Baptist Theological Method

Over the last day or so I’ve read Richard Barcellos’ The Lord’s Supper as a Means of Grace: More Than a Memory (Fearn: Mentor, 2013). I highly recommend this short but pastoral, exegetically based, and historically informed study of the church’s communion practice from a Baptist perspective. Although I could highlight a number of quotes from the book on everything from prayer to the Holy Spirit to Baptist history, one of my favorite sections is a very brief note on theological method Barcellos makes at the beginning of his final chapter. He writes,

The Reformed confessional and catechetical formulation of the doctrine of the Lord’s Supper as a means of grace is not based on one biblical text or a few isolated proof texts. It is based upon a complex of texts, exegetical work on those texts, the doctrines derived from those biblical texts and others in concert with a redemptive-historical, whole-Bible awareness and in conversation with the history of the Christian tradition.

In place of “the Reformed confessional…as a means of grace,” we could substitute the simple phrase “Christian doctrine.” Doctrinal formulation is not a matter of proof-texting (although certainly we should allow for doctrinal formulation on the basis of only one text), but rather, as David Yeago puts it, using conceptual terms to render accurate judgments about the patterns of language found in Scripture.

Christ and the New Creation Kindle Edition

Book CoverI just received word from Wipf and Stock that my book is now available in Kindle format. I neglected to change my Greek fonts when it was published in print, which is why there’s been a delay with the electronic format. Thankfully I had some time to comb through it last week and get the correct fonts in the manuscript. For those of you who enjoy reading on the digital screen rather than the printed page, you can order the Kindle edition here.

Distinctives in the Fourfold Gospel Corpus

Nijay Gupta, quoting Eddie Adams, recently posted some thoughts on the distinctiveness of each Gospel. While there certainly may be some truth to Adams’ list, namely in noting some of the unique literary devices used by the Evangelists, I personally find the list dissatisfying, particularly for its lack of theological engagement. This is seen in Adams’ first distinctive, which for him is that Matthew’s Gospel is more Jewish and more explicitly tying itself off to the OT.

But this is, in my opinion, to get the point exactly backward. Matthew is not the most Jewish nor the most oriented towards the OT; instead, each of the four Gospels’ different orientation towards the OT is exactly what makes it distinctive.

As I tell my students, the four Gospels each present a broad picture of Jesus that demonstrates he comes to:

  • Restore Israel, through which he will
  • Restore the entire creation, and therefore Jesus comes to
  • Bring salvation through his life, death, and resurrection to God’s fallen world

I then go on to point out that what makes each of these books unique is not their purpose, or even their outline (Jesus’ beginnings, ministry, Jerusalem, death, resurrection), but the lens through which they view Jesus. Specifically, which Old Testament lens do they use?

In my estimation, Matthew views Jesus through a New Moses/New Israel lens, Mark through a New Exodus lens, Luke through a New Elijah/New David lens, and John through a New Creation lens.

This approach, for me, focuses on the literary and theological distinctives of the Gospel writers instead of on rather subjective historical reconstructions of the provenance, date, and audience, and also gives a more robust picture of both the literary and theological goals of the author and therefore their distinctiveness in comparison to the other Evangelists.

What do you think?

Greg Goswell and NT Canonical Shape

Greg Goswell, lecturer in biblical studies at Presbyterian Theological College, has published another article in JETS on the shape of the biblical canon. His previous three articles have discussed the LXX, MT, and NT orders, while this newest essay asks how the shape of the OT might have influenced the shape of the NT.

I agree with Goswell’s conclusion – it isn’t possible to decide if the NT is consciously shaped through consideration of either OT order. Asking the question, though, helps to draw out certain themes, exegetical points, and narrative threads that we might overlook otherwise. One of the most helpful aspects of the essay, in my opinion, is the introduction, where Goswell explains the role of considering canonical order in interpretation.

