Do We Overuse the Word “Gospel”?

File this under the hashtag #confessyourunpopulartheologicalopinion, but I think we sometimes overuse the word “gospel.” Think of all the hyphenated adjectives we have invented with the word “gospel” on the front end (gospel-centered, gospel-driven, gospel-saturated, etc.). Think of how many organizations and local church ministry initiatives have been framed by the word “gospel.” Think of how often we use the word in sermons and Sunday School lessons and small group meetings, often without taking care to define precisely what we mean by the term.

Obviously the Greek term euangelion (“good news”) and its cognates constitute an important theme in the biblical story of redemption. It is rooted in the Messianic promises of  the Old Testament (Isa. 40:9, LXX). It is the title affixed to the climactic story of Jesus Christ (Mark 1:1). It is used by Paul dozens of times to describe the core of his apostolic message. So I would never want to displace what Paul says is of “first importance” (1 Cor. 15:3). My concern is not so much with the concept itself but with how we employ the specific English word “gospel.”

As I see it, the word “gospel” exerts an outsized influence in our theological vocabulary. There are several potential weaknesses in the overuse of the word “gospel.”

  • It is a derivation of an Old English word. The word gospel comes from the Old English godspell, which means “good news.” What if we just translated euangelion directly into modern English as “good news”? What would happen if instead of talking about having gospel-driven ministries we spoke of having good-news-driven ministries? It seems that nothing would be lost and much would be gained by simply providing a gloss of the term when we use it.
  • It can become cliche. This is actually true of any term. If you use a word often enough, without explaining its content, it becomes hackneyed. So maybe this point is not so much a knock on the word “gospel” per se as it is an encouragement for Christians to define carefully and consistently what we mean by it. Which brings me to a third potential weakness.
  • It is a disputed term. The gospel means many things to many people. It can be used as short-hand for individual salvation (God, man, Christ, response). It can be employed to speak of the overarching storyline of the Bible (creation, fall, redemption, consummation). It can be used to describe the anti-imperial overtones of the church’s confession of the Lordship of Christ. It can be used to tease out the social and even political implications of the Christian message. It can expanded into a summary of the entire Christian worldview, as nearly everything important becomes a “gospel issue.” If we overuse the word “gospel” and under-explain it, we risk being misunderstood. We also risk becoming untethered from how the term is actually used in the New Testament. This point, like the last, may not be a direct criticism of the word “gospel” itself, since many important terms are disputed and in need of constant definition. But we can’t simply use the word and expect people to know what we mean by it.
  • It can unintentionally displace God’s activity in redemption. We often use the word “gospel” when what we really mean is “Christ” or “the Holy Spirit” or “God’s grace.”  The New Testament sometimes personifies the word euangelion and has it doing certain things (e.g., Rom. 1:16-17), but most often the NT writers speak of God’s agency in and through the gospel message. We don’t construct our theologies by simply counting verses, but it does seem instructive to compare the number of times Paul, for example, uses “Christ” (370x) versus “gospel” (~70x). Again, what would happen if instead of talking about having gospel-driven ministries we spoke of having Christ-driven ministries? What if we strove to cultivate Christ-centered marriages, Spirit-empowered parenting, and grace-enabled sanctification? Don’t get me wrong. I still use the word “gospel,” and I am not on a campaign to have it retired. It is a beautiful word with a rich history in English-speaking Christianity. But I wonder sometimes if “the gospel” doesn’t sort of take on a life of its own that obscures the direct agency of the triune God in our salvation.

So what do you think? Do we overuse the word “gospel”? Do we do a sufficient job explaining in precise biblical terms what we mean by it? Do any of these potential weaknesses miss the mark?

