Hermeticism a quasi-institutional vehicle in which to move forward.

Of course, I really didn’t expect Boa to go into all of that when each chapter is only a few pages long.

Other criticisms

The section on Madame Blavatsky probably should have been placed in the Occult section instead of the Pseudo-Christian cults. Blavatsky claimed to have received messages from “Serapis,” (no doubt she did, though Serapis is likely a demon). Further, Boa just gave surface-level responses when Blavatsky’s Gnosticism is easy prey to a full-orbed Patristic attack.

The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship

by George Marsden.  Oxford University Press.

Instead of “Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship,” we can name it the “Unstable idea of a halfway-covenant going by the name of Christian scholarship.”

A key argument:  Here is the problem.  Secularists object to Christians in the academy because the latter claim access to knowledge (special revelation) that others do not have, so they can’t do real science.  Marsden counters that Christian beliefs function as “background beliefs.” They are not used as evidence for one’s views.  Christians would look to other beliefs “that we share with persons from differing ideological camps so that we could agree on common grounds” (50). So what is the point of even having religious beliefs in the academy?  They function as “control beliefs” (ala Wolterstorff) which filter which beliefs we are allowed to entertain.

Marsden then borrows an idea from Newman, which was later echoed by Dooyeweerd:  the tendency in the modern academy is for each discipline to absolutize its own claims at the expense of each other. What the disciplines used to do to Christianity they now do to each other.  The solution is to see the disciplines as integrally connected.  This, of course, is a specifically theological claim.

A Concluding Analysis

The book is refreshing and in many ways nostalgic for me as a reader.  I cut my teeth on Marsden when I was in college, especially as I dealt with the pressure from covenant-breakers (at an ostensibly Christian college, no less).  There are a few fine chapters and an interesting appendix.  Still, I think Marsden either doesn’t see (or more likely couldn’t imagine, as this book was written decades ago) the true nature of the Left towards Christians in the public sphere.  

One good Christian argument for Christians in the Academy is that Christians can account for the unity and stability of the “self.” Postmodernism has denied the reality of the unified self.  This allows Facebook (and the state of California) to believe in 58 genders.  Strangely enough, it is these people who accuse Christians of rejecting science!

I return to my opening sentence: the book is a halfway covenant with the secular academy.  It wants a place at the table.  I’m not sure why he thinks secularists will play along.  Which is why I think the whole idea is unstable.  Mind you, I believe Christians should be in the academy.  But we are living in what Van Til called the “later time of common grace.”  The lines are getting sharper and the corners more hard-edged (to quote CS Lewis). Neither side is going to rest content with compromise.

 

FV, Shepherd, and where the bodies are buried

I’ve put off doing an autobiographical post on my relationship to the Federal Vision for quite a while.  Maybe for several reasons.  Too much blood still on the floor. RTS never distinguished between those who were mentally Baptists (e.g., RTS) and Covenantal, thus making everyone who wasn’t a Southern Presbyterian a Federal Visionist.

I’ll go ahead and put my cards on the table. I don’t consider myself Federal Vision for reasons that will be apparent. I like what Norm Shepherd says on Covenant and Election.  I consider myself a Schilderite.

But this post isn’t just bashing RTS, as fun and necessary as that is.  I’ve forgiven them.  They stole money from me but it was for the best.  But RTS did represent a certain moment in American Presbyterianism that does need to be addressed.

There isn’t a strict logic to this post, but it will follow some general order.  I didn’t write it all at once since I have a bad case of carpal tunnel syndrome. A note of interpretation: when I write “FV” in negative connotations, I mean certain young bloggers.  The older FV generation, the “conference speakers,” so to speak, have been the soul of kindness to me.

Federal Vision, the Good and the Bad

What is the Federal Vision?  I don’t really know. Few do, actually.  Proponents say there isn’t one view.  Critics are impatient with that answer because it seems like FV is evading the issue.  But there isn’t one view. Doug Wilson has nominally rejected the label.  For years Jordan and Leithart were polar opposite from Wilson.  No one has heard of Steve Schlissel in a decade.  It doesn’t make sense to speak of a monolithic FV view.

