Canonical Parameters for Talking about the Cry of Dereliction

Last week I posted about some dogmatic parameters for talking about the Cry of Dereliction. In this post I want to add to those parameters some boundaries given to us by the text of Scripture. Jesus’ guttural utterance from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mk. 15:34) ought to be taken in its immediate, surrounding, and, ultimately, canonical contexts. Here I only want to outline some of these; as with the previous post, this one could be expanded into at least an article if not a monograph. And nobody has time for that in a blog post.

  1. Mark’s Gospel – The first contexts for the Cry of Dereliction are its immediate and surrounding contexts in Mark’s Gospel. He and Matthew (27:46) are the only Gospels that include it, and Mark includes no other sayings of Jesus from the cross in his Gospel. Regarding the immediate context, there are a few things to say. First, the Temple veil is torn in two (Mk. 15:38) and the Roman centurion confesses that “truly, this man was the Son of God” (Mk. 15:39) immediately after Jesus’ cry and subsequent death. Second, this cry stands as the culmination of “the hour,” spoken of repeatedly in Mark 13 and fulfilled in the events of Mark 14 (see on this Peter Bolt, The Cross from a Distance). This “hour” is for “the Son of Man,” who will come riding on the clouds in glory” (Mk. 13:24-27).  Third, the cry from the cross is answered preliminarily in his royal, Jewish burial at the hands of Joseph of Arimathea (Mk. 15:42-47) and ultimately by the empty tomb (Mk. 16:1-8). Regarding the surrounding context (i.e. the context of the entire book), Jesus’ reference to Ps. 22:1 stands as the culmination of a long line of references to the Old Testament’s Suffering Servant in Mark’s Gospel. Most of these come from Isaiah, but in both the Psalms and Isaiah the Suffering Servant songs are intended to convey lament over present circumstances in the context of trust in God’s covenant promises, and specifically his promise to bring Israel’s New Exodus through the Suffering Servant. In other words, in Mark, the Cry of Dereliction, a cry of pain, anguish, suffering, and abandonment, is couched within the self-identification of Jesus as the divine and royal Son of Man, trust in God’s covenantal promises, the fulfillment of those promises in the penal substitutionary death of the Messiah, and the vindication of his death as a substitute for sinners in the Temple curtain’s tearing, the centurion’s exclamation, Jesus’ royal burial (rather than a criminal’s burial) at the hands of Joseph of Arimathea, and ultimately the empty tomb.
  2. The Fourfold Gospel Corpus – In addition to Mark’s context, we also need to pay attention to the canonical context of the four Gospels, and specifically to Jesus’ other sayings from the cross. I am here not so concerned about chronological order for the seven sayings as I am about how to read them together. Jesus cries “my God, my God why have you forsaken me?” in the context of also saying, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34), (to the thief) “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise,” (Luke 23:43), “Woman, behold your son. Son, behold your mother” (John 19:26-27), “I thirst,” (John 19:28), “It is finished” (John 19:30), and “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit” (Luke 23:46). Notice a few things about these other sayings. First, the initial and final sayings are prayers to the Father. While Jesus experiences abandonment here, it is not in such a way that he believes that the Father will not hear his prayers. Second, whatever we say about abandonment needs to include not only Jesus’ continued prayers to the Father but also his continued speech to those around the cross. He cares for his mother and friend (John 19:26-27), and he speaks to the soldiers (“I thirst”). Third, and most importantly, these other sayings indicate that Jesus’ actions are intended as a propitiatory, acceptable sacrifice (John 19:28, John 19:30). Therefore at death, in anticipation of the ultimate vindication of the resurrection, Jesus’ righteous life and sacrificially satisfactory death will be vindicated when he enters the intermediate state in the righteous place of the dead, Paradise (Luke 23:46).
  3. Psalm 22 – A third canonical context for the Cry of Dereliction is Psalm 22. While we should affirm that Jesus quotes this in a moment of intense suffering, and therefore has the abandonment mentioned in 22:1 fully in view, the NT authors (and Jesus in his ministry) often quote Scripture metaleptically. That is, when they quote one verse they have the entire context of that one verse in view. Given both Mark’s use of the Suffering Servant motif and the other sayings from the cross, as well as a proper understanding of the lament genre, it is likely that Jesus has the entirety of Psalm 22 in view even though he only quotes v. 1. When we look at Psalm 22, we find that this righteous man who suffers unjustly is ultimately vindicated and that his feeling and experience of abandonment to death take place in the context of the covenant faithfulness of God.
  4. The Old Testament Story – Finally, we need to understand that Jesus’ Cry of Dereliction stands at the apex of the biblical story, which is Israel’s story. Israel is promised exile in the Old Testament. They are told that, on the Day of the Lord, God will send them out of the Promised Land. God departs from the Temple at the beginning of Ezekiel in anticipation of its and Israel’s destruction. In other words, exile is divine abandonment. It is judgment on sin. Israel deserves it because they have not repented and trusted in YHWH. But when we look at the narratives concerning exile, YHWH is not only the God who judges but also the God who saves. As he sends Israel’s enemies to crush them and to remove them from the land, he also remains with them. He abandons Israel in 1 Samuel 5, when the ark is taken by the Philistines. But he also in that story is working on their behalf, going into exile on their behalf and defeating their enemies for them in the midst of that self-imposed exile by knocking over the idol of Dagon. In Ezekiel, as he pronounces judgment on Israel by abandoning the Temple, his presence goes with Israel into exile. Exile is real, but so is the promise of return. And in God, mercy triumphs over judgment (James 2:13). Return triumphs over exile. Resurrection triumphs over death. The judgment that takes place on the cross is real, but it is judgment in a covenant context that anticipates vindication through resurrection.

