What Kind of Book Is Revelation? Bauckham on Common Misconceptions

In his fantastic little theological commentary on Revelation, Richard Bauckham notes that “Misconceptions of Revelation often begin by misconceiving the kind of book it is” (1). No doubt Bauckham is right: many people think Revelation is a doomsday account of the last days of our planet. Revelation’s confusing symbols, strange characters, and rash of plagues also lead people to stay away from it altogether. This is understandable.

However, we should actually read Revelation as a hopeful book—one that centers on the triune God’s redemption of all things. Revelation 21-22 are some of the most encouraging and inspiring chapters in the Bible because they tell us that one day God will make all things new, eradicating sin and death once and for all.

Bauckham tries to help us understand that there’s much more to Revelation and its place in the Bible’s storyline, noting that it is a book that fits under multiple genres and serves multiple purposes.

1. Revelation Is a Christian Prophecy

John wrote Revelation with a clear self-indentification as a prophet in the line of other biblical prophets. Bauckham points out that John uses OT allusions and language similar to other prophets like Amos and Ezekiel. Also,

“John’s great oracle against Babylon (18:1-19:8) echoes every one of the oracles against Babylon in the Old Testament prophets, as well as the two major oracles against Tyre. It seems that John not only writes in the tradition of Old Testament prophets, but understands himself to be writing at the climax of the tradition, when all the eschatological oracles of the prophets are about to be finally fulfilled, and so he interprets and gathers them up in his own prophetic revelation.” (5)

So Revelation is not just a prophecy book about “end times,” but a book about God’s promises in the past being fulfilled in Christ now and into eternity. This is not dreadful news, but immensely good news, because we know that God has kept his promises.

2. Revelation Is an Apocalypse

When we hear the word “apocalypse,” many of us automatically think of meteors falling from the sky and entire cities being destroyed. Judgment of this sort is certainly a piece of ancient apocalyptic works, but it’s not all they represent. Quoting J.J. Collins, Bauckham says that apocalypses primarily act as disclosure of “a transcendent reality which is both temporal, insofar as it envisages eschatological salvation, and spatial, insofar as it involves another, supernatural world” (6).

In other words, apocalypses are a glimpse not simply into divine judgment, but also a look at final salvation. Yes, Revelation shows that Satan and his followers will be thrown into the “lake of fire” because of their evil. There’s no denying this aspect of the book. But it ultimately shows that good will conquer evil, and that those who follow Christ will be spared from this judgment.

Bauckham also reminds us that Revelation is slightly different than other apocalypses of its day, because it deals with the future and deals with the contemporary issues of its first audience. This makes sense, of course, given that Gods eschatological salvation and victory apply to us now, though they will be fully realized in the future at Christ’s return.

3. Revelation Is a Circular Letter

Flowing from the last point about the setting of the first audience of Revelation, Bauckham rightly says, “Many misreadings of Revelation, especially those which assume that much of the book was not addressed to its first-century readers and could only be understood by later generations, have resulted from neglecting the fact that it is a letter” (12).

When we overlook the fact that this book was written to seven churches in first-century Asia, we miss the situatedness of the letter. This is not to say that Revelation has no meaning for us today—Bauckham makes a good case that the number seven (completion) means that this letter is for all churches in Asia and in every age afterward. However, we cannot see symbols and numbers like 666, for example, and believe they’re only codes to be cracked in some future time. John even says that the original readers can understand some of these symbols in their day.

Revelation, then, isn’t a book about distant events that we can take or leave—it’s actually a book written to Christians in the first century and every other age, encouraging us to fight for right doctrine, stand firm against persecution, and look to the triune God’s mission to redeem all things. Revelation is more than a book about divine judgment and end-times destruction—it’s a book about eternal hope in Christ.