Scripture and Hermeneutics Seminar 2015

Worldview and the Old TestamentAs ETS/SBL/AAR/etc approaches, I want to invite those interested to this year’s Scripture and Hermeneutics Seminar and to the newly formed Scripture and Doctrine Seminar. The theme for the former is The Old Testament and Worldview, and Al Wolters, Raymond van Leeuwen, Koert van Bekkum, Jamie Grant, David Beldman, and I will be speaking on various aspects of that topic. The schedule for our meeting is:

1:00 – 1:10      Welcome and Introduction – Heath Thomas (Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, USA)

1:10 – 1:15      Opening  – William Olhausen (St. Mathias’ Church, Ireland)

1:15 – 1:35      Worldview and the Old TestamentAl Wolters (Redeemer University, Canada)

1:35 – 1:50      Pentateuch and WorldviewRaymond Van Leeuwen (Eastern University, USA)

1:50 – 2:05       Worldview, Historiography and OT NarrativeKoert van Bekkum (Theologische Universiteit Kampen, The Netherlands)

2:05 – 2:20      The Psalter, Worship and WorldviewJamie Grant (Highland Theological College and University of the Highlands, UK)

2:20 – 2:40      BOOK LAUNCH and BREAK

2:40 – 2:55      Wisdom and Worldview – Dave Beldman (Redeemer University, Canada)

2:55 – 3:10      Old Testament Worldview and Early Christian Apocalypses Matthew Emerson (Oklahoma Baptist University, USA)

3:10 – 3:40      Questions and Discussion

3:40 – 3:45      Closing

We will also be launching the most recent publishing project of the seminar, A Manifesto for Theological Interpretation, edited by Heath Thomas and Craig Bartholomew.

A Ph.D. student at SBTS, Brian Renshaw, has helpfully linked to the relevant information and registration pages here.

For convenience I’ve linked to the individual pages below.

Registration for the Seminar –

Registration for the (new) Scripture and Doctrine Seminar

Registration for the dinner –

If you can make it to any or all of these, we would love to see you there.

Please also feel free to pass this along to anyone else you think may be interested.

The Silliness of (Some) Source Criticism

My current course load includes one class on the Former Prophets, and this week we’ve dealt with the critical theories about these books’ composition. Of course for Joshua-Kings the prevailing scholarly consensus is the “Deuteronomistic (or Deuteronomic) History,” most famously postulated  by Martin Noth but having undergone many subsequent revisions. For Noth and most OT scholars, the DtH builds on the earlier Documentary Hypothesis, and specifically on de Wette and Welhausen’s claim that the D (Deuteronomic) source was written in the 7th century in response to Josiah’s reforms. According to Noth, the Dtr uses D and attaches to the larger narrative he writes to compose the entire DtH, spanning from Deuteronomy through Kings.

I’ve been knee deep for months in both of these critical theories, and one particular thread sticks out to me. I’ve read biblical scholars across the spectrum on this, from primary sources (e.g. Noth’s seminal volume) to Robert Polzin’s literary approach to Provan et al. and Alexander’s more conservative approaches. The common denominator that runs through them all is a criticism of the methods and conclusions of the original theories. Even Noth, who assumes the Documentary Hypothesis, is critical of the variety of contradictory conclusions that are made in response to Welhausen and de Wette’s seminal articulations.

These criticisms can be grouped, I think, into three categories. First, there are criticisms of the methods used by pioneers of the two theories. Both Polzin and McConville, for instance, criticize Noth for relying on changes in noun/verb numbers to identify sources, noting that this is an arbitrary source critical device and that it has not yielded any sort of scholarly consensus in subsequent scholarship (more on that in a moment). The same types of criticisms are leveled at Welhausen from all manner of OT scholars across the theological and philosophical spectrum (see e.g. T.D. Alexander’s forceful critique in From Paradise to Promised Land).

Second, and related to the arbitrariness of method, is the arbitrariness of the historical assumptions that lie behind these approaches. The most prominent and important of these for both theories is that D was composed in response to Josiah’s reforms in the 7th century. And yet, today, the opinion of the guild seems to be that there is nothing in particular that requires this conclusion. As McConville points out, there are equally valid reasons for thinking much of DtH is pre-exilic (esp. Joshua-Samuel) as there are for thinking that it is post-exilic, and there is nothing in the text that demands a 7th century (and beyond) setting. So the methods used and the historical assumptions that govern these theories are suspect.

Third, and because of the arbitrariness of both method and assumption, both the Documentary Hypothesis and DtH are criticized because neither the approach nor the methods used have led to anything like a scholarly consensus. If one reads the history of both of these critical theories, it becomes readily apparent that with each and within each subsequent generation of scholarship, there is much more disagreement than there is consensus, either with past or present peers. McConville, for example, notes the variety of perspectives on DtH since Noth, many of which directly contradict one another. One would think that if the methods are “objective”, as modern biblical scholarship claims to be,  these would yield a consensus position. And yet they have not.