Before proceeding any further, it is necessary to consider what status is to be given to the phenomenon of book order. The sequential ordering of the biblical books is part of the paratext of Scripture. The term ‘paratext’ refers to elements that are adjoined to the text but are not part of the text per se. . . . The (differing) order of the biblical books is a paratextual phenomenon that cannot be put on the same level as the text itself. It is a post-authorial imposition on the text of Scripture, albeit an unavoidable one when texts of different origin are collected together in a canonical corpus. Where a biblical book is placed relative to other books inevitably influences a reader’s view of the book, on the supposition that juxtaposed books are related in some way and therefore illuminate each other. A prescribed order of books is a de facto interpretation of the text (emphasis mine).

Yes, exactly.

As a side note, many might simply stop at, “yes, exactly,” and assume that everyone agrees here. But, based on first hand experience in graduate work, conference participation, and conversations with colleagues, I’d still venture to guess that many NT scholars, and perhaps OT scholars as well, don’t agree that canonical order influences interpretation.

The Order of the Books of the New Testament

Chances are you haven’t given much thought to why the New Testament books are arranged as they are in your Bible. We haven’t been trained, nor have we trained our congregations, to think that way when we read the scriptures. If we consider context, it is typically the immediate, and if we consider the canonical context it is usually in reference to quotations and allusions to other individual books. I can’t think of a time prior to seminary when I thought, “What difference does it make to my reading of Romans that it comes between Acts and 1 Corinthians?” But this is an important question, and one that I am convinced we need to ask for at least three reasons.

First, Old Testament scholarship has recognized for years that the differing orders of the Hebrew Bible provide the reader with differing interpretive emphases. Notably among evangelical scholars, both John Sailhamer and Stephen Dempster have made this point. Dempster’s popular Dominion and Dynasty[1] is a prime example of biblical theology done with an eye to the order of the canonical material, and Sailhamer has been at pains for almost two decades to show how the order of the books in the Hebrew Bible affects interpretation. For instance, in his Introduction to Old Testament Theology,[2] Sailhamer argues that Proverbs and Ruth are juxtaposed in the Hebrew Bible partially because of the intertextual connection between Prov. 31:10, 31 and Ruth 3:11 in the Hebrew text, as well as the thematic continuity of the virtuous woman. New Testament scholarship is increasingly asking the question, could this be the case in the second testament as well as the first? Of course, it is true that the OT was written over a much longer period of time than the NT, and thus there was a longer period of time to reflect on the order and to even produce those intertextual links in later books. This does not mean that it is a legitimate question for NT scholarship, though. At this point, work in this area in NT studies is minimal, and what is out there typically comes from more moderate or liberal circles rather than from within evangelicalism. Jonathan Pennington is a happy exception here, as he argues that the Gospels are placed at the head of the NT canon to serve as an archway to the entire Bible.[3] In my opinion, evangelicals have an even better reason to follow OT scholarship’s trend, because of the latter two answers to the initial question of why we should care about the order of the books of the NT.

The second of these three reasons for seeing the importance of the canonical order comes from church history. The history of interpretation demonstrates that patristic and medieval theologians thought this issue was key to interpretive practice. Irenaeus famously argued for the legitimacy and primacy of the fourfold Gospel corpus, and also rooted his hermeneutic in the economy, or structure, of biblical revelation. A central concern for Irenaeus here is that the canonical order promotes a reading that emphasizes a Christological narrative. Late in the medieval period, G. R. Evans notes that Peter Lombard, Matthew Poole, and Thomas Aquinas asked why Romans comes first in the Pauline corpus.[4] These are but four examples, but the structure of revelation was important for interpreters throughout the pre-modern period. This changed with the Enlightenment and modernity’s piecemeal reading of the Bible, where the goal was no longer to have a unified interpretive approach but instead to chop the Bible up into “historically located” bits.

An additional way that church history helps us here is that the church’s interpretive approach is actually implicitly seen through changes in the canonical order of material. For instance, there is a strong manuscript tradition in the early church of placing the General Epistles after Acts and before the Pauline Epistles, and of placing Hebrews within the Pauline corpus after the Corinthian letters.[5] But it also appears that this order was changed to (or perhaps even paralleled by) the order we see today very early in church history.[6] This difference in order provides us an opportunity to ask what varying reading strategies are presented by each order. In other words, what interpretive difference does it make if James-Jude comes after Acts instead of Romans-Hebrews? Finally, in regards to church history, this shift in order not only shows us an interpretive history of our brothers and sisters in Christ but also, therefore, gives us a history of the Holy Spirit’s work of illumination within the body of Christ. While the history of interpretation is not inspired or infallible, it does provide us with a history of the Holy Spirit’s work in believers’ interpretive practices. Because the ordering of canonical material is a part of that interpretive practice, we ought to pay attention to it.