Let’s take the book Federal Vision.  Look at the essays.  Barach’s essay is Schilder 101.  I have some questions about it but there is nothing “new” to it. Simple, post-Kuyper Dutch theology.  Horne and Lusk rightly (which even critics acknowledge) point to the Baptist nature of the American experience.  Jordan’s essay is controversial.  I grant that.

My Seminary Experience

I was a postmillennial theonomist when I went to seminary.  Yeah, you can see what RTS would have thought about that. To be fair, most of the profs in person were great guys.  Most people actually are decent people in real life.  Really, it wasn’t the profs themselves who were the problem.  It was the adjunct people they got to teach classes. They were usually local pastors.

On the kindest analysis, they were simply incompetent.  Realistically, some were mentally unhinged.  It’s not simply, “Oh, you’re a theonomist, then you are wrong.”  Rather, it was, “Oh, so you don’t fall into my interpretation of a unique slice of Presbyterian taxonomy, then you deny justification by faith alone.”

But enough bashing RTS.  I was involved with several FV guys (who no longer wear the label).  They really wanted me to become Federal Vision.  I didn’t.  I was under the authority of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church at the time and I didn’t have any business joining unique movements.  Did I like some of the FV thoughts?  Sure, but I challenged the FV  to show me what ecclesiastical obligation from the OPC that  I had to join FV.

In any case, I was probably more influenced by Norman Shepherd. I was new to covenant theology and NS’s views really made a lot of sense. Further, the OPC dealt more with Shepherd than FV.

But as irritating as some FV  were, the Southern Presbyterians weren’t making it any easier.  I got points taken off in Covenant Theology because I quoted Peter Lillback’s The Binding of God. If you affirmed conditions in the Covenant of Grace, or affirmed other than a strict works principle in the Covenant of Works, watch out.

I remember that Herman Bavinck’s volume 3 of Reformed Dogmatics came out during our week long Christology class (yes, only a week long.  That’s how important knowing about Jesus is.  That’s why Eastern Orthodox eat our lunch on Christology discussions).  I went up to the adjunct, the aforementioned mentally unhinged prof, and said, “Isn’t it great that Bavinck’s volume on Christology came out?”  He gave me an “Are you kidding?” look?  I wonder if he even heard of Bavinck.

It’s not hard to see that FV and American Reformed world would end up with a messy divorce. I don’t think FV always alleviated their critics’ concerns about regeneration.  But even more problematic, there was a strong Baptistic mentality in the Jackson area.  This was about the same time that Reformed Baptists were gaining a presence in American life.  The Gospel Coalition was just hitting the stage.  Mohler was the intellectual voice of conservative Christians.  Therefore, it made more sense to move on that wavelength than to ask how “covenant and liturgy” were related.

I guess it’s good I left RTS when I did.  I never dealt with the Gospel Coalition until I came out of the EO orbit in 2012.  And further, from what I’ve gathered, there are some Critical Race adherents working for RTS now.

Conclusion

One thing the Federal Vision did was make clear the latent division lines in the Reformed world. From the RTS perspective, only a certain amalgam of Scottish and Southern Presbyterian thought counts as acceptable Reformed theology.  Bavinck might get grandfathered in, but he is so close to Kuyper, and Kuyper is basically the evils of theonomy that you are better off not associating with Bavinck.

Van Til was another problem. RTS didn’t like him but they knew it was not wise to anger the OPC (and thus lose precious tuition money–their finances were in a bad shape for a few years). As long as you didn’t actually “do” anything with Van Til, you were okay.

In a weird way, it kind of reflects the Clarkian taxonomy of American Presbyterian life.  The OPC, for them, was bad because it had “Dutch” elements.

I’m not angry with RTS anymore.  They meant it for evil (that is, their stealing $30,000 from me not counting tuition) but God meant it for good.  My only real beef with FV is with certain proponents who have more or less faded from view.  There is a post by a former FV guy that (accurately) says where FV, at least the younger disciples, are weak at.  The older guys–the original four or five–know the source material better than most.  I am going to tag onto what he said and add my own thoughts.

  • FV guys really don’t know the post-Calvin sources that well.  Well, neither does the average Reformed guy.  Really, who does?  This stuff is only now being translated into English.
  • FV claims catholicity but isn’t really in line with the larger Reformed world.  Maybe.  I am not in the CREC nor am I in NAPARC, so I can’t say.