I would add a fourth criticism, which is that the progenitors of these theories were highly influenced by German philosophy and Enlightenment suspicion. They went to the text looking for, e.g., a Hegelian dialectic development of ideas and texts, for ways to chop up the text so they could then deny its authority, and to verify positively a historical background using “objective” methods. This, too, has been highly criticized by recent biblical scholarship from across the theological spectrum, in that most biblical scholars now recognize the postmodern turn, thus rejecting “objectivity”, and also have moved on from the German philosophical schools of the last two and a half centuries.

All of this leads me to two questions that are (obviously) mostly rhetorical.

First, if the 1) methods, 2) assumptions, 3) conclusions, and 4) philosophical underpinnings of the seminal works for both of these theories are questioned by virtually all contemporary biblical scholarship, why do we still refer to them as if they represent scholarly consensus or as if they are the only way to understand the composition of the Pentateuch and Former Prophets?

Second, how can any non-confessional scholar look an evangelical in the eye and claim objectivity of method and conclusion when a) neutral objectivity is an Enlightenment myth and b) the supposedly objective methods and conclusions are claimed by their own peers to be arbitrary and contradictory?

One final comment: I named this post “The Silliness of (Some) Source Criticism” because I do not want to suggest that source criticism is of no value. It does have value. But when it is appropriated and used in service of “objectivity” and German philosophy, and then left to its own devices by subsequent scholarship, it devolves into self-contradictory silliness.

A Scholar’s Prayer

I came across this prayer from Thomas Aquinas about six months ago. It has been a great help in centering my mind and heart as I prepare for whatever academic work I’m doing that day, whether it be reading, writing, lecture prep, or teaching. I hope it blesses you as it has me.

Ineffable Creator,

You who are the true source of life and wisdom and the Principle on which everything depends, be so kind as to infuse in my obscure intelligence a ray of your splendor that may take away the darkness of sin and ignorance.

Grant me keenness of understanding, ability to remember, measure and easiness of learning, discernment of what I read, rich grace with words.

Grant me strength to begin well my studies; guide me along the path of my efforts; give them a happy ending.

You who are true God and true Man, Jesus my Savior, who lives and reigns forever.




Trinity Sunday

Today is Trinity Sunday, the day the Church celebrates the triunity of God. It’s also the day that begins Ordinary Time, the time between Pentecost and Advent. In the cycle of the church year, we now await Advent. In terms of the church calendar, we wait for the celebration of the first advent, Christ’s incarnation, but this also reminds us that we are expectantly waiting for the second advent, his arrival on the clouds and return in salvation and judgment.

Below are the three ecumenical creeds, each of which is at pains to assert the triunity of God and the second person of God’s, the Son’s, incarnation in the person of Jesus Christ, who came for us and for our salvation.

Christian, this is what we believe. This is the foundation of our faith. Celebrate today!

The Apostles’ Creed

I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth.

And in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord; who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary; suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried; He descended into hell; the third day He rose again from the dead; He ascended into heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty; from thence He shall come to judge the quick and the dead.

I believe in the Holy Ghost; the holy catholic* Church, the communion of saints; the forgiveness of sins; the resurrection of the body; and the life everlasting. Amen.

* catholic means “universal” and is not a reference to the Roman Catholic Church.

The Nicene Creed

I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible.

And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds, God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father; by whom all things were made; who for us men, and for our salvation, came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary, and was made man, and was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate; He suffered and was buried; and the third day He rose again according to the Scriptures; and ascended into heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of the Father; and He shall come again with glory to judge the quick and the dead; whose kingdom shall have no end.

And I believe in the Holy Ghost, the Lord and Giver of life, who proceedeth from the Father and the Son; who with the Father and the Son together is worshiped and glorified; who spake by the Prophets. And I believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.I acknowledge one Baptism for the remission of sins; and I look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen.

The Athanasian Creed

Written against the Arians.

Whosoever will be saved, before all things it is necessary that he hold the catholic faith. Which faith except every one do keep whole and undefiled, without doubt he shall perish everlastingly.