Third and finally, evangelical hermeneutics is grounded in theological methods and practices that promote paying attention to the order of material. First, general hermeneutics recognizes the importance of context and the ordering of sentences, paragraphs, and chapters within a book. In any work of literature, how the author arranges the material is important. In the Harry Potter novels, for instance, if J. K. Rowling had placed Severus Snape’s memories at the beginning of book 6 instead of the end of book 7, that would have had a major impact on how readers understood the events between Snape and Dumbledore at the end of book 6. Or think of the recent discussion about how to read The Chronicles of Narnia – as Trevin Wax has pointed out, reading order affects interpretation. This is no less true in Scripture, and should be no less true for our understanding of why the order of the canonical books matters. The Spirit did not inspire the canonical order, but it is still a literary arrangement, and thus affects how readers interpret the material. Second, evangelical readers do acknowledge that the Spirit inspired every word of Scripture, and many times the Spirit inspires the biblical authors to connect their book with previous books of the Bible. Scholars refer this to as intertextuality or inner biblical allusion, and it is important for the canonical order. Many times these textual connections weave together not only individual books but whole sections of Scripture.[7] Finally, Scripture is ordered narratively, highlighting the plotline of creation, fall, redemption, and new creation.[8] Reading individual books within this grand narrative assists the reader in understanding that individual book’s material.

So what difference does this make in our reading of the New Testament? Some would argue that the NT is arranged primarily on chronology or length of the book, but neither of these play a prominent role in every part of the canon. If the NT canon were ordered by chronology, at least some of Paul’s letters ought to come before the Gospels. Mark, assumed to be the earliest Gospel by many, is not first, nor is the Gospel corpus ordered by length. The General Epistles are not ordered by chronological priority or length either. Length does seem to be somewhat of a factor in the Pauline letters, but it is not dominating, as the movement of Hebrews to the end attests (Hebrews was originally included with the Pauline letters after 2 Corinthians in codices). Further, Matthew, with its strong link to the OT, comes at the beginning, and Revelation comes at the end. While this may seem obvious, it at least helps us to see that there is intentionality in the order at the beginning and the end.

To give one example of why this matters in your interpretive practice, think of the fact that the Gospel of John comes between what we typically refer to as the two-book unit of Luke-Acts.[9] If Luke and Acts are intended to be a literary unit, why would the early church arrange the canon in a way that splits them? Another way to ask this question, without getting into the psyche of the early church, is to ask what emphases arise through reading Luke, John, and Acts in this order. My own answer to this question begins with the fact that John explicitly emphasizes Jesus as the new Adam and also the one who restores creation in his Gospel through the prologue, the restorational seven signs (and especially the raising of Lazarus), the replacement motif in which he restores and even re-creates Judaism’s symbols, and ultimately his Passion that starts in a Garden, moves to a cry of “it is finished” on the cross, and culminates with the new Adam in a Garden with a woman.[10] After rising from the dead as the new Adam, Jesus then goes into the Upper Room and “breathes life” into his disciples, an allusion to Gen. 2:7 and the creation of Adam.[11] In Gen 2:15, after Adam receives the breath of life, he is given the cultural mandate to cultivate and keep the Garden, and he has already and will once again receive the command to “be fruitful and multiply” with his wife Eve. John has left his readers with an anticipatory note in John 20:22: the new creation has been given life, but the cultural mandate to “be fruitful and multiply” has yet to be fulfilled. This is where the book of Acts steps into the scene.