Gregory of Nyssa on Eternal Relations of Origin

As the early church began to formulate its language about the Trinity, they needed to explain how we can say that there is one God in three Persons and how those Persons relate within the Godhead. In order to fight against heresies like Arianism, the orthodox Christians established that there are eternal relations of origin: the Father is unbegotten, the Son is begotten of the Father, and the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and Son. In other words, there is a fitting way to explain the order (“taxis”) within the Godhead that does not imply that any of the Persons are inferior to one another or different from one another in divine essence. In On Not Three Gods, Gregory of Nyssa explains how this doctrine works:

If, however, any one cavils at our argument, on the ground that by not admitting the difference of nature it leads to a mixture and confusion of the Persons, we shall make to such a charge this answer;—that while we confess the invariable character of the nature, we do not deny the difference in respect of cause, and that which is caused, by which alone we apprehend that one Person is distinguished from another;—by our belief, that is, that one is the Cause, and another is of the Cause; and again in that which is of the Cause we recognize another distinction. For one is directly from the first Cause, and another by that which is directly from the first Cause; so that the attribute of being Only-begotten abides without doubt in the Son, and the interposition of the Son, while it guards His attribute of being Only-begotten, does not shut out the Spirit from His relation by way of nature to the Father.

But in speaking of “cause,” and “of the cause,” we do not by these words denote nature (for no one would give the same definition of “cause” and of “nature”), but we indicate the difference in manner of existence. For when we say that one is “caused,” and that the other is “without cause,” we do not divide the nature by the word “cause1322”, but only indicate the fact that the Son does not exist without generation, nor the Father by generation: but we must needs in the first place believe that something exists, and then scrutinize the manner of existence of the object of our belief: thus the question of existence is one, and that of the mode of existence is another. To say that anything exists without generation sets forth the mode of its existence, but what exists is not indicated by this phrase. If one were to ask a husbandman about a tree, whether it were planted or had grown of itself, and he were to answer either that the tree had not been planted or that it was the result of planting, would he by that answer declare the nature of the tree? Surely not; but while saying how it exists he would leave the question of its nature obscure and unexplained. So, in the other case, when we learn that He is unbegotten, we are taught in what mode He exists, and how it is fit that we should conceive Him as existing, but what He is we do not hear in that phrase. When, therefore, we acknowledge such a distinction in the case of the Holy Trinity, as to believe that one Person is the Cause, and another is of the Cause, we can no longer be accused of confounding the definition of the Persons by the community of nature.

Thus, since on the one hand the idea of cause differentiates the Persons of the Holy Trinity, declaring that one exists without a Cause, and another is of the Cause; and since on the one hand the Divine nature is apprehended by every conception as unchangeable and undivided, for these reasons we properly declare the Godhead to be one, and God to be one, and employ in the singular all other names which express Divine attributes.


This will appear in the forthcoming CSB Ancient Faith Study Bible.

Origen: Athanasian or Arian?

It is obligatory to note upfront that Origen was and is a controversial figure. The debate over accepting his views as orthodox or useful is ongoing, including the veracity of the number of times he was anathematized, whether or not he actually taught some of the doctrines he was accused of teaching, the extent to which he influenced Arius, and whether one should be posthumously anathematized without the opportunity to recant. Some of these debates are discussed in following footnotes.

Despite this caveat, given his enormous (and positive) impact on early Trinitarianism, it is interesting to consider how his teachings influenced Trinitarian history. Most notably, he seemed to wrestle more fully than his predecessors with the ontological implications of the shared substance of the Father, Son, and Spirit that would later define the orthodox Trinitarian affirmations. This is not to say that Origen was ultimately as clear on ontology as the Nicenes or even in agreement with them—only that he wrestled with ontological implications more than his predecessors.

So, was Origen an Athanasian or an Arian?

Holmes asserts, “It is fair to say that, by the beginning of the fourth century, many or most theologians leaned to one or the other of Origen’s tendencies” in reference to Origen’s tendencies to discuss both the unity and difference between the Father and Son.[1] Anatolios notes similarly that Origen influenced the Alexandrians with his idea of eternal generation and the Arians with his idea of real distinctions within the Trinity.[2] Wellum says plainly, “in terms of Trinitarian and Christological thought, many later orthodox theologians were highly indebted to him, particularly Athanasius and the Cappadocians—Basil and the two Gregorys.”[3] Moreover, as Rebecca Lyman notes,

Origen’s attempt to explain the incarnation of the Logos in terms of a pre-existent human soul was one of the first constructive Christologies, and anticipated many problems in later theology regarding the proper union of divine and human nature.[4]

Ayres acknowledges this point, while contending: “Origen directly denies that that the Son can come from the Father’s ousia, as this would imply a material conception of the divine generation.”[5] However, Ayres also admits that Athanasius may have been influenced by Origen’s emphasis on “the closeness of Son to Father.”[6] Holmes agrees with the charge of subordinationism: “Origen … seemingly finds it impossible to speak of God’s activity in the creation without lapsing into subordinationist language.”[7]

