Monday, March 31, 2008

Book Review: Story as Torah, by Gordon J. Wenham

Over the next several posts, I will post a book review of a book entitled Story as Torah: Reading the Old Testament Narrative Ethically, by Gordon J. Wenham (Baker Academic, 2004). The entire review is available in a PDF file.

Wenham’s Essential Premise

“Old Testament books do have a didactic purpose, that is, they are trying to instill [sic] both theological truths and ethical ideals into their readers … Bible storytellers are not advocating a minimalist conformity to the demands of the law in their storytelling, rather than they have an ideal of godly behavior that they hoped their heroes and heroines would typify” (p. 3).

For Wenham, “story” contains “Torah,” or instruction that is to be discerned and then followed. To demonstrate this thesis, he draws on historical, literary, and rhetorical criticism to understand the text. He uses Genesis and Judges as test cases to demonstrate that his thesis works in the text.

Evaluation: Wenham has rightly understood that biblical narrative is not simply story for the sake of story or entertainment. Nor is the biblical author merely writing to convey information. He is writing to convey a theological story, a story in which God is portrayed at work with a definite purpose in the world. The stories included in the text are stories which God has inspired in order to best communicate his story to the world, both the “implied reader” and all others who will read the Bible.

Wenham’s Basic Foundation of Communication

Author > (Implied Author) > Text > (Implied Reader) > Reader

This approach inserts two “fictional” people into the equation.

1. The implied author “projects an image of himself and his attitudes that may differ considerably from what he is like in real life. Usually one suspects that the implied author is better than the real author” (p. 9). With respect to this implied author, Wenham states, “In most Old Testament narrative the narrator is apparently omniscient. He informs the reader what people think, what they do in secret, and most importantly what God thinks” (p. 10). Wenham seems to highlight the implied author over the implied audience when he states, “The central critical problem is to discover the implied author and his outlook” (p. 9).

2. The implied reader is the one that the author has in mind from whom he desires to elicit a response: “A text is essentially a message from an author to its first readers, which the author hoped would be understood and acted on. Because both readers and author shared a common language and culture, there was a reasonable chance that the writer’s intentions would be realised and the message understood correctly. Our distance in time and space from the author and first readers makes it much more difficult to pick up the original sense of the message” (p. 1). Wenham later states, “The writer makes a guess at his reader’s knowledge, experience, and outlook and pitches his presentation to appeal to this implied reader. If a real reader is to grasp accurately what the writer is saying, he must approximate to this implied reader, otherwise he is likely top pick up the wrong end of the stick” (p. 9).

Evaluation: Though this structure has some theoretical merit, it is not altogether necessary since it is normally assumed that the author was writing without revealing everything about himself to an assumed or intended audience without knowing everything about them. Furthermore, it does not seem to further his thesis in any meaningful way since the distinction between the real author and the implied author is indistinguishable. That this implied author has a moral or ethical viewpoint, presumably received or directed by God, is without dispute. The challenge is to determine when the author is inserting his view into the lives or words of the characters as opposed to when the author is letting them speak for themselves.[1]

Wenham is here defending what is essentially the idea of attempting to understand the story in its original context, or trying to understand what the original author would have intended his original audience to understand. The distance and time that separates the modern reader, along with his cultural biases and perspectives make it difficult to become completely objective or completely involved in the story. The implied author and implied reader is the one that we glean from our own background as we come to the text. So Wenham is mostly correct in asserting that we need to understand what the original author (implied or actual) intended his original audience (implied or actual) to understand and to do based on his message to them.

[1] Wenham discusses this on p. 10 with respect to the various speeches in Job.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Commentaries on Haggai

(Feel free to add your own in the list if you think I have missed something significant, or to add your comments to mine, particularly if you think I have misjudged these.)

