The Last Jedi Is Good

This is for all the haters. Specifically, it’s for all of you who hate The Last Jedi.



This isn’t blind fandom; I was ambivalent toward the movie the first time I saw it. I hated it the second time. Yeah, the fight scene with Rey and Ben in Snoke’s throne room is awesome, but Leia Poppins, Bitter Luke, and the Casino are not. But the third time around a few things clicked, and the more I watch it and pay attention, the more I love it. In fact, I’m to the point where I (cheekily) tweeted the other day, “If you hate The Last Jedi then you hate Star Wars.” Obviously, everyone from hardcore fans to casual viewers can think what they want about the movie.[1] But here I want to try to argue that the hate for TLJ is unfounded.


From best I can tell, there are four main objections (in no particular order):

1. Vice Admiral Holdo – This objection actually consists of at least three subsets. Some fans object to Holdo’s general demeanor. I definitely felt this the first time around. It was weird seeing Jurassic Park lady in Star Wars, and something felt off about her acting. Another objection to Holdo is part of a broader objection to the movie’s supposed “feminist” streak. It goes something like this: “the men in the movie are all stupid and need to be rescued by women.” And the third Holdo objection is the infamous Holdo maneuver, which somehow is problematic for science or whatever (see also: bomb drops in space). This one comes up most often from the hardcore Star Wars fans.

2. Leia Poppins – This objection is self-explanatory. What’s up with Leia floating through space holding an invisible nanny umbrella? Besides just the fact that some viewers think it looks dumb, many also ask, “What’s the point?”

3. The Casino Sequence – The same main objection to Leia Poppins – “What’s the point?” – also occurs here, but this part of the movie also receives criticism regarding pacing and leftist propaganda re: American war mongering.

4. Luke – Lots of fans hate what the movie does with Luke’s story. This is probably the most important objection, as it has to do with a broader objection to the movie’s supposed treatment of the previous films and the franchise’s fans. Many viewers believe that Luke throwing his lightsaber when Rey hands it to him, Yoda’s dialogue with Luke before calling down lightning to burn the Jedi Temple / Tree, Rey being “no one” and Snoke dying without revealing his origin, and, most famously, Ben’s mantra to Rey about the past (“Let the past die; kill it, if you have to”) is somehow a collective middle finger to the entirety of the Star Wars franchise and its fans. Nothing is more infamous in this regard than the film’s treatment of Luke, which many interpret as making him nothing more than a bitter old man who dies alone.

So, what do I say to these objections?


First, I think it’s important to understand the film’s themes in order to answer these objections.

1. Deceit – The first theme that helped me appreciate the movie more than I did the first two times is deceit. Nearly every person in the movie lies or attempts to deceive someone else. This starts with Poe fooling Hux to take out the cannons and initiate the bomb drop on the Star Destroyer. Then Hux deceives the rebels by tracking them, Luke and Ben both lie (or at least twist the truth) to Rey regarding their confrontation at Luke’s temple, the thief double crosses Fin and Rose, and, climatically, Luke tricks Ben in the film’s final fight sequence. There are also attempts to hide the truth, even if it’s not lying, like Leia and Holdo hiding intel from Poe regarding the abandoned rebel base (which is itself an attempt to deceive the First Order). Another example is Yoda’s conversation with Luke after he lights the Jedi Temple on fire; his words are a double entendre. Luke thinks the texts are gone, and the way Yoda phrases it could confirm that. But the texts are actually with Rey, which Yoda may even be gesturing toward: “everything in them is now with her.” Literally everyone in this movie is lying!


Which is why, in the apex of the film, we shouldn’t believe anything that’s said in the throne room. Snoke wasn’t bringing Ben and Rey’s minds together; he’s lying just like everyone else. I know this not only because of the deceit theme but also because their minds are brought together again at the end of the film, as Rey is boarding the Falcon, after Snoke is cut in half. There are therefore only two explanations as to how this keeps happening to Ben and Rey: either someone else (Palpatine, presumably) is doing it, or Ben and Rey are really related. The Palpatine theory is possible but no one (maybe not even Rian Johnson) knew EP was slated for Episode IX. The more likely explanation is already there in TLJ – Ben and Rey are blood, just like the other pairs that mind melds in the movie, Luke and Leia and Leia and Ben. All of these are supposed to remind us of the OT melds between Luke and Vader and Luke and Leia. It should be obvious from that list that only Skywalkers mind meld (at least in films!).

This brings up the second big “non-reveal” in the throne room, what Ben manipulates Rey to say about her parents and then “confirm” with a bit of flourish. Again, there’s no reason to believe anything anyone says in this movie – especially not the guy who’s constantly trying to prove his commitment to the Dark Side and simultaneously convince Rey to join him. He’s already lied manipulatively once before in TLJ, when he tells Rey his version of what happened at Luke’s Jedi Temple. After I realized EVERYONE is lying, it took away what many consider the #1 reason they hate TLJ: Rian Johnson supposedly cutting all the threads JJ Abrams tried to set up in TFA, and especially through making Rey no one. It’s certainly still possible that Rey really *is* just a child of junk traders. One way to interpret Rey’s cave scene is that she doesn’t have parents who are important. That’s possible. But another way to interpret it is that Rey defines who she is, not anyone else. Who cares who her parents are? Her identity is rooted in her own actions, her own choices, not someone else’s. We should also note here that Rey, like Luke in ESB, may have left too early to try and turn her nemesis. And like Luke, that premature confrontation leads to a relational epiphany, but in reverse: whereas Vader tells the truth, Ben (in all likelihood) is lying. All of this took away most of my initial irritation and allowed me to watch the movie with fresh eyes. Doing so helped me see a number of other themes.