Rutherford says that Origen believed Jesus was “begotten of the Father before all creatures” and “became incarnate while remaining God,” and that “the Holy Spirit is associated in dignity and honour with the Father and Son” and clearly not made or created.[8] For example, in his commentary on the Gospel of John, he considers the multitude titles given to Jesus. He challenges the idea that “Son of God” is special or unique in relation to all of Jesus’s biblical titles, and instead aims to consider how all of the biblical titles paint Jesus not merely as “an expression of the Father occurring in syllables” but in regard to “what manner he has essence.”[9] Though she appears to lean toward Origen believing that the Holy Spirit was divine in some sense, Rutherford is careful to show that there is a debate surrounding whether Origen thought the Spirit was actually a creature or, if not, whether he was subordinate to the Father. Holmes has been more forceful regarding the ambiguity: “[For Origen,] the theological question of the Trinity is not whether to worship Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, but how to understand the triune life of God.”[10]

While it is fair to question whether his Trinitarian thought was a form of subordinationism, his wrestling with divine essence and hierarchy of origin and function was in many ways ahead of his predecessors, as well as a precursor for his contemporaries and successors. This does not mean that he was not engaged in language contemporary with his time, such as the use of angelomorphic Christology. However, Origen seemed able to distinguish between the various ways “angel” or “messenger” is used in the Bible as a title or designation and the idea of Christ having an angelic nature stricto sensu.[11] Gieschen notes that Origen sometimes refers to angels in the Bible as Christ or the Holy Spirit, but Gieschen’s point does not require of Origen a belief in “angel Christology.”[12]

Was Origen an Athanasian or an Arian? Since he predated them, technically neither. However, due to his proto-Trinitarian wrestling with ontology and economy, both sides of the Nicene debate found a resource in him.

[1] Holmes, The Quest for the Trinity, 83.

[2] Anatolios, Retrieving Nicaea, 17.

[3] Wellum, God the Son Incarnate, 276.

[4]  Lyman, Christology and Cosmology, 69.

[5] Ayres, Nicaea and its Legacy, 24.

[6] Ayres, Nicaea and its Legacy, 47.

[7] Holmes, The Quest for the Trinity, 80.

[8] Rutherford, “The Alexandrian Spirit: Clement and Origin in Context,” in The Holy Spirit in the Fathers of the Church, 41-43.

[9] Origen, Comm. Jn. 1.151.

[10] Holmes, The Quest for the Trinity, 75.

[11] Bucur, Angelomorphic Pneumatology, xxvi-xxvii.

[12] Gieschen, Angelomorphic Christology, 195-96.

Responding to Critiques of Inerrancy

410sPVQPOsL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_In Can We Still Believe the Bible?, Craig Blomberg offers some observations on critiques of inerrancy and the idea that inerrancy “dies the death of a thousand qualifications” (pp. 126-130).

He first employs Paul Feinberg’s definition: “Inerrancy means that when all facts are known, the Scriptures in their original autographs and properly interpreted will be shown to be wholly true in everything that they affirm, whether that has to do with doctrine or morality or with the social, physical, or life sciences.”

Blomberg says that inerrancy, then, actually has far less qualifications than most major doctrines like the Trinity or various schools within soteriology and eschatology. Feinberg’s definition has only four qualifications, all of which are left to hermeneutical and exegetical debate within these caveats. I think this should be true, but all too often inerrantists want other inerrantists to affirm whatever narrow definition they have created for themselves, leaving such little wiggle room that one wonders if inerrancy can mean anything at all. That said, Blomberg is right to fight for a healthy definition of the term rather than pretend that it is not an issue — especially here in the States.

He also argues that some people falsely consider “infallibility” or “verbal plenary inspiration” to be clearer terms. However, “the meaning of ‘inerrancy’ is morphologically straightforward: without error,” he explains. “What complicates matters is not the meaning of inerrancy, but the debate over what constitutes an error.” This gets to the heart of some of the standard external and intramural debates about inerrancy, though there is a whole hermeneutical battle being fought even within many inerrancy-affirming faculties.