As John’s narrative ends, the reader should naturally expect for there to be a cultural mandate that sounds like something similar to, “be fruitful and multiply and fill all the earth and subdue (i.e. cultivate and keep) it” (Gen 1:28; 2:15). This is exactly what we find in Acts 1:8. Jesus commands his disciples to go into, “Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and all the earth” in this verse, one that clearly harkens back to Gen 1:28 and God’s command for Adam and Eve to fill all the earth. The disciples are to do this through “the power of the Spirit” given to them by Jesus’ breath, just as Adam was to do it by the power of God’s breath in Genesis 2. Perhaps most importantly, the commission to Adam to, “be fruitful and multiply and fill all the earth” (Gen 1:28; cf. Gen 2:15) is echoed at important points in the Acts narrative. Acts 1:8 could be classified as a theological fulfillment of that command to Adam. Throughout the rest of the book, when the church expands, Luke says that “the Word of God continued to increase, and the number of disciples multiplied greatly” (Acts 6:7; cf. 12:24; 19:20). Thus when Luke in his narrative tells of the Gospel being promulgated in “Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and all the earth”, he explicitly ties it to the command of God to Adam in the Garden to be fruitful and multiply.[12] This informs the reader that part of the canonical function of Acts, coming after the ending of John with its explicit ties to the creation story and presentation of Jesus as the New Adam who breathes life into his disciples, is to show how the church, the bride of Christ, the New Eve, is to obey the command that the first Adam and Eve failed to follow. They are to fill all the earth with worshippers of Yahweh, not through physical population but by spiritual awakening through the power of the Gospel.

Thus the order of John à Acts highlights this emphasis on new creation, both Jesus’ accomplishment of it in his life, death, resurrection, and ascension and the church’s participation in it as Christ’s agents sent throughout the earth by the power of his life giving Spirit. Here are a few other ways we see the significance of the order in the NT canon:

  • Matthew’s Gospel begins with “son of David, son of Abraham,” which may provide a strong link back to the genealogies of the last and first books of the Hebrew Bible, Chronicles and Genesis.
  • Romans following Acts highlights the ethnic Jew-Gentile issue which trails the growth of the church throughout Acts and that was a fundamental concern in the gospel proclamation and explanation of the early church.
  • Romans-Colossians emphasize the past work of Christ, namely his death and resurrection, and its transformation of the Christian life into one of new creation.
  • 1 Thessalonians-Jude emphasize the future coming of Christ and use it as motivation for Christians to live righteously until he returns, both in their individual lives and in the life of the church (the Pastorals).
  • Hebrews, James, and 1 Peter, spanning the end of the Pauline letters (Hebrews is included with Paul’s letters in the manuscripts) and the beginning of the General Epistles, highlight the sojourning, exilic nature of the Christian life and urge believers to press on towards the heavenly city to come.
  • Revelation comes at the end!
  • Beyond the obvious for Revelation, there seems to be an inclusio for the whole Bible here, as Genesis 1–2 tell of protology, the creation of God’s image-bearing people who rule in God’s place, in which he dwells with them, followed by the entrance of sin through the serpent. Revelation 20 tells of the defeat of the serpent, followed by the eternal dwelling of God with his restored people in his restored place.


[1] Stephen Dempster, Dominion and Dynasty: A Theology of the Hebrew Bible (New Studies in Biblical Theology; Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2003).

[2] John Sailhamer, Introduction to Old Testament Theology: A Canonical Approach (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2005).

[3] Jonathan Pennington, Reading the Gospels Wisely: A Narrative and Theological Introduction (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2012), 229–58.

[4] G. R. Evans, The Language and Logic of the Bible: The Earlier Middle Ages (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1984), 44 n. 66 and The Language and Logic of the Bible: The Road to the Reformation (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1985), 2 n. 1.

[5] See, for instance, David Trobisch, The First Edition of the New Testament (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000).

[6] For these shifts, see, D. C. Parker, An Introduction to the New Testament Manuscripts and Their Texts (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 225–347, esp. 283, 285.

[7] See John Sailhamer’s discussion of OT “seams” in Introduction to Old Testament Theology, 101.

[8] See, for example, Christopher J. H. Wright, The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2006), 62–65.