2. The Past – The second prominent theme I noticed is that TLJ is about how to relate to the past. This theme was brought to my attention by a post I read right after seeing the movie; unfortunately I can’t find it anymore. Here I’ll try to explain it in my own words. This theme intersects with all of the others, and so some of what I say here will have to be repeated elsewhere. How to relate to the past is primarily relayed through Ben’s and Luke’s storylines, and particularly their conception of what happened at Luke’s Jedi Temple. Both of them have a distorted view of reality at the beginning of the movie. On the one hand, Ben sees his uncle only in the worst light, refusing to acknowledge why Luke may have been scared of his growing inner darkness, an inner darkness which Ben only continues to confirm with every subsequent action (and especially his and the Knights’ massacre of the other padawans in the Temple; Vader, anyone?). Ben’s anger clearly has deep roots in this one event, as we see in his treatment of Luke’s hologram at the end of the movie. This anger toward his past is summed up in one of the most well known lines in the movie: “Let the past die. Kill it, if you have to.”

Luke, on the other hand, responds to this event with bitterness and isolation. Whereas Ben wants to destroy everyone and everything because of his shared past, Luke wants to isolate himself from everyone and everything – even the Force. All of what he says and does to Rey prior to her leaving, including throwing the light saber over his shoulder and the “lessons” he gives her, should be seen in this light. He’s speaking as someone who hasn’t yet confronted himself and his biggest mistake, and instead has chosen to isolate himself and drink his own bitterness for fuel. Luke swigging the blue milk is a visual of his heart – he’d rather remain alone and stew than confront the past truthfully and honestly.


One of the primary motifs of the movie is Ben vs. Luke, and in this case their juxtaposition is related not only to how they respond to the past but also how they respond to being confronted about the truth of the past. Neither Ben nor Luke sees the past appropriately at the beginning of the movie. Neither are willing to admit failure (more on this below). Rey confronts both of them with the truth. She is the only one among the trio to see clearly, at least prior to Luke coming to his senses. Ben responds by turning further into himself and to the Dark Side, giving in to his rage. This is no more clearly seen than when he fires “every gun” on Luke’s hologram in front of the abandoned rebel base. Luke, on the other hand, lays down the burdens of pride and bitterness and instead finally admits his mistake to Rey. He also is guided to see the truth about the past in his conversation with Yoda. Both of these confrontations, and really his confrontation of himself, free him from bitterness and allow him to become what he is at the end of the movie – The Last (and Greatest) Jedi. He is at “at peace” with himself and the world, free to do what’s right for the sake of others.

3. Failure – Ben and Luke’s relation to their past is predicated on avoiding and, only in Luke’s case, finally confronting their failures. Luke admits his failure to deal with Ben appropriately and finds freedom. Ben, on the other hand, refuses to admit that he was seduced by the Dark Side, by those who only wish to use him, by those who turned him against his family. And so he remains trapped in a prison of rage. But the seminal moment of failure for these two is not the only moment of failure in the film. Just like everyone lies in the movie, most everyone also fails. And to combine these two themes, sometimes those who fail try to spin it as success. Poe is the prime example of this at the beginning of the movie, failing to lead appropriately his mission. He still thinks it’s a success, but according to what measure? Hux also fails in the beginning, called out dramatically and forcefully in front of his crew by Snoke’s hologram. Snoke also throws Ben’s failure to capture or kill Rey at the end of TFA in Ben’s face at the beginning of TLJ. Poe fails again to understand the bigger picture in his confrontations with Holdo. Holdo probably should be charged with failure to lead well, since she simply dismisses Poe and doesn’t attempt to lead him to understanding, even if that doesn’t include passing on all the information she has. Poe fails again in his mutinous attempt to wrest command from Holdo. Rey fails to convince Luke to return with her. Snoke fails to understand his pupil’s motives and actions in the throne room. Ben fails to turn Rey in the throne room. Finn fails to destroy the battering ram. Hux fails to destroy the rebels and Ben fails to defeat Luke at the end of the movie.

And, most famously of all (at least for the TLJ haters), Finn and Rose fail in every possible way in their Canto Bight mission. “What’s the point of that sequence?” the haters crow. The point is pretty simple: every attempt to escape, defeat, or otherwise thwart the First Order in TLJ fails, and typically fails miserably. The casino sequence is yet another, and perhaps the most desperate and therefore outlandish, attempt to give the rebels a fighting chance. All the little sparks that are supposed to light the fire that will fuel the Rebellion are snuffed out, one by one. The casino sequence isn’t the very last spark (remember the dialogue in the cave) but it is nearly that.

There’s more to say about snuffing out sparks, but for now it’s important to realize that this theme of failure serves to again juxtapose the First Order and the rebels, and especially Ben and Luke. The First Order’s response to failure is denial coupled with violence. The rebels’ response to failure – once they own up to it – is hope (or belief?) and resilience.