And the catholic faith is this, that we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity; Neither confounding the Persons, nor dividing the Substance. For there is one Person of the Father, another of the Son, and another of the Holy Ghost. But the Godhead of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost is all one: the glory equal, the majesty coeternal. Such as the Father is, such is the Son, and such is the Holy Ghost. The Father uncreated, the Son uncreated, and the Holy Ghost uncreated. The Father incomprehensible, the Son incomprehensible, and the Holy Ghost incomprehensible. The Father eternal, the Son eternal, and the Holy Ghost eternal. And yet they are not three Eternals, but one Eternal. As there are not three Uncreated nor three Incomprehensibles, but one Uncreated and one Incomprehensible. So likewise the Father is almighty, the Son almighty, and the Holy Ghost almighty. And yet they are not three Almighties, but one Almighty. So the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Ghost is God. And yet they are not three Gods, but one God. So likewise the Father is Lord, the Son Lord, and the Holy Ghost Lord. And yet not three Lords, but one Lord. For like as we are compelled by the Christian verity to acknowledge every Person by Himself to be God and Lord, So are we forbidden by the catholic religion to say, There be three Gods, or three Lords.

The Father is made of none: neither created nor begotten. The Son is of the Father alone; not made, nor created, but begotten. The Holy Ghost is of the Father and of the Son: neither made, nor created, nor begotten, but proceeding. So there is one Father, not three Fathers; one Son, not three Sons; one Holy Ghost, not three Holy Ghosts. And in this Trinity none is before or after other; none is greater or less than another; But the whole three Persons are coeternal together, and coequal: so that in all things, as is aforesaid, the Unity in Trinity and the Trinity in Unity is to be worshiped. He, therefore, that will be saved must thus think of the Trinity.

Furthermore, it is necessary to everlasting salvation that he also believe faithfully the incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ. For the right faith is, that we believe and confess that our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is God and Man; God of the Substance of the Father, begotten before the worlds; and Man of the substance of His mother, born in the world; Perfect God and perfect Man, of a reasonable soul and human flesh subsisting. Equal to the Father as touching His Godhead, and inferior to the Father as touching His manhood; Who, although He be God and Man, yet He is not two, but one Christ: One, not by conversion of the Godhead into flesh, but by taking the manhood into God; One altogether; not by confusion of Substance, but by unity of Person. For as the reasonable soul and flesh is one man, so God and Man is one Christ; Who suffered for our salvation; descended into hell, rose again the third day from the dead; He ascended into heaven; He sitteth on the right hand of the Father, God Almighty; from whence He shall come to judge the quick and the dead. At whose coming all men shall rise again with their bodies, and shall give an account of their own works. And they that have done good shall go into life everlasting; and they that have done evil, into everlasting fire.

This is the catholic faith; which except a man believe faithfully and firmly, he cannot be saved.

Gilead > Jayber Crow

Last night I finished Home, the second novel by Marilyn Robinson set in the Iowa town of Gilead (which is also the name of the first novel). I’ve also been reading Jayber Crow by Wendell Berry, and although I haven’t yet finished it – I’m in Part III, though, so I have a good sense of it – my continued reaction is that Robinson does the better work with the stories of Ames and Boughton than Berry does with Crow in Port William.

I’m no literary critic, and so for awhile I chalked this up to my irritation with Berry’s preachy tone at a few points, namely the chapter on Bible college and his less-than-eloquent waxing on WWII. And, to be fair, I’m sure my reaction to these soliloquies of Berry’s through the mouth of Jayber still has something to do with how I feel about the book even without comparing it to Gilead or Home. I’m also sure that it influences my emotional attachment to the characters, and the fact that I just “like” John, Robert, Jack, and Glory better than I do Jay.

But I also think that there is a tangible and critique-able difference between the two novelists, namely how they portray the relationship between grace and localism. For Robinson, grace and localism are closely connected, as it is through the local that grace is communicated. As the elder Boughton says to Jack in Home, it is through families – and, inferentially, local places and people – that God shows his grace to individuals. God communicates forgiveness, mercy, and hope tangibly. There is something sacramental about this world, not in the same sense as baptism and the Lord’s Supper, but in the sense that God uses material means to communicate his blessings to us. This is Robinson’s point through and through.

Berry, on the other hand, seems to either conflate grace and localism or, most often, to elevate the latter above the former. For Jayber, finding a place to call home is salvation. Although he later talks about his “beliefs”, this seems oddly disconnected and disembodied from his real conversion experience, his baptism in the flooded river he crossed getting to his final destination, Port William. There is no need for forgiveness, mercy, or hope, so long as there is the local.