As I said in the previous post, I wholeheartedly affirm penal substitution. God pours out his wrath toward sinners on Jesus at the cross. Those who repent of their sins and believe Jesus is Lord and that God raised him from the dead (Rom. 10:9) receive death instead of life because Jesus took the curse that we deserve (Gal. 3:13). Jesus became sin so that we might become the righteousness of God (2 Cor. 5:21). In all these ways I affirm penal substitution. But in describing this mystery we need to make sure we do not cross the dogmatic boundaries of Nicaea and Chalcedon or the canonical boundaries of Holy Scripture.

When God the Son Became Like Us

Perhaps the most beautiful hymn in Scripture is not found in the Psalms, but in Paul’s letter to the Philippians:

Adopt the same attitude as that of Christ Jesus,

who, existing in the form of God, did not consider equality with God as something to be exploited. Instead he emptied himself by assuming the form of a servant, taking on the likeness of humanity. And when he had come as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death — even to death on a cross. For this reason God highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee will bow — in heaven and on earth and under the earth — and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
(Phil. 2:5-11, CSB)

This Christmas, we will sing hymns about Immanuel, “God with us.” We will sing of the virgin birth, the nativity scene, and the wise men. We will remember his perfect life and praise him for his sacrificial death. We know that his becoming a man was crucial for our salvation, and we’ll rightly worship him for the incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection. But the passage above—commonly called the “Christ hymn”—gives us a look at what it really means for God to be with us.

As Christians, we affirm the Trinity, and thus we affirm the divinity of God the Son. Jesus was no mere man, we know that. But Paul explains the depths of this truth to the Philippians. He tells them that Christ existed “in the form of God” and yet “did not consider equality with God as something to be exploited.” Instead, “he emptied himself by assuming the form of a servant, taking on the likeness of humanity.” As the God-man, he didn’t take advantage of his God-ness; rather, “he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death — even to death on a cross.”

In short, God the Son became a Son of Adam. Christ becoming obedient in the incarnation is crucial because God became man, a New Adam, to undo the curse of Adam that we all inherit (Rom. 5:12:-21). Adam’s sin touches every atom of creation and poisons us in a way that would make cyanide blush. We’re not obedient, no matter how hard we try. But the Son of God’s fleshly subjection and obedience to God the Father in the incarnation secures for us the subjection and obedience we reject in our flesh. The Son was not already in subjection to the Father, but rather became a servant in love.

The incarnation itself was a loving sacrifice—not merely because Christ died for us, but because he put himself in the position to die in the first place. As Hebrews 12 tells us, he went to the cross with joy. He could’ve called “twelve legions of angels” to help him escape arrest or to pull him down off the cross (Matt. 26:53), but he didn’t. As God, he has the power to still the waves and cast out demons—no piece of Roman tree could stop him. He doesn’t lay down his life when a Roman executor tells him to—he does so when he wants to (John 10:18). And he did just that, with joy.

God the Son didn’t simply carry eternal obedience with him into the world. He is an eternal Son, but he was not an eternal servant. He holds the same authority and power as the Father, because both are eternally God. He was sent into the world not because he’s been God’s servant for eternity, but because the triune God is not at odds with himself. The Father, Son, and Spirit are always in one accord. And their inseparable will is simple: to make all things new and to unbreak what Adam and Eve broke. So, in love, he became obedient to the Father, doing nothing apart from him (John 5:19-24).

Praise Jesus, Immanuel, for his truly indescribable grace. Lift your eyes to his throne. But remember that Christ left that throne to become something he’d never been, an obedient and perfect flesh-and-blood human being, because you and I are disobedient and imperfect people. God the Son for the first time experienced his own Father’s wrath, felt the excruciating pain of nails driven into his hands and feet, and even spent three days in a grave—not to condemn the world, but to save it (John 3:16-17).