[9] Much of what follows was presented at the 2011 meeting of the Evangelical Society in San Francisco, CA in my paper, “Christ and the New Creation: The Shape of the Fourfold Gospel Corpus and Acts.” That paper and this post are based off my book, Christ and the New Creation: A Canonical Approach to the Theology of the New Testament (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2013).

[10] For these new creational motifs in John, see Andreas Köstenberger, A Theology of John’s Gospel and Letters (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009), chs. 7, 8, and 10.

[11] Ibid., 721.

[12] See G. K. Beale, The Temple and The Church’s Mission: A Biblical Theology of the Dwelling Place of God (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2004), 266.

Proper Argumentation

I’m currently reviewing a book on New Testament theology, and at this point I’m beyond frustrated with the author (I’ll keep that info to myself to uphold the integrity of the review process). The book argues for a particular way forward in the discipline, noting the impasse in which many of its practitioners find themselves when dealing with a first century collection of writings that is supposed to be relevant for modern men and women. In making his case, the author necessarily has to deal with the opposing viewpoints, and this is where I am becoming increasingly exasperated with his argumentation. Instead of handling his opponents’ positions fairly and citing their best scholarship, the author instead misrepresents them consistently and hardly ever notes top works in the area. For instance, the author’s proposed method for NT theology relies on a philosophy of language rooted heavily in Heidegger, Fish, and Derrida, but in critiquing the opposing view he dismisses it as unsophisticated, never cites NT scholars who have engaged linguistic philosophy (like Anthony Thiselton), and relegates Kevin Vanhoozer’s monumental works in this area to a dismissive footnote. Another example comes from his discussion of diversity in the NT. The author questions whether it is right to assume that every book of the NT sees Jesus as YHWH, and, while doing so, doesn’t even hint at acknowledging Richard Bauckham’s or N. T. Wright’s work in this area.

I don’t think it’s wrong in certain instances to simply assume a set of methodological, philosophical, and theological foundations in a book and then make a case for a certain application or new understanding of those presuppositions. But this is not what this particular author is doing. He is pitting two options against each other in order to argue for only one of them, and in doing so has misrepresented the opposing viewpoint and passed over the best representation of it. That’s not proper argumentation.

STR Article Accepted

I received exciting news this morning that my article “Victory, Atonement, Restoration, and Response: The Shape of the New Testament Canon and the Holistic Gospel Message” has been accepted for publication the Winter 2012 issue of Southeastern Theological Review. This article was a fun one to write, since it was the first new project I’ve worked on using the methodological and theological foundations I proposed in my dissertation.

Here’s an abstract-like paragraph from the introduction:

The canonical shape of the New Testament aids the reader in understanding the biblical gospel as a threefold work of victory over evil, restoration of creation, and redemption from sin through Christ’s life, death, and resurrection, as well as the proclamation of the church of that work both in announcing it and calling the nations to respond to it. This will be demonstrated through attention to the shape of the fourfold gospel corpus and Acts, the placement of Revelation at the end of the canon, and the shape of the epistles. In searching the biblical material, primary emphasis will be placed on demonstrating that Christ’s work, and therefore the gospel, includes victory, atonement, and restoration. Some brief concluding thoughts on the need for a personal response to Christ’s message, and that response’s part in the gospel, will also be offered.

Is God Going to Go All Death Star on the Earth When Jesus Returns?

Via Google Images

A common view I often encounter is that God is going to completely obliterate the entire physical universe at Christ’s return and basically just start over. It always reminds me of Darth Vader destroying Alderaan in Episode IV.

Alderaan Destroyed

The text most often used in these encounters is 2 Peter 3:1-13, which says this:

3 This is now the second letter that I am writing to you, beloved. In both of them I am stirring up your sincere mind by way of reminder, that you should remember the predictions of the holy prophets and the commandment of the Lord and Savior through your apostles, knowing this first of all, that scoffers will come in the last days with scoffing, following their own sinful desires. They will say, “Where is the promise of his coming? For ever since the fathers fell asleep, all things are continuing as they were from the beginning of creation.” For they deliberately overlook this fact, that the heavens existed long ago, and the earth was formed out of water and through water by the word of God, and that by means of these the world that then existed was deluged with water and perished. But by the same word the heavens and earth that now exist are stored up for fire, being kept until the day of judgment and destruction of the ungodly.