Again, I’m not an English prof or a literary critic. So I could be completely off base. For those of you who’ve read these books, what do you think?

Recovering the Study of Divinity

I recently came across a convocation address from over twenty years ago that is just as relevant today as it was when it was first delivered. It’s Philip Turner’s 1992 inaugural address as dean of Yale’s Berkeley Divinity School titled “To Students of Divinity.” Speaking from within mainline Protestantism, Turner points out the embarrassment that many experience even in the claim to study “divinity.”

The study of God (rather than religion) is not an occupation high on the list of priorities set forth in the development plans of most of our colleges and universities…We may, according to current wisdom, safely study the human phenomenon we call “religion.” That endeavor, after all, does not lie outside the parameters of scientific and humanistic study; however, the study of “divinity” is quite another matter. The actual study of God is a suspect undertaking.

Coupled with this embarrassment over the study of God is a hesitancy to emphasize the love of God. Indeed, Turner argues that even within the world of academic theology there is a tendency to invert the two great commandments: the love of God and the love of neighbor.

Nevertheless, I believe that, from the time of the Enlightenment to the present, one can read the history of the study of divinity as one in which the second commandment, which is like the first but not the first, has increasingly been made into the first and then the only commandment. The study of divinity has become, in short, less and less the study of God and more and more the study of us….One might express the version of the summary of the law as actually understood by many representatives of modern Western theology as “Thou shalt love thy neighbor with all thy heart, soul, mind, and strength. This is the first and the great commandment. And the second is like unto it, namely, thou shalt love God as thyself.”

So what it is needed in the present moment is a restoration of the biblical order of loves. Keeping the first commandment first does not entail a denigration of the second, but rather gives to the second its appropriate shape and context. But how can such a reversal take place? How do we go about recovering the study of divinity– the pursuit of the knowledge and love of God? Turner suggests three main answers.

“What God asks us to put first, rather than last, in the study of divinity, is worship.” Putting God in his proper place of adoration and service will enable us to overcome the “destructive division” that is often placed between our heads and our hearts.

Next, the restoration of the first commandment will demand a “mastery of the tradition through which the teaching of the Apostles has come down to us.” Turner maintains that the study of divinity requires us “not only to master the Holy Scriptures of the Christian people, but also the history of their interpretation through the ages.” Only by recovering this great tradition will the contemporary church be delivered from the “collective amnesia” that has rendered it speechless about who God is and what he requires.

Finally, Turner suggests that a recovery of divinity is dependent not only on worship and tradition but also on Christian practice. “We cannot divorce either worship or study from an attempt to learn a way of life.” The recovery of divinity requires more than reading and speaking; it also requires an earnest attempt to the imitation of God in Christ. “[A]part from the way of life that imitates the life of God, our words about him are more like gossip than truth. We may use them, but we will most certainly misuse them because we have no real knowledge of what they mean.”

There are simply too many “underlineable” sentences in this this brief piece to mention here. You need to read the whole thing. If American Christianity in its various manifestations is indeed experiencing decline, then Turner’s prescriptions, it seems to me, would go a long way in helping to stop the slide.

The Biblical Basis for Christ’s Descent to the Dead

I’ve written a few times here, and last week at TGC, on the clause in the Apostles’ Creed, “he descended to the dead.” I also presented a paper on the topic at this year’s Los Angeles Theology Conference. In each of those venues, I’ve concluded similarly that 1) the phrase should continue to be used in the Creed and 2) the theological meaning of the phrase is that Christ experiences death with us and for us in his humanity. His burial is vicarious, victorious, and eschatological, in that in it he experiences death with us and for us, defeats death, and gives us hope for own intermediate state between our death and his second coming. While I believe these conclusions are biblically supported and grounded, my focus in those posts and essays has not been on demonstrating the biblical foundation for the doctrine but instead on articulating the meaning and importance of the creedal phrase. Here I want to address that lacuna and walk through the exegetical rationale for my understanding of what Jesus was doing during his time in the tomb.