We’ve already seen how Ben and Luke, when confronted with the truth about their failure, exhibit this juxtaposed set of responses. But others in the film do the same. Hux retreats further into fear and its symptom, projected strength, whereas Poe admits his mistake, gives up his hubris, and grows into the commander he should have been from the beginning. But in addition to these individual juxtapositions, this theme of failure serves to tell us something about goodness and hope and faith. Despite failure after failure, despite the fact that no one ever comes to their aid, the rebels literally never give up. In spite of overwhelming odds against them, and in spite of the literal and proverbial darkness that surrounds them, they refuse to let their spark be snuffed out.

4. Surprise – This brings us to the fourth theme, what I’ll call surprise. You might even call it eucatastrophe. Every time the rebels are between a rock and a hard place (again, think of the final sequence), something completely unexpected happens that saves them. Luke showing up to the abandoned rebel base is the obvious one here, but there are other surprises. Aside from the fact that many viewers hated them conceptually, I think this is one of the main reasons for both “Leia Poppins” and the Holdo Maneuver. Both are surprising saves in the midst of what seem like impossible circumstances. Leia’s use of the Force also adds an element of mysticism to it, while the Holdo Maneuver saves both the transports and Finn and Rose and, in some ways (psychologically), Rey as well.


5. Love – What distinguishes the rebels from the First Order, ultimately, is love. The rebels can confront the past and their failures and respond with repentance and faith and hope because they love each other. The First Order, on the other hand, only feels hate, for the rebels, for their fellow First Order members, for themselves. This theme of love v. hate is seen in reunions between characters (BB8 and Poe, Poe and Finn, Finn and Rey, Luke and Leia, etc.), relationships that develop (the infamous – but again, important once you recognize what it’s doing – relationship between Finn and Rose), and sacrifice (the Holdo Maneuver, Roses’s sister, Luke). Whereas the rebels exhibit abiding joy in reuniting with one another, deepen relationships with one another, and sacrifice themselves for one another, Hux, Ben, and Snoke turn on each other in hatred and violence. Once again this juxtaposition is seen in one rebel and one member of the First Order, this time Rey and Ben. Their mind meld connection is an opportunity to respond relationally to one another. Ben responds with attempts to manipulate Rey, whereas Rey responds with compassion and attempts to save Ben.

6. Balance – All of these play into, in one way or another, what I think is the major theme of the movie: balance. Themes of understanding the past, confronting our failures, hope, and love all serve to juxtapose the First Order and the rebels, and ultimately they serve to juxtapose those who are internally conflicted and those who are at peace with themselves and with others. Conflict leads to splits, while peace leads to balance. This is portrayed visually a number of ways, perhaps most memorably in the split lightsaber between Rey and Ben in the throne room. But Ben’s facial scar also reminds us every time we look at him that he’s internally conflicted (as Snoke loves to remind him). Snoke’s body is split in half. The Holdo Maneuver splits the First Order, who is already internally conflicted both as a group and as individuals. Ben tries to split Luke’s hologram in half. Rey and Luke, on the other hand, are at peace. Rey visually demonstrates this through balancing the rocks blocking the cave entrance at the end. But it is again Luke who is the focal point of this theme. He is so at peace with himself, so in tune with the Force, that he literally balances in midair over a rock at the end of the film. His assumption into the Force afterward is supposed to remind us of his first Master, Obi-Wan. Like Obi-Wan, Luke warns his wayward to disciple that to strike him down in anger will only make him stronger. And like both Obi-Wan and Yoda, Luke is so at peace that he is caught up into the Force. Luke at the end of the film is the Last and Greatest Jedi.



In light of these themes, here are some theses about TLJ and about the sequel trilogy (ST).

1. Luke Skywalker – This movie/trilogy is, in large part, about Luke. In The Force Awakens, the question is “Where is Luke?” The Last Jedi is clearly about Luke, and he’s the hero of the film. At the end, though, the question is “Where did he go?” In The Rise of Skywalker, I imagine one of the questions will be, “Where is he now?” This is still the Skywalker saga, and not just because Ben is a Skywalker.

2. The Future – FA pushes us past ANH/ESB/ROTJ recapitulation to expect something new (see my post on this from a few years ago). Of course, parts of TLJ recapitulate ESB, too (Hoth à abandoned rebel moon base). At least parts of TLJ recapitulate ROTJ (e.g. Ben killing Snoke to save Rey). If this is what’s going on, the PT is about how the context of the OT came about (the past), while the ST is about what how to understand the past in order to see what happens next (the future).

3. Balance – The fact that Snoke, Ben, and now Palpatine are still around after ROTJ means that Luke’s role to bring balance to the Force wasn’t actually complete at the end of ROTJ. Maybe Luke didn’t balance out the force because he didn’t kill Palpatine. The same thing happened in TLJ; Luke or Rey didn’t kill Snoke, Snoke’s disciple did. This just continues the cycle of violence endemic to the Dark Side. Even though Darth Vader turns back to the light at the end of ROTJ, maybe there’s something lacking in how he dealt with Palpatine, how Luke wasn’t involved, and what that means for bringing balance to the Force.

4. Continuity – I think TLJ is in continuity with the ST and with the entirety of the SW franchise. I mean, first of all, do we really think Disney would let Rian Johnson just wing it? Second, regarding killing off characters suddenly and the like, have y’all ever watched The Force Awakens? Han Solo, maybe the most beloved character in all of Star Wars besides Chewie, gets treated as a plot device. Luke Skywalker, hero of all Star Wars heroes, isn’t even in The Force Awakens.