Here are snippets of Blomberg’s responses to three main critiques about errors in the Bible, which I find helpful to remember in these conversations:

1.We live in a scientific world that values high degrees of precision in countless walks of life. … [H]ence by default we frequently impose modern standards of accuracy on ancient texts in hopelessly anachronistic fashion. Imagine being told one day that your job performance was going to be assessed based on standards not invented until the forty-second century, or shortly before. You’d be outraged. But often without realizing it, we impose on ancient documents twenty-first-century standards that are equally inappropriate. …

To this day, we use round numbers; ancient cultures did so regularly. … A grammatical or spelling “error” in any culture refers simply to nonstandard writing or usage of words; it is not as if there is some divinely mandated correct way to turn oral speech into letters or to arrange words to make a coherent thought. … The reporting of people’s words is a particularly significant example of where the ancients employed noticeably less precision than we moderns do. … In fact, when one historian borrowed from existing sources, it was considered good literary style and an appropriate way of owning information for oneself not to reproduce all the words verbatim…”

2. Another mistake many people make is to confuse inerrancy with literal interpretation. Even the expression ‘literal interpretation,’ as it was employed by the Reformers, meant taking the words of Scripture according to their most straightforward, intended meaning, not ignoring figurative language. … Entire passages and even whole books of the Bible may employ literary forms or genres that are misunderstood if taken completely historically. Apocalyptic literature affords a classic example. …

To affirm the inerrancy of Revelation 13:1-10 does not commit us to believing that a dragon or a beast actually exists as depicted in these verses. Instead, it means that the realities to which they point—Satan and a coming antichrist—really exist, and John really did have a God-given vision in which these individuals were represented by the creatures described. Indeed, defenders of inerrancy do not reflect often enough on what it means to say that nonhistorical genres are wholly truthful.”

3. Inerrancy does not preclude the hermeneutical need to distinguish between situation-specific and timeless commands or models in Scripture. Applying Old Testament texts in the New Testament age requires believers to filter each passage through the grid of its fulfillment in Christ (Matt. 5:17-20). Believers should not bring bulls or goats with them to church to be slaughtered to atone for sin … Christ has paid it all, as our once-for-all sacrifice for sin (e.g., Heb. 9:24-28); we obey the Levitical commands by trusting wholly in Jesus’s full and final atonement. …

When ancient Christians greeted one another with a holy kiss, they were following a culturally common and non-erotic practice of greeting friends. If kisses in certain modern cultures are not a common greeting and are likely to arouse romantic feelings, then some cultural equivalent such as a warm handshake or appropriate kind of hug should be substituted. These are all issues of proper hermeneutics and contextualization, not the direct application of a belief in inerrancy.”

Are Evangelicals Too Soft on Modern-Day Heterodoxy?

Andy Stanley’s Marcion-like (or maybe hyper-dispensational?) view of the OT has resurfaced and the outcry has already been well worn. This is nothing new for Stanley—it has been a trend of his for years (and years). However, I don’t want to address him specifically here. The defense of his teachings from some corners of evangelicalism is more intriguing to me.

Some of the initial reactions on social media and blogs focused on the supposed lack of engagement from Stanley’s critics. Statements like, “If you’d just listen to the whole sermon, you may not disagree as much as you think” and, “Everyone who speaks publicly as much as Stanley is liable to slip up or be imprecise at times” ran amuck. Neither of these defenses holds much water. Indeed, many of us have been paying attention to Stanley for years, and we know that (1) this is certainly consistent with his theology of Scripture and the OT; and (2) he is one of the most precise and gifted communicators on the planet, so while he’s entitled to some imprecision or slip-ups, he has been very clear and articulate on this over the years (as we just noted).

Again, innumerable responses have already been written about why his view is Marcion-like and foreign to the writers of the NT. Collectively, these all say it better than I could. But the underlying theological assumptions that lead people to defend Stanley on this subject are problematic.

These assumptions lead to the minimization of the theology itself. Many folks rushed to his defense, arguing that Stanley is merely trying to reach a new generation of non-believers who are put off by the “angry God of the OT.” Others, similarly, argue that his view of the OT is simply a matter of preference—his view is one perspective of many, and thus some theological fundamentalists just need to take a chill pill. Here’s why both are problematic.

1. Reaching lost people is viewed as the primary goal of Christianity.

There is no doubt that evangelism is an important call for Christians. Indeed, the last thing Jesus said to his disciples before he ascended to the Father’s right hand is “go and make disciples of all nations.” Stanley’s remarks are defended on the basis that he’s just trying to get people to darken the doors of the church so they can hear the gospel message and be surrounded by believers. Great Commission!