Highly Recommended (roughly in order of preference)

  1. Pieter A. Vierhof, The Books of Haggai and Malachi (NICOT) — If you only have one commentary on Haggai, make it this one. An excellent commentary that interacts with a number of different views with a conservative approach with good documentation.
  2. John Kessler, The Book of HaggaiIf you can afford it, get this one. It is a lengthy tome that is much more comprehensive than most commentaries (279 pp. on Haggai alone). It is among the most well-documented. I have not checked the price, but it is a Brill publication, so you might have to mortgage your house to buy it. If might be cheaper to move near a library that has it. Whichever, it will be worth it if you want to study Haggai.
  3. Richard A. Taylor and E. Ray Clendenen, Haggai, MalachiThis volume is in the New American Commentary, and like most of the volumes is fairly technical, but still useful for academic study as well as pastoral study. It also is well-documented.
  4. David L. Petersen, Haggai and Zechariah 1-8This is an Old Testament Library volume and comes from a less conservative approach. However, it interacts well on the difficult issues and will be a worthy addition for the serious study of Haggai. It is not as well-documented as it could be.
  5. Alec J. Motyer, "Haggai," in The Minor Prophets (ed. McComiskey) — Motyer does a good job interacting with the Hebrew text, as well as making expositional comments on the bottom half of the page. Overall, the expositional section is better than the exegetical section since the latter is too brief. This volume is also fairly light on documentation.
  6. Robert Alden, "Haggai," in The Expositor's Bible Commentary — Long enough to be helpful as an introductory commentary to make one aware of many of the difficult issues, but not long enough to do much more than assert a position on these issues.

Worth Having as Long as You Have Others (in no particular order)

  1. Herbert M. Wolf Haggai and Malachi: Rededication and Renewal — A short volume in the Everyman's Bible Commentary Series. It is too short to serve as a primary or major contributor, but helpful in many ways.
  2. Joyce G. Baldwin Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi — From the Tyndale Old Testament Commentary Series, it fits right in the mold of the other TOTC and TNTC as a short, basic volume that is helpful, but not comprehensive enough to interact on the more disputed issues.
  3. Eugene Merrill, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi — Merrill is a superb OT scholar with a very conservative view of the Scriptures. This is another good volume, lengthier than the previous two, with decent documentation.
  4. Robert Chisholm, The Minor Prophets — This book covers all the minor prophets with a brief commentary, paragraph by paragraph through each book. It is brief, mostly undocumented, but very helpful in gaining an quick, overall perspective of the minor prophets. Overall, this is probably the best single book currently available on the minor prophets. It would make an excellent textbook for a Bible college or entry-level seminary class.

If They Are Cheap

  1. Ralph L. Smith, Micah-Malachi — Part of the Word Biblical Commentary Series, it is not earthshaking, but will be somewhat helpful. It's greatest contribution is the translation and text critical notes. Overall, nothing that cannot be found in other commentaries.
  2. Carroll Stuhlmueller, Haggai and Zechariah: Rebuilding with HopeTakes a critical view and has few helpful arguments, but does have some helpful comments. Lengthwise, it fits in the category with Baldwin and Wolf.
  3. Charles Lee Feinberg, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, and Malachi — Another short work that has the added demerit of being selective. If he is addressing a passage you are studying, this may offer something. But it may skip that passage.
  4. Carol L. and Eric M. Meyers, Haggai, Zechariah 1-8 — Part of the Anchor Bible, a volume of decent length, but does not seem to correlate the passage together or give a good theological synthesis. 

If You Need Kindling to Start a Fire

  1. Hans Walter Wolff, HaggaiA liberal commentary that is too short to be of any value, and does not contain enough substance of liberal argument to interact with. It might not even be long enough to start a good fire.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Some Thoughts on Keswick

I recently had the privilege of listening to my friend, Andy Naselli, give a series of lectures on the Keswick doctrine of sanctification. These lectures are available in mp3 format at the Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary website and a forthcoming article will appear in the Detroit Seminary journal.

A modern version of the Keswick (pronounced "keh-zick") view of sanctification is fairly common, particularly in fundamental circles. It is essentially a two-stage view of salvation and sanctification where a person is saved at one point and then at a later time dedicates his life and begins the process of sanctification. As Andy explained, the essential premise is a chronological disjunction between salvation and sanctification, that is, that salvation and sanctification happen at two different times.

So why is the Keswick view so popular among certain circles? I have an unsubstantiated theory based on three points. I am going to throw it out here and see what sticks. Each of these points begs for more explanation, development, and critique, but I won't do that here since it would lengthen this already long post to mammoth size for a blog post. But here are my three reasons, with a brief explanation as I think out loud.

1.  It is what they were taught.

Very few people get much of their doctrine straight from Scripture. Even though we like to claim we are "people of the book," it may be more accurate to say that most Christians are actually "people of the pulpit." They believe whatever they were taught. What study of Scripture they do, they do through the lens of the pulpit ministry to which they have been exposed. So when someone grows up with two distinct messages (First, get saved, and later, get dedicated), they tend to propagate that in their own ministries, and they tend to find it in the Bible.