5. Preaching – The last issue I want to deal with is the accusation that TLJ is just a progressive sermonic diatribe. Some of the crowing about TLJ and its preachiness isn’t reality. For instance, some people think Johnson took the opportunity to preach some kind of anti-male ideology via the film’s treatment of its male protagonists and their relation to women. Rey is better than Luke for most of the film, Finn is a bumbling idiot, and Poe is bossed around by Holdo and Leia. Well, for one thing, we’ve already seen that Luke’s, Finn’s, and Poe’s failures are all foils for their character development. Each of them respond heroically, not by might but by repentance. But there’s also the fact that at the end of the movie Leia turns to the rebel remnant and says “Follow him!” She literally turns over command to Poe. The issue at the beginning of the movie wasn’t that he is a man, it was that he hadn’t learned how to be a leader.

So, I think TLJ is a good movie. I think you can argue whether or not the particular ways Johnson executed some of these themes and theses isn’t the best (e.g. couldn’t Leia have used the Force to save herself in some other unexpected way?) But this movie isn’t dumping on Star Wars. It doesn’t mistreat Luke. And it doesn’t cut itself off from what TFA was doing. It’s a good movie.



[1] I make this caveat because some folks got weirdly defensive about fan culture on Twitter the other day, soooo.


             I look up:

             a cloud,

             a vapor,


             I look down, at

             my watch /

             my phone, it’s


             I look up;

             the vapor

             is gone, like


             I look around;


             is here and then is


             What remains?

Fear God and

keep his commandments.

Old Testament Echoes of Holy Saturday

Holy Saturday is like the story of Joseph in prison in the book of Genesis: what Jesus’s brothers and the Gentile authorities meant for evil, God meant for good.

Holy Saturday is like the crossing of the Red Sea in the book of Exodus: Jesus goes before his people through the waters of death, leading them out of bondage and into new life.

Holy Saturday is like the scapegoat in the book of Leviticus: having made atonement for sin at the cross, Jesus also goes outside the camp and into the darkness of Sheol for us and before us.

Holy Saturday is like the the wilderness wanderings in Numbers: like the Spirit led Israel through the trackless wilderness, so Jesus leads us through the valley of the shadow of death.

Holy Saturday is like Deuteronomy: as Israel looked backward at the Exodus and forward to the Conquest, so the descent reminds us of what Jesus has already done to defeat God’s enemies at the cross and looks forward to his final victory in the resurrection.

Holy Saturday is like the Conquest in the book of Joshua: Jesus drives out the giants in the land of the dead, Death and Hades, so that they can no longer tempt and test God’s people.

Holy Saturday is like the book of Judges: Jesus breaks the teeth of our oppressors so that his people have rest, not for 40 or 80 years, but for eternity.

Holy Saturday is like the story of the Ark in the temple of Dagon in Samuel: having been taken by the enemy into the stronghold of the enemy, Jesus destroys the strongman and liberates his people from oppression.

Holy Saturday is like Elijah on Mt. Carmel in Kings: Jesus goes to the throne of the enemy and, through seemingly foolish means, shows that Death has no power; only YHWH-in-the-flesh does.

Holy Saturday is the fulfillment of Isaiah 9:2: “The people who have walked in darkness have seen a great light, those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shined.”

Holy Saturday begins the reversal of the judgment of decreation in Jeremiah 4:23: Jesus enters into the chaotic waters of the void of death and thereby changes it, breaking open its gates and bringing light and life to those who waited for him.

Holy Saturday is like the wheels of fire in Ezekiel: Jesus goes before and with his people into the exile of death, thus reminding them that he and they will return one day to the land of the living.

Holy Saturday is like Jonah’s sojourn in the belly of the fish in the middle of the Book of the Twelve: Israel and the nations are saved through the death, burial, and resurrection of a Hebrew prophet.

Holy Saturday is like the movement from Psalm 22 to Psalm 23: the wise king who has suffered on behalf of his people has lost his life (“nephesh”) and now walks in the valley of the shadow of death, but soon the God of the living will restore his soul (“nephesh”).

Holy Saturday is like God’s speech in Job 41:1-2: Jesus has drawn out the Leviathan, Death, with the fishhook of his humanity, pressing down his tongue with the cord of his perfectly righteous life, putting a rope in his nose with his atoning death, piercing his jaw with his divinity.

Holy Saturday is like the Wise Royal Son in Proverbs: he enters Lady Folly’s house but does not eat her meal. He follows her steps to Sheol but only to bring his people out with him.

Holy Saturday is like the book of Ruth: Jesus, the kinsman redeemer, enters into the famine and darkness of the exile of death and rescues his bride from it, restoring her to the land of the living.

Holy Saturday is like the marriage procession in the Song of Solomon: Jesus comes out of the wilderness of death like a column of smoke, perfumed with myrrh and frankincense (3:6), to marry his Bride, the Church.

Holy Saturday is like Ecclesiastes: life is fleeting and death is certain, even for the Son of God…but in dying he has defeated and destroyed Death forever, so fear the LORD and keep his commandments.

Holy Saturday is like Lamentations: the saints who have cried in the valley of the shadow of death, “How long, O Lord?” now see their Redeemer and hope in his impending resurrection, a sign of their own.