First, this shortchanges the Great Commission, because Jesus also told them to “teach them to obey everything I have commanded you” and to baptize them in the name of the triune God. His commission was one of not only making disciples but also maturing them in the content of his teachings. The core teaching of the OT was the Shema of Deuteronomy 6:4—teach your children God’s commandments from generation to generation. This was very much a doctrinal statement. Jesus consistently pointed back to the OT’s commands while explicating and fulfilling (not destroying or minimizing) their meanings doctrinally. Paul carried this on in several places, including his charge to Timothy to “guard the good deposit” (1 Tim. 1:13-14), which was certainly a statement about preserving right theology.

Second, this view teaches people that Scripture is not sufficient for salvation and sanctification. Stanley can claim the inspiration of Scripture all day, but if he thinks the Bible needs defending or even editing (his statement about “unhitching” the NT from the OT gives this impression), then he denies its sufficiency. Reaching lost people with a half-Bible and teaching them to ignore significant portions doesn’t build confidence in God’s Word, and it represents a posture on Stanley’s part that the whole of Scripture really isn’t fully sufficient to give someone “wisdom for salvation” and “training in righteousness” (1 Tim. 3:15). Of course, “Scripture” to the NT writers was primarily the OT.

So while helping people move from spiritual darkness to spiritual light is a core component of biblical Christianity, the old saying “what you win them with is what you win them to” is especially relevant here. The 20th-century megachurch mentality of filling seats has already proven to produce loads of false converts, and this mentality is part of the reason why. When they’re given milk but never move onto solid food, they remain (almost literally) spiritual babies who never grow up to determine for themselves good and bad theology (Eph. 4:14; Heb. 5:12-6:1).

2. Heterodoxy is overlooked as mere preference.

Matt Emerson has rightly pointed out that we can’t judge all theological error based on its consistency with Nicaea. Yet church culture has been infiltrated by the larger culture around it, buying into a version of universal truth where everyone has a right to their theological opinion and no one has the right to judge another’s hermeneutic.

While I’m thrilled that many Christians see early creeds and confessions as important doctrinal parameters (we need more of that actually!), it becomes as solid as theological Jell-O when we assume that a few lines from the creeds encompass the entirety of orthodoxy and theological correctness. We then allow heterodoxy to run rampant in the church, excusing any theological statement or biblical position as a matter of “agree to disagree” simply because it doesn’t violate the literal wording of a particular creed.

Of course, the early church themselves wouldn’t have done this. The creeds were in some ways bare minimum requirements for orthodoxy, but they were also in response to certain major currents of heresy in the church. The sexual revolution and hermeneutical sloppiness of the past 100 years (both of which Stanley has overlooked or directly advanced) would’ve almost certainly produced councils had they been significant movements in that era. But we know, of course, that these views are modern novelties.

While I could make the case that Stanley’s view on the OT is an affront to proper interpretation of creedal language, it is heterodoxy at best and therefore still falls well below the standards of both traditional orthodoxy and scriptural warrant.

I’m not sure how a fractured Protestantism handles these issues in any official manner, but it’s high time we believe and advance a thicker orthodoxy that’s creedally informed, but more importantly scripturally coherent.

God’s Kingdom from Genesis to Revelation

41BrepIX6yL._SX326_BO1,204,203,200_The biblical definition of “kingdom” has long been debated. A classic evangelical view taught to me in grad school was George Eldon Ladd’s: the kingdom is God’s sovereign rule. Others have pushed a more social kingdom, arguing that God’s kingdom exists anywhere that social justice is being practiced. Of course, both of these definitions represent two extreme poles.

In his new book, The Kingdom of God and the Glory of the Cross, Patrick Schreiner sets out to give us a more holistic understanding of God’s kingdom. In a twist on Graeme Goldsworthy’s classic definition, Schreiner defines the kingdom as “the King’s power over the King’s people in the King’s place” (18). In just 143 pages, Schreiner clearly and meticulously defends this definition from Genesis to Revelation. Don’t take my word for it; read the book.