First, let’s look at the key New Testament texts that discuss Jesus’ burial and/or death:

Matthew 12:40

40 For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.

Acts 2:25-32

this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men. 24 God raised him up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it. 25 For David says concerning him,

“‘I saw the Lord always before me,
    for he is at my right hand that I may not be shaken;
26 therefore my heart was glad, and my tongue rejoiced;
    my flesh also will dwell in hope.
27 For you will not abandon my soul to Hades,
    or let your Holy One see corruption.
28 You have made known to me the paths of life;
    you will make me full of gladness with your presence.’

29 “Brothers, I may say to you with confidence about the patriarch David that he both died and was buried, and his tomb is with us to this day. 30 Being therefore a prophet, and knowing that God had sworn with an oath to him that he would set one of his descendants on his throne, 31 he foresaw and spoke about the resurrection of the Christ, that he was not abandoned to Hades, nor did his flesh see corruption. 32 This Jesus God raised up, and of that we all are witnesses.

Romans 6:3-4

Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.

Romans 10:6-7

But the righteousness based on faith says, “Do not say in your heart, ‘Who will ascend into heaven?’” (that is, to bring Christ down) “or ‘Who will descend into the abyss?’” (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead).

Ephesians 4:8-10

Therefore it says,

“When he ascended on high he led a host of captives,
    and he gave gifts to men.”

9 (In saying, “He ascended,” what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower regions, the earth? 10 He who descended is the one who also ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things.)

Hebrews 2:14-15

14 Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, 15 and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery.

1 Peter 3:18-22

18 For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit, 19 in which he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison, 20 because they formerly did not obey, when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through water. 21 Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, 22 who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers having been subjected to him.

I realize that 1 Peter 3:19 is usually dismissed by evangelicals today as not referring to Christ’s burial but instead to the pre-incarnate Son preaching through the Spirit to Noah. I find Grudem and Feinberg’s exegesis unconvincing on that point, but nevertheless for the sake of argument let’s move on and grant their point. What do these other texts teach about Christ’s death, and particularly his being dead/burial?

1. Christ goes to the place of the dead.

Christ’s human body is in the grave; on that all Christians agree. What is sometimes not articulated, though, is that Scripture indicates that Christ’s human spirit goes to the place where all human spirits go upon death – Sheol. This is taught particularly in Matt. 12:40; Eph. 4:8; and Rom. 10:6-7. In the Gospel text, Jesus compares his time in the tomb – “the heart of the earth” (cf. Ps. 71:20) – with Jonah’s 3 days in the belly of the great fish. In Jonah 2:1-2, the prophet explicitly links “the belly of the fish” (v. 1) with “the belly of Sheol” (v. 2). Jonah views his time in the fish’s belly as synonymous with being in Sheol. He is, in his piscene prison, experiencing what all humanity experiences in death. When Jesus in Matt. 12:40 says he will be in the “heart of the earth,” he is equating the grave with Jonah’s travel in the fish’s gut, just as Jonah did. To say it another way, Jonah equates the fish’s belly with Sheol, and Jesus, in comparing himself to Jonah, is saying he is going to Sheol.

Perhaps even more explicit are Eph. 4:8 and Rom. 10:6-7. These verses have been explained away as referring to the incarnation, but their allusions to the Old Testament make it clear that the “descent” language is a reference to a descent to the place of the dead (“Sheol”), not to the Son taking on flesh. Eph. 4:9 alludes to both Ps. 63:9 and Isa. 44:23, each of which use “the depths of the earth” as a synonym for the grave, or Sheol (remember Jesus’ “the heart of the earth” in Matt. 12:40?). Rom. 10:6-7 conflates “abyss” and “the place of the dead” – the latter of which ought to make the reference explicit enough! – and “abyss in the OT many times is synonymous with the Sheol.

Jesus goes to the place of the dead. By this the NT means that his body is in the grave and that, therefore, his human spirit also is in the place of the dead. Notice the twofold division of Acts 2:27-28 that supports this – Jesus’ soul is not abandoned, and his flesh does not see corruption.

I won’t get into the divisions of Sheol in this post. Suffice it to say that when Jesus says to the thief on the cross “Today you will be with me in Paradise” (Lk. 23:43) I take it to be a reference to the side of Sheol that is for the righteous dead (e.g. Luke 16:19-31). Hades is typically used to refer to the side of Sheol that is for the unrighteous dead.