Holy Saturday is like the book of Esther: Jesus is not seen or mentioned in the midst of what seem like entirely hopeless circumstances, but he’s still at work for our good.

Holy Saturday is like Daniel in the lion’s den: sealed in the place of darkness and in the presence of all God’s enemies, Jesus is nevertheless in the presence of YHWH and claims victory over those who would seek to destroy him.

Holy Saturday is like the migrations in Ezra-Nehemiah: before God’s people enter their promised rest, Jesus has to lead them from bondage to freedom by crossing through the waters of death in the New Exodus.

Holy Saturday is like the end of Chronicles: Christ’s decree, “It is finished,” has been made, but we wait for the reality of the rebuilt Temple and the restored king in his impending resurrection from the dead.

“I died, and behold I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades.” -Rev. 1:18

O God, Creator of heaven and earth: Grant that, as the crucified body of your dear Son was laid in the tomb and rested on this holy Sabbath, so may we await with him the coming of the third day, and rise with him to newness of life; who now lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Joel Green on Good Biblical Scholarship

This week, Logos Academic posted this piece by Fuller Seminary’s Joel Green on their blog as a part of the “What Makes a Good Biblical Scholar?” series. It provoked a heated reaction from some corners of the Internet and among certain sections of the biblical studies guild. Here are some of my thoughts on it:

  1. I think it is clear to those who know Dr. Green’s scholarship that he is using “good” in a particular sense, namely in relation to the scholar who holds particularly Christian commitments, beliefs, and orientations toward her or his work. He makes this clear in the comments. Yes, it would have been helpful to have fronted this comment, but a good faith reading of an intentionally brief piece in a series of such pieces understands this, I think.
  2. In other words, Green is defining “good biblical scholar” with only one possible definition of “good.” He doesn’t claim that his description is the only possible definition of “good,” and he clarifies that in the comments. There are other possible ways of defining “good biblical scholar,” which, I take it, is part of the purpose of the blog series.
  3. If you’re familiar with Green’s scholarship, you’ll know that he *does* believe there are other definitions of “good biblical scholar” from the fact that he engages non-Christian biblical scholars liberally, critically, and appreciatively.
  4. The real issue I have with some reactions is not that they ask Green to clarify that he does, in fact, believe that there are other definitions of “good biblical scholar.” The issue I have is that some commenters refuse to acknowledge Green’s own definition as a possible definition. For many biblical scholars, introducing any kind of faith or devotional element into the practice of biblical studies automatically voids it of the quality, “scholarly.”
  5. As I and others have said repeatedly, I do not think many in the biblical studies guild has reckoned adequately with the epistemological foundations on which it often rests. The invocation of empiricism and rationalism as somehow automatically superior and qualitatively different from, say, faith seeking understanding betrays a lack of critical engagement with one’s own beliefs that these kinds of comments purport to champion.
  6. In other words, I am not (and Green is not) “anti-biblical studies,” or unappreciative of the many excellent, high-level, scholarly contributions of non-Christians to the field, or claiming a kind of intellectual superiority to those same non-Christian biblical scholars. But the reverse is often not true.

Chronological Theological Snobbery

This isn’t going to be a long post. I simply (again?) want to bring attention to the prevalence, in certain sectors of the evangelical academy, of a particular rhetorical tactic. This strategy of argumentation assumes that whatever insights they may be writing about have only been gained in the last hundred years or so. Before that, silly things like Christendom and Medieval monks and post-Reformation political disputes kept us all in intellectual and theological bondage and didn’t want us to know whatever Dr. Scholar wants us to know now. You’ll know this when you see it, and I’m not calling out anyone in particular here. In fact, this is so prevalent that I’ve probably offended quite a few people I’ve never read. But the truth is that this particular rhetorical tactic is far too common in evangelical academic circles and it’s also patently silly. Yes, the Reformation was needed, in part because of doctrinal error rooted in erroneous understandings of the relationship between Scripture and tradition. But that fact does not warrant the kind of attitude to which I’m referring. This stance towards the history of interpretation and doctrine is not reformational, it is chronological theological snobbery.

It is snobby because it assumes that the Church has not read or understood the Bible well in a given arena until we moderns came along. But it is also silly, because it usually rests on a fairly thin understanding of the history of interpretation and doctrine. So instead of saying something like, “here’s what the Bible has to say about [X text or doctrine], no one said it this way until [Y twentieth century event or person], and so this is a truly revolutionary model of [Z],” we might say, “here’s what the Bible has to say about [X]. While [Y developments in Christian thought] may have obscured this reading/understanding in some quarters, [Z figures throughout church history] evidenced a similar understanding of what I am arguing here.” That’s a more historically and theologically humble way to put it, at least from my point of view.

Book Notice: Trinitarian Theology

On Monday, October 1, B&H Academic will release Trinitarian Theology: Theological Models and Trinitarian Application, edited by Keith Whitfield (Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary). This the first volume in the B&H Theological Review series, a series based on topics discussed at the annual B&H SBC Professors’ Fellowship at ETS. In the book, Bruce Ware (The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary), Malcolm Yarnell (Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary), and Luke Stamps (Anderson University) and I offer three separate chapters outlining our different theological methods and the different theologies of the Trinity they produce. Additionally, each author (or set of authors in my and Luke’s case) responds to the other chapters in an attempt to further clarify the terms of and stakes in the debate. This book thus addresses the methodological issues involved in the so-called “Trinity Debate” of 2016.