Perhaps the best summary of the kingdom story comes near the end of his chapter on Revelation:

The tree of the knowledge of good and evil seemed to send the kingdom plan on a downward spiral, but it was through the tree of the cross that the kingdom was fulfilled. Now the tree of life [in Rev. 21] consummates the kingdom story started so long ago. The dragon is slain; the Lamb has won; the people are free; they are home. (130)

 

The Trinity Debate (2016-2017): A Selected Bibliography

The-Holy-Trinity-in-Stained-GlassThe 2016-2017 Trinity debate over the eternal submission of the Son was covered thoroughly by this blog, other blogs, Christianity Today, podcasts, a panel at ETS, and most certainly in every theological group text in evangelicalism. In an attempt to try and boil the debate down for those who want to read up, reflect, or reference the debate, I created a bibliography on all of the published material I could find based on a list I’ve been accruing since late 2016.

That bibliography was 42 pages. Forty-two. 42.

Frankly, many of those sources were unhelpful, repetitive, and/or broken links. So I decided to whittle it down to the bare essentials — posts that defined the debate or appeared to be shared extensively — and it became an 11-page bibliography. That’ll have to do.

Download the bibliography here.*

 

*A reader brought to my attention the monster list over at Books at a Glance. This list has been updated with additions from their list and a few others I originally did not include from my own notes.

Like Father, Like Son? Christoph Barth’s OT Theology

9780802847836.jpgChristoph Barth (1917-1986), son of the renowned Karl and brother of the relatively well-known Markus, is the lesser-known Barth of the family. A respected scholar in his own right, he spent much of his time teaching in Indonesia and published much less than the father and brother. His most popular and important work is his Old Testament theology God with Us, a work that was originally published in four volumes in Indonesian and later condensed and translated into English.[1]

This evaluation will (1) deal particularly with Karl’s clear influence on Christoph; (2) offer a brief overview of the nine divine acts upon which his Old Testament theology is structured, and (3) include some final thoughts on the work as a whole.

Like Father, Like Son?

From the gate, anyone who has read Karl can see his influence on his youngest son’s treatment of the biblical text. First, Christoph is highly exegetical. Though he does not stray from theological trails (after all, he calls it a “theological introduction”), he mostly hovers around the biblical text and grounds his arguments in exegesis. He is not offering a schematic list of Israelite doctrines nor a critically-developed philosophical or literary treatment; rather, he sees the Old Testament narrative as a theological witness to the God who acts. Similarly, Karl devoted extended writing to commentating on biblical texts, and even in the massive Church Dogmatics, he is often more exegetical than dogmatic, more narratival than propositional.

Second, Christoph introduces his method by keying in on the aforementioned act of divine initiation. Like a good Lutheran with some Barthian flare, he emphasizes God’s unrivaled sovereign freedom to elect and interact with Israel. He also approvingly cites von Rad’s theological task revolving around “a dynamic story instead of a static system of religious ideas” and notes that this was Israel’s own understanding as well as the way the apostles first proclaimed the gospel.[2] Every part of the Old Testament “was consciously written as witness to God’s acts in history.”[3] For Christoph, the Scriptures give testimony to the way in which God has dynamically acted upon and interacted with his people. This is akin to the way in which Karl viewed revelation in general and the biblical narrative in particular.

Whether one agrees fully with Karl or not, the influence on Christoph seen in his view of God’s sovereignty and his attention to the text is commendable. If nothing else, Christoph alleviates himself of the charge that he is only dealing in ideals and opinions rather than biblical data. As with any method, there are deficiencies and flaws. Christoph brings subjectivity to the table, as does any interpreter trying to make sense of the biblical text, but at least he is dealing with texts. When considering a theological or hermeneutical method, it means next to nothing if one is not dealing with Scripture itself. Christoph accepts the challenge, albeit imperfectly, that all biblical and theological scholars must face: make every effort to let the text inform the method.

I will continue in the rest of this review to refer to them by their first names to avoid confusion. (Sorry, Christoph — perks of being Karl’s son.)