2.  It stems from a wrong view of man.

The doctrine of man (called anthropology) is, in my view, a key component of Keswick theology among modern fundamentalists. It seems that there is essentially a Pelagian or semi-Pelagian view of man that is frequently found in these circles. In this view, man has autonomous free will, basically unaffected by sin. And if man is free to choose to get saved or not (as is typically taught in these kinds of circles), then he is also free to choose whether to be sanctified or not. The vote casting of salvation (God cast one for you, Satan cast one against you, you cast the deciding vote) is carried over into sanctification as well. I don't know that early Keswick theology embraced total depravity, and I am fairly certain that the modern versions of which I am thinking do not embrace it either. To me, this seems to go hand in hand.

3.  It stems from a wrong view of salvation.

The doctrine of salvation (called soteriology) is the third, and IMO, the greatest reason. My unscientific view that is there is a large segment of people who have such a visceral reaction to what is commonly called "Calvinism," that they reject anything that even remotely smells of it. The doctrine of "perseverance of the saints" is often changed into the doctrine of "preservation by the Savior." While eternal security is certainly a biblical doctrine, so is the doctrine of perseverance of the saints, a doctrine that ultimately argues against the Keswick view of sanctification.

We can't "force sanctification" since man is free. Furthermore, since someone "walked the aisle and prayed a prayer," they must be saved whether or not they give any evidence of salvation in their lives. So rather than question their salvation, some hold a view of salvation that sanctification is not a necessary and immediate consequence of salvation. Therefore, we can "get a bunch of people of saved," and have a good reason why they never show up in church, or why they continue to live worldly, sin-dominated lives with no sign of conviction or change. They were saved; they simply weren't dedicated yet.

A Qualification

While I believe that sanctification is the immediate and necessary result of true salvation, we must admit that while all Christians grow, they grow at different rates and differing consistencies. The biblical view of sanctification is not one of perfection, but one of struggle. As I often say, I don't worry that much about people who struggle. I worry about people who do not struggle, who are satisfied to live unchanged in sin. For those, I challenge their salvation.

So how do we deal with this?

1.  Let's get over our addiction to numbers.

I know a pastor who keeps record of the number of "salvation decisions" in the front of his Bible. Most of these numbers are not represented in his church. But he touts these "conversions" as evidences of the success of the gospel message. If we adopt a view of salvation that views sanctification as beginning at the same time, our numbers of salvation decisions will decrease (though the number of Christians will not).

2.  Let's get over our need to give assurance of salvation to people.

I think we need to be satisfied to let people struggle with assurance, particularly if they are not giving evidence of salvation. In fact, we need to encourage, to at least some degree, "testing to see if you be in the faith" (2 Cor 13:5). I am not here encouraging an prideful introspection. I am encouraging a biblical examination. If people do not have assurance, let us not point to a raised hand, a repeated prayer, or a date inscribed in the front of a Bible. Let us appeal to the Bible, and let the Holy Spirit either affirm or deny assurance based on the study of the Scripture.

3.  Let's get over our heritage.

I love my heritage and those who have influenced my spiritually over my life. I owe a great debt of gratitude to many people who hold a Keswick view of sanctification. I once believed it, and practiced it, and preached it. I don't any more, not because I do not love the men who preach it. I do love them and my life is forever changed because of them. But having been challenged by the study of the Scriptures, I reject that teaching of my heritage.

4.  Let's get over bad doctrine.

If my supposition is correct, that anthropology and soteriology are two key components of the preponderance of this teaching, then the only solution is a radical return to biblical teaching. I think you will find very few people who affirm a radical depravity in man and a sovereign God in salvation who preach this two-stage view. Again, I am only guessing here, but I know when my view changed on these two issues, my view of sanctification changed along with it because I could no longer hold my view of sanctification. 

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Boston on Manfishing

What thinkest thou, O my soul, of that doctrine that lays aside this power of the Spirit, and makes moral suasion all that is requisite to the fishing of men? That doctrine is hateful to thee. My soul loaths it, as attributing too much to the preacher, and too much to corrupt nature in taking away its natural impotency to good, and as against the work of God's Spirit, contrary to experience; and is to me a sign of the rottenness of the heart that embraces it. Alas! that it should be owned by any among us, where so much of the Spirit's power has been felt.