Here is an excerpt from my and Luke’s chapter, summarizing our aims and argument:

This essay contends there is a way to be thoroughly biblical without succumbing to the drawbacks of biblicism, and one of the primary test cases for this methodological distinction is the doctrine of the Trinity. Therefore, we wish to articulate a canonical, confessional, and dogmatically informed evangelical theological method. We wish to retain the biblicist commitment to sola scriptura while at the same time operating with what might be called a “thick biblicism,” in which what counts as biblical encompasses something much more than simply collating “plain” readings of biblical texts. To put it simply, a canonical, confessional, and dogmatic theological method seeks to articulate Christian doctrine by understanding Scripture as a canonical whole, read in light of the Church’s consensual tradition, and with the aid of dogmatic reasoning. The method articulated below also situates the task of theology primarily in an ecclesial context in which the Spirit’s illuminating guidance is a nonnegotiable factor.

And regarding the Trinity and gender roles:

The relationship between a husband and wife is not univocally comparable to the relationship between God the Father and God the Son. We acknowledge that passages like 1 Cor 11:3 connect the doctrine of God to gender roles, but we want to insist that this connection is made between human relationships and the economic missions of the three persons of the one God. The Bible does not ever posit or suggest a straight line between complementarianism and God’s life ad intra. Rather, the submission of a wife to a husband is comparable to the submission of the Church to Christ (Eph 5:22–32) and to the submission of the incarnate Christ to the Father (1 Cor 11:3). Because the economic missions are fitting given the eternal processions, it is not as if there is no connection at all, but the connection that exists is not a direct one. Rather, gender roles mirror or reflect the roles seen in the economic missions. Those missions, in turn, reflect and proceed from the eternal relations of origin. But the latter do not contain any hint of subordination, since, as we have argued, that would be ruinous for trinitarian monotheism.

For those interested in the issues surrounding the Trinity debate, we hope you’ll pick this up and find it clarifying. Right now B&H Academic will only have it available in ebook format, with a print version coming early 2019. The link will be on Amazon on October 1.


Theological Wisdom

I’ve unintentionally but consistently been thinking and blogging about theological virtues the past few days. It occurred to me just now that the summation of what I’ve been trying to describe, whether it’s in relation to reading a source accurately, or to loving those with whom we disagree, or to refraining from pugilism in our theologizing, is wisdom. The question we need to ask ourselves methodologically is whether or not we are exercising wisdom as we do theology. Some distinctions that come to mind include:

The foolish theologian –

  • cannot discern between foolish myths and matters of utmost importance;
  • cannot discern between matters of friendly disagreement between Christian sisters and brothers and matters that threaten the integrity of the faith once delivered;
  • cannot discern when to speak softly and circumspectly and when to speak forcefully;
  • cannot discern between flattering language and arguments of substance;
  • cannot discern between proof-texting a source, whether historical or contemporary, and reading it rightly in context;
  • etc.

The wise theologian, on the other hand, exercises discernment in all these areas. They are slow to anger, quick to hear, slow to speak. They measure their words carefully. They know how to adjust the volume, so to speak, depending on the topic. They can distinguish between matters of utmost importance that require forceful argument and matters about which we can disagree and remain within the bounds of orthodoxy. They can refer to others’ arguments and positions without twisting their words or ideas.

May the Lord give us wisdom when we speak about him and his works.

“Not a Brawler”: Polemics v. Pugilism in Theology

Polemics – defined by Merriam-Webster as, alternatively, “ an aggressive attack on or refutation of the opinions or principles of another,” or, “the art or practice of disputation or controversy . . .”   – is sometimes required in theology. There have been, since the Garden, theological opinions that deserve strong rebuke. When required, we should not shy away from that particular task, however reticent we may be to engage in it.

But there are plenty of examples today of self-styled theologians – many of whom you can find practicing their “craft” on Twitter threads or long Facebook comments or various corners of the blogosphere – who engage in nothing but refutation. For them, the theological task is nothing more or less than telling others why they are clearly and dangerously wrong. Theology is take down. To say it a bit more charitably, there are those who remember their task to “guard sound doctrine” but forget the more constructive instruction to “pass on to faithful men what you have learned also.”

This kind of theological engagement suffers in at least two ways. First, it produces theologies that are completely reactionary to whatever is happening in our current cultural moment. Rather than theology being a pillar and buttress of truth, it becomes shifting sand – ironically, sand that shifts in exactly the same direction that the supposedly dangerous culture does, even if it comes to different conclusions than that culture. Theology in Scripture is firm, sound, a trustworthy deposit. *Exclusively* polemical theology is, on the other hand, tossed about by the winds, even while it intends to straighten everyone else’s sails. It sniffs around for silly myths rather than avoiding them.