In any case, the point is that Jesus’ human body and spirit experience death in the same way that all human bodies and spirits experience it – the body goes to the grave, the soul goes to  Paradise (or Hades if one is not justified before God – which is not true of Jesus, obviously).

2. Christ conquers death by experiencing death.

This seems to be the clear point of Acts 2:24-25 and Heb. 2:14-15 (and Col. 2:14-15). Death and the devil are defeated by Christ, the second person of the Triune God in flesh, touching death and thereby swallowing it up in life.

3. Christians are united to Christ in his death.

This is the point of Rom. 6:3-4. Just as Jesus died and was buried, thereby putting to death Death, Satan, Sin, and the Grave, so we now are united to him in his death that we might put to death our own indwelling sin.

This is what I mean when I recite the Apostles’ Creed and affirm that “we believe in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord, who…descended to the dead.”

The Benefits of Baptist Theology and Practice

A couple of weeks ago Luke and I wrote two posts on ways Baptists can learn from the larger Christian tradition in our worship practices, specifically through reciting the ecumenical creeds and through more frequent and intentional Scripture readings. These reflections, and more like them that we will write in the coming weeks, are in part a continuation of a paper we delivered together at last year’s ETS meeting and subsequently published in the Journal of Baptist Studies, “Baptists and the Catholicity of the Church: Toward an Evangelical Baptist Catholicity.”

After delivering the paper, one of the questions we received, and one which we continue to be asked, went something like this: “While I appreciate what you’ve said, I find myself on the other side of the coin asking, ‘what can/should other Christians learn from Baptists?'” This is not a question I take lightly, and it is one that I believe we should ask. The reason that we started from the other direction, and continue to write on it, is because we think that it is that side of the coin – what can Baptists learn from other Christians? – that has been neglected in Baptist life. Nevertheless, we still do believe and wholeheartedly affirm that Baptists are theologically and liturgically distinct in some ways from other Christians, and that these distinctions can be sources of growth and reform in non-Baptist denominations. So then, what are some areas where non-Baptists can learn from this “people of the Book?”

1. That nickname, “people of the Book,” points to the first area where non-Baptists can learn from Baptists. We are doggedly biblical, in at least two ways. First, in our theology, we want first and foremost to be faithful to the biblical text. This means that creeds and confessions, while able to serve as hermeneutical guides, are never the last word. If a creed or confession can be shown to contradict or even to obfuscate biblical teaching, then we feel free to revise said creed or confession. We believe that the Baptist vision comes closest to semper reformanda (“always reforming”), simply because we are always willing to reform. Now, this commitment to be biblical has sometimes resulted in distortions of sola scriptura, namely “no creed but the Bible!” and a suspicion of virtually all creeds, confessions, and systematic conclusions. But that has not been the historic Baptist approach to historic theology; instead, Baptists throughout our history have been appreciative of and have learned from Christians in our past and present. But this has been coupled with a willingness unsurpassed by other denominations to depart from those we learn from when they are wrong.

This is particularly true in two areas – baptism and polity. Baptists, in our view, did not go beyond the Magisterial Reformers but instead completed the reform that they began and did not finish. We baptize only adults because we believe that this is the clear teaching of Scripture, rather than an implication of it and/or a practice handed down throughout church history. The same can be said for church polity, with respect to congregational government, regenerate church membership, and the balance of form and freedom in worship practices. This is not to say that implications of Scripture or church tradition are never important, but it is to say that when the Bible clearly teaches otherwise we are called to jettison them and hold on to what is explicit in the prophets and the apostles.

Baptists are also doggedly biblical is in our worship services. We, perhaps more so than any other Protestant tradition, insist on the primacy of the Word in worship, and especially of the preached word. This is of course not to say that other traditions do not emphasize the preached word – Presbyterians particularly come to mind as being similar in their liturgical focus. But it is to say that Baptists have a long history of great preaching and of seeing preaching as the culmination of the worship service.

2. Another way that non-Baptists can learn from Baptists is in our commitment to evangelism and missions. Baptists have a long history of urging hearers of the Word to respond to the message that has been preached. The Word of God calls for a response, both to believers and unbelievers, and so it is wholly appropriate to invite sinners to repent, believe, and be baptized if they have not trusted in Christ, or to repent, believe, and continue in their walk with God if they have trusted in Christ. There are ways to twist this practice into something that is not biblical, and Baptists in the past have fallen prey to these. But that is not to say that the heart of the matter – the call to respond to the Word of God as it is preached – is not biblical. That most certainly is.