Thomas Boston, The Art of Manfishing (Joseph Kreifels).

For I determined to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and Him crucified.  3 I was with you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling,  4 and my message and my preaching were not in persuasive words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power,  5 so that your faith would not rest on the wisdom of men, but on the power of God.

The Apostle Paul, 1 Corinthians 2:2-5

Is there not a fine line between dependence on the Spirit and the moral suasion of which Boston speaks?

Preachers who are rightly concerned to be clear and effective communicators can easily and sometimes unintentionally cross the line into moral suasion. How much we need to guard ourselves against confidence in our rhetoric, or in our study and organization of the message.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Say What?

A blogger says:

I tend to roll my eyes when I read about churches that offer classes to strengthen marriage because I've observed those classes to be about perpetuating stereotypes and keeping people "in their place." They exclude committed same sex couples or single people who would like a partner but haven't yet found a love that sticks around in the words of one.

Maybe I am missing something but why would a class to strengthen marriage include either "committed same sex couples" or "single people"? Both are, by definition, excluded from marriage, though for entirely different reasons.

And why would a marriage class that targets married people cause someone to roll their eyes?

Monday, March 10, 2008

28 Places to See Before You Die

I like lists. If for no other reason then to see what people think is important about a matter. I like to see if I agree, and how much of their list I have participated in, either by reading or visiting (as in this case).

This one is no different. Smithsonian Magazine, in January 2008, listed 28 places to see before you die. My list isn't the same. But this one was interesting.

  1. Mesa Verde
  2. Pompeii
  3. Tikal
  4. Petra
  5. Pyramids of Giza
  6. Taj Mahal
  7. Easter Island
  8. The Great Wall
  9. Aurora Borealis
  10. Serengeti
  11. Iguazu Falls
  12. Machu Picchu
  13. The Louvre
  14. Zen Garden of Kyoto
  15. Uffizi Gallery
  16. Fallingwater
  17. Yangtze River
  18. Antarctica
  19. Mount Kilimanjaro
  20. Grand Canyon
  21. Pagan, Myanmar
  22. Parthenon
  23. Angkor Wat
  24. Ephesus
  25. Venice
  26. Amazon Rain Forest
  27. Great Barrier Reef
  28. Galapagos Island

I only have 26 to go, if I follow their list.

But for me, the list would be different.

Saturday, March 08, 2008

A Story of Two Men

There’s a story about two men working along a road. One was digging holes. He’d no sooner finish a hole than his partner would fill it in. A curious bystander watched the process for a while, one man digging a hole and the other man filling it in. Finally, curiosity got the best of the bystander and he asked the man digging the holes, “What are you guys doing?”

The man replied, “We’re planting trees. I dig the hole, Charlie puts in the tree, and Bill, here, fills in the dirt around the trees. Charlie’s home sick today.”

Lifted from this article on church revitalization.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

In the Diner

I am sitting in the diner this morning, working on Romans 15 to the background noise of conversation. It seems that the profanity is flowing looser than normal today. It is not uncommon in the diner to hear a word of profanity every now and then. It is rather uncommon to hear as much as I am hearing this morning. It has quieted down a bit now, since the most egregious offenders have left.

People are upset with various things, though it seems mainly the plowing practices of the city and state for after the snowstorm yesterday are in their sights, not to mention the lack of salt. Several were complaining about shoveling their drives only to have the plows plow them back in. I share their frustration having had that problem before. In fact, I have it right now, but can't shovel due to my back and don't want my wife shoveling ice (since it melted and refroze overnight). Besides, I figure that in a couple of months it will have all melted and I won't have to worry about it.

But I must confess some confusion as to what profanity accomplishes, particularly when the people with whom you are upset are not around to hear your verbal emphasis. I suppose it is simply venting frustration.

And the truth is that I really have no problem with unbelievers using such words. I expect them to. After all, why wouldn't they? They have no reason not to. Oh, I suppose I could confront them on it, and perhaps feel better about taking a stand about morality and civil decency. And I have been tempted to do it before. And have done it. And would do it again in the right situation. But why do I want to encourage an unbeliever to an outward show of morality in restraining the tongue without a heart change that gives a reason for the restraint? I am not sure I do.