The other way that this theology-as-polemics suffers is by producing pugilists rather than peaceable ministers of sound doctrine. In 1 Tim. 3:3, Paul gives instructions regarding the qualification for an overseer (elder, pastor, bishop…). The penultimate characteristic listed in the first group (vv. 2-3) is “not quarrelsome.” In the KJV, it’s translated as “not a brawler.” Whether or not this particular qualification has physical confrontation or an intellectual disposition in mind (and, given the mention of “violence” in the immediately previous characteristic, one could choose either option, I think), the latter plausibly can be considered under it in terms of general application. A minister of the gospel should not be one disposed to quarreling, physically or intellectually. But theology-as-polemics produces bulldogs, not shepherds. It produces pugilism, not discernment. It produces violence, not love. And this pugilistic attitude leads, in turn, to viewing one’s interlocutor as an argument to be destroyed rather than a neighbor (and, often, a Christian sister or brother) to be loved.


Doctrinal Charity

If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned,[a] but have not love, I gain nothing.

A sermon of Matt Chandler’s has sparked a small fire in one corner of social media. In it, Chandler gives some examples of how the gift of prophecy might still operate today. Of course, his message assumes a continuationist position on gifts, a position that many American evangelicals view with suspicion. My concern in this post isn’t to argue for or against continuationism or Chandler’s application of it, but to address the negative reaction to it, a reaction that is, for me, emblematic of a larger problem within American evangelicalism – a lack of doctrinal charity toward those with whom we disagree.

In the last few days I’ve seen Chandler equated false teaching and false prophecy, and called a host of other unsavory things that I won’t repeat. Not to mention the potshots at his polity. The stated reason for these slanderous words is that Chandler is a continuationist and not a cessationist.

This kind of rhetoric reminds me of a few months ago when some Christians on social media essentially “farewelled” other Christians who voiced concerns about racial reconciliation in the Church. And that, in turn, reminds of the rhetoric used against Christians who feel that psychology and psychiatry can be used responsibly, even if subserviently, in Christian counseling as those who functionally deny the sufficiency of Scripture or who subvert biblical authority with secular authority. And all that reminds me of my Calvinist friends in seminary who were ready and willing to call Arminius a heretic, or my Arminian friends in seminary who were ready and willing to say that Calvin and the Calvinists believe in a different God because they affirm a particular view of election.

Brothers and sisters, this is not the way of Christ. This is not in accordance with Paul’s description of love for one another in 1 Corinthians 13, whether in the verses quoted at the beginning or in v. 7 – “ Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” Doctrinal clarity is important, but so are doctrinal charity and doctrinal humility. I think we in American evangelicalism could do with a few reminders when we encounter beliefs with which we disagree.

  1. We are finite. Each of us who is not God is a creature, and as such we are finite in our physical and mental capacities. To say it like Paul in 1 Cor. 13:12, we can only see now in a mirror dimly, and that limited sight includes limitations regarding our abilities to formulate and assess doctrine. To be sure, we are called to guard the good deposit and pass on sound doctrine, but we need to recognize that one of the reasons the Reformers acknowledged sola Scriptura and cried semper reformanda is because they knew that each person is a creature. We need the Word of God to continually teach us because we are creatures who are finite in our knowledge and understanding, not omniscient and all-wise. Even if we think we’ve arrived at full doctrinal clarity and faithfulness, there’s still more to learn and understand. We’re creatures.
  2. We are fallen. Not only are our dogmatic abilities limited by our creatureliness, they are also tainted by our fallenness. We need the grace of the Holy Spirit of God to teach us and to correct us. Sometimes he does this through our own Bible reading, and at other times he does it through having us encounter people with which we (initially) disagree but who persuade us from the foundation of the Scriptures.
  3. We are in Christ. Those of us who have been born again by the Spirit of God through faith in the finished work of Christ are all part of one faith with one Lord signified by one baptism. We are a holy Temple being built up together by the Spirit of God. We are called to grow in our understanding of Christ together, rooted and grounded in love, so that we might be united to one another and to him in thought and in deed. When we disagree with other Christians, we are disagreeing with our brothers and sisters. Even if we think our brother or sister is wrong, we don’t kill them. That’s what Cain does. That’s what Saul does until the Damascus road. That’s what zeal without knowledge does. Instead, we love them and walk together towards unity by the power of the Spirit.
  4. We are part of Christ’s Church. The body of Christ is bigger than my or your tribe. It includes all who have trusted in Christ by the power of the Spirit throughout space and time. If my definition of orthodoxy excludes everyone but those who sign my denomination’s confession of faith, I’m a raging fundamentalist, not a bastion of orthodoxy.
  5. Sanctification isn’t immediate. When we trust Christ and receive a new heart from the Holy Spirit, we aren’t immediately perfect. We don’t immediately morph into the image of Christ. That kind of spontaneous transformation only occurs when Jesus comes back and we see him face to face. Sanctification takes time, and that includes doctrinal sanctification. When we disagree with someone, it may be that we need to exercise patience with them as we teach them all that Christ has commanded us. Or it may be that we are the ones who need teaching. In any case, love is patient and kind, including toward those who have different doctrinal positions than us.

