Psychoanalyzing Biblical Authors

At an ETS meeting a few years ago, I asked a presenter (and friend) whether he thought John the Seer intentionally wrote Revelation to an ideal reader or to what extent John meant to communicate certain things. I asked that question because it’s a common question I receive when discussing my own research on John’s theology. He gave a helpful answer, but the summary (rightly) was, “I’m not sure.” That’s often my answer, as well, but I was hoping he would give me some kind of uncharted insight that I could cite later. Alas.

Relatedly, I was recently lecturing at a university on the development of Trinitarian language from the NT to Nicaea and a student asked me afterward, “Do you think the OT writers would have had a pre-existing concept of the Trinity?” Though I answered the question the best I could, my initial comment was, “We need to be careful not to try to psychoanalyze biblical authors.” This is a good general rule for both my question at ETS and the student’s question of me.

That said, we can suggest or hypothesize about particular authors’ intentions or thought processes because we have the final form of their texts in front of us. Along with the text itself, what we know of the historical or cultural conditions in which it was written can help us make relatively informed conclusions about the author’s underlying intentions or influences — so long as we use those tools with care and caution.

For example, in my dissertation, I’ve made the following statement about John’s incipient Trinitarianism:

John’s apocalypse contains a view of the Trinity—that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are co-equal in substance and yet distinct in personhood—that is incipient; that is, John’s explanation of the relationship between the persons was developing rather than fully or systematically established. This developing understanding of the persons means that John’s Trinitarianism is not tidy or terminologically precise; therefore, the explicitness of his descriptions will vary from passage to passage. Like other NT writers working from early Christian kerygma—particularly the Christological interpretation of the OT, patterns of devotion, and religious experience—he uses language and concepts familiar to himself and his audience to describe the apparent multiplicity of persons within the identity of Israel’s one God. . . .

While at some level we cannot interrogate John’s mental apparatus in order to understand all of his intentions and presuppositions, we have the final form of Revelation’s text through which we can ascertain judgments about his theological project. For example, John clearly constructs Revelation as a cohesive and unified letter with an epilogue and prologue and, as we will see, his method for applying concepts and allusions varies but is not haphazard. . . .

Regardless of whether it’s John or another biblical author, we should be careful not to psychoanalyze him, most obviously because he is not here to defend himself against our false conclusions. However, we should not allow this caution to scare us from saying anything definitive about the purpose, method, or theological project of an author. Indeed, Christian scholars acknowledge that each text is written by a human author, of course, but also by a Divine Author who is working behind the scenes in ways the human author cannot see. In turn, we as modern readers have the Holy Spirit and a biblical canon that offer us the ability to pay attention to patterns within both individual books and the overarching biblical storyline that may not be obvious on an historical-critical Petri dish.

I suspect that many biblical scholars are so paralyzed by my first question above that they cannot appreciate this tension.


Matthew Bates on Ancient Exegesis, Faith Alone, and 7 Kids

This episode is a conversation with Dr. Matthew Bates of Quincy University. We discuss crazy birth stories (2:20), becoming a scholar (5:00), the apostles’ and early church fathers’ hermeneutics (10:50), expanding on the definition of “faith alone” (18:45), favorite fiction novels (32:00), and more. Buy Matt’s books.

Church Grammar is presented by B&H Academic and the Christian Standard Bible. Intro music: Purple Dinosaur by nobigdyl.

*** This podcast is designed to discuss all sorts of topics from various points of view. Therefore, guests’ views do not always reflect the views of the host, his church, or his institution.

Preston Sprinkle on Hell, Non-Violence, and Same-Sex Attraction

This episode is a conversation with Dr. Preston Sprinkle of The Center for Faith, Sexuality, and Gender. We discuss becoming a scholar (4:15), non-violence (23:00), Hell and annihilationism (34:00), how Christians talk about same-sex attraction (53:20), and more. This episode will also be aired on Preston’s podcast, Theology in the Raw. Buy Preston’s books.

Church Grammar is presented by B&H Academic and the Christian Standard Bible. Intro music: Purple Dinosaur by nobigdyl.

*** This podcast is designed to discuss all sorts of topics from various points of view. Therefore, guests’ views do not always reflect the views of the host, his church, or his institution.

Darian Lockett on Types of Biblical Theology and College Basketball

This episode is a conversation with Dr. Darian Lockett of the Talbot School of Theology. We discuss his denominational pilgrimage (1:45), baptizing kids (14:00), the theology of the catholic epistles (22:30), types of biblical theology (33:40), cheating(?) in college basketball (54:15), and more. Buy Darian’s books.

Church Grammar is presented by B&H Academic and the Christian Standard Bible. Intro music: Purple Dinosaur by nobigdyl.

*** This podcast is designed to discuss all sorts of topics from various points of view. Therefore, guests’ views do not always reflect the views of the host, his church, or his institution.

Daniel Treier on Theological Interpretation and Longsuffering Sports Fandom

This episode is a conversation with Dr. Daniel Treier of Wheaton College. We discuss longsuffering sports fandom (2:10), the good and bad of theological interpretation of Scripture (3:30), recovering from a house fire (25:00), handling busyness and productivity (33:20), and more. Buy Dan’s books.

Church Grammar is presented by B&H Academic and the Christian Standard Bible. Intro music: Purple Dinosaur by nobigdyl.

*** This podcast is designed to discuss all sorts of topics from various points of view. Therefore, guests’ views do not always reflect the views of the host, his church, or his institution.

Thomas Schreiner on Pauline Debates, Parenting, and Being a Hipster

Our debut episode is a conversation with Dr. Tom Schreiner of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. We discuss parenting (3:50), becoming a scholar (6:30), the development of Pauline scholarship over the past 30 years (8:30), favorite books on Revelation (29:40), what complementarians get right and wrong (35:40), and more. Buy Tom’s books.

Church Grammar is presented by B&H Academic and the Christian Standard Bible. Intro music: Purple Dinosaur by nobigdyl.

*** This podcast is designed to discuss all sorts of topics from various points of view. Therefore, guests’ views do not always reflect the views of the host, his church, or his institution.

Introducing: Church Grammar

In this short introduction we discuss the purpose and hopes for the Church Grammar podcast, and look forward to some forthcoming guests and topics.

Church Grammar is presented by B&H Academic and the Christian Standard Bible. Intro music: Purple Dinosaur by nobigdyl.


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.

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.