Of course, we Christians have our own swear words, subtly changed to sanctify them. We use words like darn or dang, heck, shoot, gosh, golly, and the like, all in exactly the same way that unbelievers use words that shall remain unmentioned on this blog. I suppose if I were an enlightened pastor, sensitive to the culture we live in and truly dedicated to reaching them, I would use those words myself.

But the bigger issue is, Why do we find it necessary to sprinkle our conversation with such sanctified words? Are we that lacking in creativity to find a better way to emphasize something? Or are we that lacking in self-control that it simply flies out of our mouths? Is our character so lacking that we think no one will believe us if we do not grab their attention through such literary devices? Or does it reveal a deeper problem of the heart in the way that we view the circumstances which provoked the use of such words?

Think about it ...

Speaking of new words, my soon-to-be two-year-old has somewhere picked up the word "daggum." We have no idea where he got it from since it is not a word that we use around the house. It is truly hilarious to hear him use it. He knows exactly where it fits.

The first time I heard him say it, he was shooting baskets on his little basketball hoop in the kitchen and missed. His ball went under the highchair and he blurts out a rather forceful "daggum." We don't want to encourage his use of that word, but it is hard not to laugh him using it. And of course, that only encourages it. Upon hearing our poorly stifled laughter, he continued to say it over and over again, to our amusement and dismay.

Now, I have been called naive before, and so I am used to it I suppose. But I am not even sure exactly what the word means or what it is a substitute for, though I suppose I can make a pretty good guess. It is a word whose only use appears to be verbal punctuation to express frustration or to emphasize another word.

We hope to teach my son better habits of the heart that will result in better use of the tongue. 

Speaking of my son talking, two weeks shy of his second birthday, he is learning new words everyday, and managing to string some together.

But the funny thing is that he has a word for stuff he doesn't know: Sheba or shebash (short "e" sound and "a" as in "wash"). When I read to him, and point out pictures, he will identify the ones he knows, and for the rest he just says "sheba" or "shabash" like it means something. He uses it in normal conversation (whatever that is for a two-year old) just like it is a real word. Truth be told, I will miss the day when he quits using it ...

Saturday, March 01, 2008

Brueggeman on the Old Testament

“Reliance upon extrabiblical evidence such as archaeological remains and inscriptions, moreoever, has led many scholars to the conclusion that much of what is claimed as ‘history’ in the Old Testament has no basis in ‘verifiable fact.’ This makes the story line of the Bible, to say it boldly, fiction. While this judgment will for a long time remain in dispute, it is enough for now to recognize what is likely to be a very large divergence between ‘real history’ and ‘claimed history,’ even as we recognize that what scholars now accept as ‘real history’ is not a disinterested reconstruction of the past of Israel” (Brueggeman, An Introduction to the Old Testament: The Canon and Christian Imagination, p. 4).

With such a wave of the hand, Brueggeman and those of his persuasion, at once dismiss the claims of Scripture as to its own historicity, all the while not suggesting “that the Bible is historically ‘unreliable,’ but rather that different questions must be asked of the dynamic interpretive process that eventuated in the Bible” (Brueggeman, IOT, p. 4).

Later Brueggeman says,

The title of my book includes “imagination” because I believe that the text both embodies and insists on ongoing work of imaginative interpretation that does not and will not conform to the strictures, limits, and demands of church faith. … My own sense is that it is the interplay between normative and imaginatively playful that gives the text its obviously transformative energy. To be sure, the playfully imaginative by itself without the normative dissolves the text in a way that makes it of little help to a missional congregation. Thus, on the one hand, the danger of the canonical by itself is in the direction of repression; the danger of the imaginatively playful by itself, on the other hand, is to dissolve the text away from the gravitas of mission (Brueggeman, IOT, p. xii).

Brueggeman’s imagination is merely the continuation of what he sees as the ideological transmission of the stories contained in the biblical record. For him and others like him, the text is so distorted by the intent of the author to make a theological point, that the true story cannot be recovered. Imagination is therefore able to take old myths and apply them to modern life.

Brueggeman’s view of inspiration is, in fact, quite incoherent when he affirms that “ ‘inspired’ is an inchoate way of saying that the entire traditioning process continues and embodies a surplus rendering of reality that discloses all of reality in light of the holiness of YHWH” (IOT, p. 11).

I must confess that I don't even know what that means.