Of course, all this assumes a taxonomy of error in which disagreements about tertiary issues can arise. I’m not talking about heresy, first-order issues that indicate one has not yet come to true faith in Christ and is a danger to the flock if teaching those errors. I’m talking about doctrines over which we can disagree but not eternally divide – Calvinism, counseling, and cessationism, to re-name but a few. When we disagree with someone over such tertiary issues, before giving them a hate-filled farewell, maybe we should pray for them instead, as our brother or sister in Christ, remember our own creatureliness and fallenness, and hope for unity in the bonds of peace by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Evangelicals and Historical Theology

For a few years now I’ve felt that evangelicals need to reevaluate our relationship with the Christian tradition. Some of this is related to my own experience with tradition, while other aspects of this impulse arise, I think, from seeing how evangelicals use the tradition in their own work, whether in service of their scholarship or of their understanding of liturgy. I am concerned that, for most evangelicals – including myself  – the tradition is at best, a blunt instrument to be (sparingly) used, or, at worst, something completely ancillary or even inimical to our commitments to sola Scriptura. I’ve written about the latter elsewhere; here I want to highlight a few ways in which I think we as evangelicals need to reconsider how we approach tradition as simply a tool to be used rather than as a gift to be received under the authority of Scripture.

A word before I do about why this is important – tradition, to quote Jaroslav Pelikan, is the living faith of the dead. When quoting someone we are not merely citing abstract ideas or sentences from thin air; we are attempting to receive and continue to pass down the faith once delivered in, by, and to the communion of the saints. Treating tradition rightly is a matter of loving one’s neighbor, both through receiving rightly – accurately and faithfully – what those before us have passed down and through ministering it to others. With that context set, how do many evangelicals (including myself) use tradition?

  1. Tradition is useful as a concept when I want it to be. We evangelicals often talk out of both sides of our mouth about tradition. On the one hand, we want to uphold sola Scriptura, often to the point that it effectively becomes nuda or solo Scriptura. This total rejection of tradition in service of (supposedly) proving and bolstering our commitment to Scripture’s final authority has resulted in a generation of Christians, lay and academic alike, who by and large haven’t thoroughly read the Fathers or the Medieval theologians, who don’t know enough about the intricacies of the historical development of Christian theology, and who haven’t been trained to read with the communion of the saints under the authority of Scripture. On the other hand, we want to claim tradition when it is useful. We pull it out of the closet in which we’ve shoved it when we need it, whether to spur on our hobby horses or to hammer our opponents. We say to tradition, “you should not be seen or heard unless spoken to,” and we only speak to it and call on it to speak when it is convenient for us. We use it as a blunt instrument, instead of seeing it as a gift from our brothers and sisters in Christ to be received and passed on in like-minded service.
  2. Tradition is useful for proof-texts. Because of our common lack of training in the tradition, the means by which tradition is useful to many of us can only be by proof-texting. Not many of us have read through the corpora of the Fathers or through Anselm or Aquinas (much less Ephrem or Bernard or the like). This leaves us with only one option when we need to call on the tradition – proof-texting. There are, of course, times when one verse from Scripture or one sentence from an historical figure has a meaning that is unequivocal and obvious. But more often than not, proof-texting leads to misinterpretation and misuse of texts, biblical and historical alike.
  3. Tradition is useful because it is malleable. Because we are not trained in the tradition, because we only need proof-texts, and because we see it as lacking in authority in any sense, tradition is continually subject to individual judgment in each generation. This means we can change it based on our own individual interpretive judgments – excising creedal clauses being the most obvious and egregious example.

So what are some ways to turn the tide on these problematic approaches to tradition? Here are some suggestions for moving from a utilitarian approach to tradition to what I hope is a more healthy view and appropriation of it.

  1. Read through the corpora of a few major historical figures. Take some time to read through all of the major works of Irenaeus and Augustine. Or all of Gregory of Nazianzus and Athanasius. &c. You’ll be challenged, surprised, encouraged, and convicted. You’ll also be confused sometimes, and even find yourself in disagreement. That’s fine – we all need to learn how to read charitably and critically at the same time. Most of the major works of major historical Christian figures are available for free at
  2. Read the recent scholarship on ancient Christian exegesis and the historical development of Christian theology. Because earlier generations of Christians, and particularly those in the Patristic and Medieval periods, do not share our cultural contexts, there are times where they are difficult to understand. There is much recent scholarship on the hermeneutical, philosophical, and theological commitments of early Christian theologians that will assist in accomplishing #1. You could find many resources for each theologian and for each period, but I’d start with John Behr, The Way to Nicaea, Lewis Ayres, Nicaea and its Legacy, and Frances Young, Biblical Exegesis and the Formation of Christian Culture. 
  3. Read with charity and humility. Neither of the above points matters if we aren’t reading primary and secondary sources in order to love our historical neighbors, brothers and sisters in Christ, but instead are reading them to use and abuse them for our pet arguments and projects. These are men and women to be loved as image bearers of God and as brothers and sisters in Christ. That means we need to treat them and their ideas with love and respect. Critique is necessary, because we’re all finite and fallen, but critique must come from within the confines of Christ’s Church, the unity we have in him by the Spirit, our common goal of bringing glory to the Father, our common table, and our common final biblical authority. Both reception and critique also must come with an acknowledgment that, again, we are all finite and fallen. When I read, I read as one who is not God, either in terms of my intellect or my authority. I do not know everything, and the things I know I only know by the grace of the one true God who reveals himself to me by his Word and Spirit and who made me in his image. This means that I must be circumspect when I critique, because I do not critique from a place of omniscience or ultimate sovereignty but as a fellow beggar trying to help another beggar know what good bread looks like. Of course all Protestants, including myself, will see places where we disagree with the tradition. But we need to do so having given our interlocutor, our brother or sister in Christ, a fair, generous, and full hearing before doing so.