Baptists have also been at the forefront of the modern missions movement at virtually every step. While other Christians certainly affirm the need to share the gospel with all nations, it is Baptists who have continued to place this front and center in their local and denominational life.

There are surely other ways that non-Baptists can learn from Baptists, but these are two that come immediately to mind.

The Benefits of Baptists Reading Scripture Publicly

“Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture.” -1 Timothy 4:13

Yesterday, Matt suggested some of the benefits that accrue to Baptists reading the creeds together in our worship services. Today, I want to follow up on that post by highlighting some of the benefits of the systematic, public reading of Scripture in our corporate worship gatherings. I see three main benefits to this practice:

It is biblical.

When the apostle Paul gave instructions to Timothy about what he should do in Paul’s absence, among his top priorities was “the public reading of Scripture” in the church’s worship gatherings (1 Tim. 4:13). The Greek wording used here is briefer than most English translations. Paul simply says, “Until I come, devote yourself to the reading (τῇ ἀναγνώσει). Because “exhortation” and “teaching” follow closely on the heels of this initial command in verse 13, it is fairly obvious that Paul has in mind here the reading of Scripture. And because these latter activities imply a public context, so also the first. Indeed, “reading” in an ancient context was “normally done aloud and thus involv[ed] verbalization” (Louw-Nida 33.68). This same word is used in 2 Corinthians 3:14, where it refers to the Scripture readings of the Jewish synagogues, and Paul also uses this word when he commands the churches to read his own writings publicly (Col. 4:16), implying that his apostolic teaching possessed an authority on par with the Old Testament Scriptures (cf. 2 Pet. 3:16).

It is historical.

So the early church apparently took up the synagogue practice of reading, explaining and applying Scripture in their corporate worship. This practice continued after the New Testament era as well, as evidenced by Justin Martyr’s description of a typical Christian worship service in the second century:

And on the day called Sunday all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits; then, when the reader has ceased, the president verbally instructs, and exhorts to the imitation of these good things (Apology, 1.67)

In short, it was the practice of the apostolic and patristic church to read Scripture publicly. Over time, lectionaries (lists of Scripture readings for each week) were developed to aid the church in the systematic reading of Scripture. These took shape around the developing church year, which framed the church’s life around the life of Christ. The typical pattern was to read from each section of Scripture every Lord’s Day: the Psalms, the Old Testament, the New Testament epistles, and the Gospels. The practice of lectionary readings based on the church year continues to this day in more liturgical Christian traditions.

It is instructive.

Sadly, many Baptist and evangelical churches feature few if any Scripture readings in their services outside of the preacher’s sermon text. Many have noted the irony here: evangelicals, who are largely defined by their high view of Scripture, seem to give less attention to Scripture in their worship services than many mainline churches, who do not always share that same high view of Scripture. I’m persuaded that something needs to be done about this.

Evangelicals need more Scripture readings in their corporate worship services.

And I think we need to be more systematic about it than we sometimes are. We need more than a few verses scattered here or there. We need something more intentional, more deliberate, more comprehensive. In an age of astounding biblical illiteracy and increasing biblical infidelity, I am convinced that our churches desperately need to hear and read together the full range of the biblical narrative: the praises and laments of the Psalter, the stories of God’s faithfulness to Old Testament Israel, the exhortations of the epistles, the warnings and promises of the Apocalypse, and the glories of Christ in the Gospels. Reading Scripture together gives us the concepts and categories necessary for interpreting reality and our place within it. Without this conceptual apparatus provided by Scripture we often fall back on cliched expressions and simplistic ideas. Recounting the history of God’s redeeming acts is a practice with deep biblical and historical roots, but it is also a richly instructive practice. It gives shape to our corporate life together as a people called and commanded by God’s Word.

Reading Scripture publicly doesn’t have to look the same in every church. Not every church will seek to follow the church year with a companion lectionary. Some may opt for a more lectio continua approach: reading straight through books of the Bible week by week. We may include single readers, corporate readings, and responsive readings (why not all three?) But we need to do something to demonstrate corporately that we are indeed a people beholden to this book and that our lives are indeed shaped by its grand narrative and the glorious work of its Author and chief Protagonist.