The Divine Acts

The bulk of God with Us interacts with the nine divine acts that Christoph views as the “essential subject matter of the OT.”[4] The acts, divided into chapters, are as follows: God created Heaven and Earth; God chose the fathers of Israel; God brought Israel out of Egypt; God led his people through the wilderness; God revealed himself at Sinai; God granted Israel the land of Canaan; God raised up kings in Israel; God chose Jerusalem; God sent his prophets. While admitting that there are doctrinal and legal elements within sections of Scripture like the Pentateuch, he asserts that these elements “are integrated into the structure of the story of Israel’s origins in the mighty acts of God.”[5]

In Chapter 1, Christoph posits that God’s creation of Heaven and Earth is not merely a static event in history, but rather “a salvific fact, an event that evokes thankful joy and confession of faith.”[6] God did not simply create all things and set them on their way; he now preserves and will ultimately make all things new, including mankind. He persuasively notes that questioning God’s creation of potentially fallible humans is only an attempt on man’s part to rid man of individual guilt; God created voluntary partners, not mindless robots. Where Christoph errs is focusing too highly on personal guilt and dismissing original sin. He is correct in asserting that focusing on Adam’s mistake is shameful blame-shifting, but this does not mean that Adam is not culpable, at some level, in man’s depravity. He disappointingly creates a false dichotomy rather than addressing the nuances of this issue. However, he is dead-on in concluding that “[God] will not abandon his work or leave it unfinished.”[7]

Chapters 2 through 4 introduce the reader to God’s initial election of patriarchs and his initial interactions with his chosen nation, Israel. Christoph’s main focus is the Exodus event, a topic “first in importance,” because “[i]t occurs almost everywhere in the OT” and cannot be naturally explained “either by the strength of the Israelites, the weakness or stupidity of the Egyptians, or the configuration of the terrain that might favor Israel rather than Egypt.”[8] Christoph makes the case that for the Israelites, this was paradigmatic of God’s victory over enslavement and his desire for his people’s freedom. He states that the Exodus event was in God’s mind even when he elected the fathers because it demonstrating his promise-keeping of establishing Israel as God’s people “officially and authentically.”[9] To Christoph’s credit, the case can be made that the New Testament offers a congruent typology of the Exodus. This can be seen in places such as John the Baptist’s preaching and preparation for Jesus, Jesus’s birth and Herod’s attempt to kill him, and in Simon’s allusion to Isaiah 52 when Jesus is presented in the Temple.[10] One also thinks of general themes of the gospel’s liberation of man from slavery to sin.

Christoph also hits the nail on the head when he stresses that “[God] did not need ambassadors, or spokesman, or executors of his will, or servants to assist him. All he needed was his arm, his hand, or even his finger.”[11] No doubt, but what of the human instruments he used? He acknowledges but too quickly downplays the significance of God’s calling on his creatures to join what he is doing in reconciling the world. Covenant faithfulness on the part of God’s people is a key motif in the Old Testament. He demands it. Of course it is God who initiates and acts, but he does not act completely divorced from his creatures. He reacts in both favor and disappointment (wrath, even) toward obedience and disobedience. He calls insubordinate men like Jonah to go to Nineveh. His instruments matter. God rescued the Israelites and praise of his name is demanded, but he did so out of concern for his people. God is calculated, but not disconnected; glory-emitting but not megalomaniacal. To be fair, Christoph might not outright deny this point, but the implication makes one wonder how he could fully accept the premise.

Chapters 5 through 9 survey God’s revealing of himself to Israel at Sinai, granting land to his people, and his interactions with and through kings and prophets. Of particular note is Christoph’s attention to God’s foreshadowing and promising of a Messiah. He notes that though the acts of God mentioned throughout the book to this point are “rooted in history … God and his revelation are not imprisoned in past history.”[12] Indeed, “God lives and moves” as do his great acts, and so the liberation from Egypt and the raising up of Israelite kings are pointing forward to something and someone better.[13] In perhaps Christoph’s most shining moment in the entire text, he rightly interacts with the ways in which the prophets foretold of the Savior’s multi-faceted purpose. Here, Christoph offers a useful picture of how the coming Savior would not merely be the ideal king that Israel needed, but would also be the priest, teacher, and prophet that Israel needed. He then, in biblical theologian form, takes New Testament texts and looks back into the Old Testament without aloof proof-texting that divorces the Old Testament from itself. His perceptive understanding that the Old Testament could not fully grasp or encapsulate Jesus is argued thoughtfully, and he convincingly emphasizes that New Testament writers did, however, receive “a key to the understanding of the mystery of Christ’s person and work,” as mentioned by Jesus himself in Luke 24:25-27.[14] Christoph did well to highlight the overtly prophetic Old Testament passages about the coming Messiah without getting bogged down in speculative texts. Not to mention, any argument using the words of Jesus as justification is worth considering at the very least.