But do not overlook this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you,[a] not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance. 10 But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies[b] will be burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed.[c]

11 Since all these things are thus to be dissolved, what sort of people ought you to be in lives of holiness and godliness, 12  waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set on fire and dissolved, and the heavenly bodies will melt as they burn! 13 But according to his promise we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells.

The common assumption is that the language in this text about “burning” and “dissolving” and “passing away” means that the physical world will be completely annihilated. There are a number of reasons, though, why I doubt this is the meaning of the passage.

  1.  The meaning of the word “pass away” – In the New Testament, the verb used for the phrase “pass away” in 2 Peter 3 takes on a number of different meanings.
    1. Concerning Heaven and Earth
      1. Matt. 5:18 – “For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished”
      2. Matt. 24: 34, 35; Mark 13:30, 31; Luke 21:32, 33 – “this generation will not pass away before these things take place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away”
      3. Luke 16:17 – “But it is easier for heaven and earth to pass away than for one dot of the Law to become void”
    2. Generic sense of walking, going, or coming – Matt. 8:28; 14:15; Mark 6:48; 14:35;  Luke 12:37; 17:7; 18:37; Acts 16:8
    3. Generic sense of time passing – Acts 27:9; 1 Peter 4:3
    4. Neglect or disobedience of a command – Luke 11:42; 15:29
    5. Jesus prior to arrest, “let this cup pass from me”  – 26:39, 42
    6. Mortality of human beings  – James 1:10
    7. Referring to our salvation – 2 Cor. 5:17
  2. Notice that Matt. 24:34, 35 and parallels and 2 Cor. 5:17 seem to indicate that at least part of the “passing away” has already taken place. In other words, this “passing away” in at least those verses is not obliteration but simply the removal of the old and replacement of it with the new.
  3. Use of “melt” and “burn up” metaphor elsewhere in the NT – In at least two places in the NT, fire is used not as an agent of annihilation but as an agent of refining, sifting, and perfecting (1 Corinthians 3:10-15; 1 Peter 1:3-9; cf. also James 1, esp. 2-4, for similar language about testing but without explicit use of the fire metaphor).
    Additionally, I cannot think of a place in the NT where fire is explicitly used for annihilation or obliteration.
  4. In the context of 2 Peter 3, perhaps the most important point is that Peter compares this coming judgment by fire with the historical judgment by water in Noah’s flood. The earth was not obliterated during that judgment, but was purged of sin. Peter’s parallel with Noah’s flood points to the fact that they are similar in effect although not in means. The difference noted by Peter is between the different means of water and fire, not between the ultimate effects of either judgment.
  5. Corroborating Evidence
    1. A view of God’s creation as “good” – God creates the world as good, and connects his image-bearers to it by giving them the task of caring for it in the Garden. He does curse it because of Adam’s sin, but it is also clear that the Abrahamic covenant is a reversal of not only the spiritual effects of Adam’s sin but the physical effects of it on the land as well (Gen. 12:1-3; cf. James Hamilton, “The Skull Crushing Seed of Woman and the Promises to Abraham”; Gordon Wenham, Genesis 1-15). In other words, God cares about his creation – all of it. The obliteration of it would be contrary to his creational and redemptive purposes.
    2. Revelation 21 – The word “new” in Rev. 21:1 is kainos, and denotes restoration, renewal, and freshness, not total “otherness” or distinctness from what came previously. Additionally, the imagery of Revelation 21 and 22 is full of images from the physical creation – a city, streets, gates, walls, rivers, trees, leaves, fruit, etc.

The metaphor of fire, combined with the historical parallel of the purging Noahic flood, a sacramental worldview, and an understanding of John’s use of “new” and creation imagery in Revelation 21-22 points to this coming judgment of fire as a purging judgment, not an annihilating one. It’s purpose is to purge the physical world of the effects of the curse so that God can dwell with his people on it, not to obliterate it completely and start over.

So, God isn’t going to go all Death Star on the Universe. At least not in my opinion.