Racism Is Hell on Earth

The recent scenes in Charlottesville, Shelbyville, and my hometown of Murfreesboro were examples of real-life, in-your-face hell on earth. As white supremacists marched down the streets with Confederate and Nazi flags, screaming racial slurs and hailing Hitler, we saw the antithesis of heaven’s demography:

You are worthy to take the scroll
and to open its seals,
because you were slaughtered,
and you purchased people
for God by your blood
from every tribe and language
and people and nation.
You made them a kingdom
and priests to our God,
and they will reign on the earth. (Rev. 5:9-10)

The tree of life was on each side of the river, bearing twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit every month. The leaves of the tree are for healing the nations, and there will no longer be any curse. (Rev. 22:2-3)

This gathering of nations—from the Greek root word ἔθνος, where we get the word “ethnicity”—is what heaven looks like now, and gives a glimpse New Jerusalem’s eternal population. Eternity will not be white faces marching to destroy colors through the Nazi flag of death. Instead, it will be faces from every single hue being healed by the tree of life. Jesus’s blood has redeemed people from every ethnicity, and every ethnicity is and will be represented in God’s kingdom. In terms of race and culture and nationality, diversity is heavenly; uniformity is hellish.

But this raises the most important question: what should we do about it?

On the one hand, the most important thing has already been done. Ephesians 2 says that God is right now destroying racial and ethnic division through the cross. White supremacists are not original. We’ve seen this sort of evil and hatred throughout American history and the histories of nations throughout the world. They fancy themselves as revolutionaries and heroes, but they are stale, generic villains. The arc of history bends away from them. Their legacy will be summed up in one word: defeat.

On the other hand, this has massive implications for Christians. Matthew 28:18-20 says that we’re called to make disciples of all nations. I used to think of this as merely a call to “evangelism”—telling lost people about Jesus. However, it has become more and more clear to me that this also must be paired with 2 Corinthians 5:11-21: Christians are ministers of reconciliation. This ministry has countless implications, but a clear implication is that making disciples of all nations means breaking down walls of racial and cultural divisions.

As new creations, we are called to mirror eternity in this life. One foundational way to preview eternity is to intentionally seek justice and equality for people of every nation, tribe, and tongue. If there are no walls in eternity, there should be no walls right now.

First, then, we should admit our biases and blindness. As Christians, we are fundamentally called to be humble, teachable, peacemaking, wall-smashing, ministers of reconciliation. So our first instinct should be to listen, not to shut our ears and throw out insults and dismissive platitudes. I can only imagine how much Satan grins at Christians on Twitter shouting “Marxist!” — as though that’s some silver bullet to end all debate — instead of asking questions. If we can’t recognize that systemic issues in our land — a land whose unifying moments (Emancipation Proclamation, desegregation, voting rights, and Affirmative Action) were merely legal concessions and not intrinsically built into our foundation — then we’re just not ready to listen to those who feel the most hurt by it. We don’t have to agree on every nuance or policy or logical conclusion, but there should be a baseline recognition of the obvious historical and ongoing separation in our country. The Christian call to pursue unity isn’t optional. Don’t point the finger; lend an ear.

Second and relatedly, we should put this into action by not huddling up with people like us, waiting on God to sort it out later. That would be easy. Instead, we should fight tooth-and-nail against the temptation to be comfortable and monolithic. The cross of Christ demands that we press on to the point of shed blood to love our brothers and sisters of all races and ethnicities. Our churches should be as diverse or even more diverse than our neighborhoods (imagine Sunday morning at your church being the most diverse gathering in your neighborhood each week!). Our dinner tables should likewise have regular seats filled with those who don’t look like us. As Russell Moore so aptly puts it, in the fight for racial reconciliation, “We’re not getting anywhere if we gather in church with people we’d gather with if Jesus were still dead.” The death and resurrection of Jesus mean that sin and death are dead—taking hatred and division to hell with them.

To my white brothers and sisters: don’t merely post on social media about your frustration about race relations in our country. Don’t let your actions be relegated to hashtags and retweets. True reconciliation happens around dinner tables and in marching lines. True empathy comes not only from watching another iPhone video, but from putting your arms around someone whose skin doesn’t match yours. True friendship comes not from a Twitter follow or a Sunday morning sentiment, but from a lifelong commitment to co-suffering and co-laboring. True love doesn’t happen with a half-hearted apology, but with an open mind to be an active part of the solution.

Though personal relationships are the most important, it would also help to read some books on race by black authors. Let their perspective help shape the narrative for you. For example, read Life and Times of Frederick Douglass by Douglass and United: Captured by God’s Vision for Diversity by Newbell.

Racism is hell on earth. But we as Christians are called to pray for God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven. You may feel like only one friendship or one conversation is a waste, but it isn’t. Nothing you do in this life is inconsequential. God works through even the smallest steps, however awkward and heavy they may seem. As Dr. King said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Make your anywhere count.

Baptist Theological Method

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

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

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

Christ and the New Creation Kindle Edition

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

Distinctives in the Fourfold Gospel Corpus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What do you think?

Greg Goswell and NT Canonical Shape

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

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

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

Yes, exactly.

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

The Order of the Books of the New Testament

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[11] Ibid., 721.

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

Proper Argumentation

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

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