Final Thoughts

The major strength of this work is Christoph’s descriptions of God’s interaction with his people – acts that are entrenched in history but not always static to the historical setting. In the progression of revelation, as he notes often, God is seen as both keeping his word and even going beyond the hearer’s expectations of his word. Religious dogma by itself remains lifeless if God himself is not sovereignly bringing it to life through his words and deeds. These acts are too often overlooked as part of the background of the text rather than the primary foreground. God with Us gives a survey of the prevailing exegetical-theological message of the Old Testament rather than another rigid, map-and-biography-driven critical approach to the Old Testament.

The struggle occurs when Christoph becomes too Barthian. The God he describes surely loves his people and gives evidence as such, but appears unnecessarily distant and superseding in terms of carrying out his purposes. One thinks of Karl’s affinity for Rudolf Otto’s “wholly other” God; however, we must balance this with the fact that real people in real situations interacted with and responded to God’s divine activity. Again, one should never deny Scripture’s clear depiction of God as the sovereign architect of all that exists and all that happens within that existence, but he is not a robotic being with no regard to the prayers of his people. Christoph seems to readily emphasize eminence over immanence rather than incorporating and celebrating the tension.

All of this said, God with Us is a fantastic OT theology, even with some of its theological misgivings. It is intensely practical and presents a God-centered view of the Old Testament’s message, the kind of OT theology we could use more of. And as a work written for the church, it’s a beneficial read for just about anyone.

[1] Christoph Barth, God with Us: A Theological Introduction to the Old Testament, ed. Geoffrey W. Bromiley (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1991), viii.

[2] Ibid., 5-6.

[3] Ibid., 6.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., 5.

[6] Ibid., 9.

[7] Ibid., 37.

[8] Ibid., 56.

[9] Ibid., 61.

[10] See this interesting treatment: R. E. Nixon, “The Exodus in the New Testament,” http://www.biblicalstudies.org.uk/pdf/exodus_nixon.pdf (accessed April 22, 2014).

[11] God with Us, 81.

[12] Ibid., 220.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid., 233.

John the Seer vs. Caesar

Screen-Shot-2017-02-25-at-8.51.28-PM-300x299While compiling notes for my dissertation on the Book of Revelation, I came across this note on Revelation 1:16 in Craig Koester’s Revelation commentary:

The section climaxes by noting that [Jesus] holds seven stars in his right hand (Rev 1:16). This cosmic imagery conveys sovereignty. An analogy appears on a coin from Domitian’s reign that depicts the emperor’s deceased son as young Jupiter, sitting on the globe in a posture of world dominion. The coin’s inscription calls him “divine Caesar, son of the emperor Domitian,” and the imagery shows him extending his hands to seven stars in a display of divinity and power. John has already identified Jesus as the ruler of kings on earth (1:5), and the imagery of the seven stars fits the book’s larger context, which contrasts the reign of Christ with that of imperial Rome. (p. 253)

Koester is referring to the coin in the image (above), used in Rome around AD 88-96 during the reign of the brutal Caesar Domitian. Koester’s insights here give us an interesting look at the background of John the Seer’s writing during hostile Roman persecution. It also helps us think about the later date of Revelation’s writing (the end of the first century) versus a potential earlier dating (some say it might’ve been written closer to AD 65). This is enough to chew on a little bit.

But it offers us more than that. This information helps shed light on the theology of Revelation.

First, it serves as an example that much of Revelation’s imagery (beasts, numbers, etc.) is a direct shot at the Roman empire. Many believe (and I’m largely convinced) that Revelation is written during intense Roman persecution and this letter was first written to encourage the church during that time. However, as a non-preterist, I believe portions of the letter are speaking of future events—i,e., Jesus hasn’t come back yet; the New Jerusalem isn’t here yet; etc. In any event, this note might help us better understand the anti-imperial leanings of John.

Second, it shows us how high John’s Christology was. He’s not merely putting Jesus on par with some exalted or glorified person. Rather, he’s portraying Jesus as divine—specifically pitting Jesus’s true divine sovereignty against the supposed divine sovereignty of the Roman emperorship. Roman caesars liked to pretend to be gods, but John is reminding them and us that there’s only one true God. Jupiter is seated on the world with stars hovering around him? Ha! Jesus created the world and clutches the stars in his hand.

As I argue in my dissertation and elsewhere, John explicitly and purposely ties Jesus into the divine identity of YHWH, and this little note only adds to the case.