Category Archives: Biblical Studies

Symposium Recap –  Matthew McAffee on Divine Judgment in the Old Testament World

by Kevin L. Hester

Dr. Matthew McAffee, Provost of Welch College, provided one of the more technical and stimulating papers at the 2017 Theological Symposium. His paper entitled, “Losing Favor with the Gods: Divine Judgment in the Old Testament World” analyzed Northwestern Semitic funerary and monument inscriptions to shed light on certain understandings of death and judgment in the region. His review of several Phoenician and Old Aramaic inscriptions documented a close association between the memory of an individual and his or her rest in the afterlife.

He notes the Semitic penchant for parallelism in several curses offered against those who would disinter the remains of the dead elite or efface their monuments. Robbers and enemies were warned that to “disturb” the grave of the dead was an abomination to the Gods and would place them under divine judgment (3) [1]. Just as such offenders disturbed the rest of the body in the grave, they would find no rest in life or death.

The same parallels may be seen at work in warnings and curses related to the expungement or alteration to inscriptions bearing the names of the dead. Images and inscriptions in this context were viewed as inseparable from the person represented. Erasure of such names led to the loss of such individuals from memory and unsettle their restful place in the afterlife. The curses upon the offenders were likewise dedicated to cutting off their “seed” (children/memory) and will find no place among the dead (10-11). Those who “blot out” or sponge away the names of others will find themselves wiped away (12). In a similar fashion, to delete the memory of a previous ruler by destroying or removing an inscription or monument will lead to the removal of the offender’s place among the living (12). They would be “cut off” and brought to an end (13-14).

McAffee then draws out a number of biblical parallels with this mindset. These are especially visible in Old Testament passages related to judgment. Psalm 49 warns those who follow after riches that they will be “prevented from having a dwelling place among the dead” (15). In Exodus 32 following the incident with the golden calf, Moses responds to God’s intention to wipe out the Jewish people with a request to instead “blot out” his name from God’s “register” (15). God’s response is relenting and he decrees that He will only blot out from this document those who have sinned (Exodus 32:31-33). McAffee also connects the judgment of being “cut off” with the high-handed sin referenced in Numbers 15. Here we read that those who sin against God will be “cut off from the midst of his people” (16); and, “cut off from the covenant community” (17).

While McAffee sees a number of parallels and similar language he also hastens to point out a clear distinction between the Jewish people and other aspects of Northwest Semitic culture. Though the Old Testament often uses similar language and concepts to describe divine disfavor it also recognizes that the ultimate significance in divine judgment is one’s removal from the covenantal people of God. Worse than losing one’s progeny or one’s life, was the loss of his or her place in God’s merciful covenant. Thus, the language of the Old Testament, in distinction from the culture, focuses upon the idea of a personal relationship with God. Such warnings therefore find different ultimate resolutions serve “as a means of fostering covenantal community” (17).

Reflection

McAffee’s work is important from a scholarly perspective for at least two reasons. First, in distinction from much of the modern consensus on Northwest Semitic views of the afterlife, he continues to document that there was indeed a recognition of continued personal presence in the afterlife. Second, his documentation of funerary, inscriptional, and monumental parallels in the language of divine judgment should spur continued research on the meaning of Biblical warnings that employ similar warnings.

From a more practical perspective, I believe that this article also demonstrates some theological truths that will be helpful for all of us to remember. The first of these relates to revelation. God does not speak to us in revelation in words or in language that we cannot understand. Indeed, God revealed Himself to the Jewish people in the midst of their culture. He did not hesitate to use previous terms and concepts, but drew appropriate parallels and worked to redefine erroneous ideas in the context of His revelation. As we work to proclaim the Gospel to our own culture and those with which we come into contact, we must do the same.

Proclaiming the Gospel is possible because God has preserved aspects of His truth among all men. He has set “eternity in their hearts” (Ecclesiastes 3:11). Sin has clearly twisted this revelation of God (Romans 1), but there remain several contact points for the Gospel. Our presentations should therefore build upon these remains, but work to correct corrupted cultural ideas and expressions with the truth of God’s word.

Finally, I find it interesting that the Jewish people recognized that the ultimate judgment was the loss of an individual relationship with God. This Biblical truth demonstrates the significance of the human person created in the image of God. We were designed for this purpose and in it we find our true significance. Whether we are remembered by those in this life is unimportant. We only need to be remembered by the eternal God. Lasting peace and rest is afforded to us not through memory, not through monument, but through the everlasting promise of God’s covenant.

_________________

[1] All page numbers are derived from the Symposium Digest.

 Matthew McAffeeLosing Favor with the Gods: Divine Judgment in the Old Testament World 

Symposium Recap – Cultural Evolution and the Documentary Hypothesis

by W. Jackson Watts

Raven Tuttobene, a graduate student at Welch College, presented a paper entitled “I Love Lucy: Assumptions in Using Cultural Evolution as the Basis for the Documentary Hypothesis.” We’re always pleased to have first-time presenters on our program, especially ones who can further expose some of the errors in modern thought about Christian Scripture and doctrine.

Though “I Love Lucy” was a famous television program years ago, the Lucy referred to has in mind the common name of a collection of bone fossils discovered in 1974 in Africa. Lucy is thought to be something of a missing paleontological link between modern human beings and our ancient relatives. Tuttobene uses this play on words, it seems, to make a connection between the theory of cultural evolution and how this is the actual underpinning of a broader, beloved theory or hypothesis about how the biblical documents came to exist in their present form.

The Documentary Hypothesis (sometimes referred to as JEDP) is the dominant model used to explain the origin and composition of the Pentateuch. Made famous by the German scholar Julius Wellhausen in the nineteenth century, this perspective sees the first five books of the Bible not as a unified work from a single author (Moses, for example). Rather, it sees it as a series of sources collected over a long period of time by different editors or redactors. Thus, JEDP stands for Jahovist, Elohimist, Deuteronomist, Priestly.

Although this theory has undergone some revision, and some biblical scholars have jettisoned it in favor of other theories, it still is the basic theory underlying much of critical biblical scholarship. Anyone who has taken a basic Bible Survey course is at least familiar with this theory. For those who have made use of biblical commentaries, it is quite likely some of those commentators assume this paradigm.

Tuttobene’s paper isn’t interested in reexamining all the particulars of the theory. Instead, she wisely focuses on a deeper idea or assumption underlying the Documentary Hypothesis: cultural evolution.

By cultural evolution we essentially mean the notion of history as the inevitable progression and development of human reason, and the human race being further educated, moving toward deeper degrees of rationality. Religion recedes where complexity and rationality in society increases, and evolves into more complex religion.

The original basis for the Documentary Hypothesis was a Romanticist view of cultural evolution which saw early religion as free, simple, and innocent.  Yet in the context of the Enlightenment, evolutionary thought about culture and religion saw early religions as barbaric and violent (60). So which is it?

Tuttobene asserts that the very existence of cultural evolution is a problematic basis for religious interpretation. The developments described by the evolutionary model of religion have never been observed. Instead, what Wellhausen did was focus on “demonstrating the progressive nature of the Israelite religion and retroactively superimposed this standard on the whole Pentateuch.” (59). Yet therein lies some of the many problems with his approach.

There is a great degree of ambiguity in the theory and methods associated with historical criticism. How does one situate a text in its ancient context? Does the context help us understand the text, or the text the context? Is there a consistent textual standard? If not, by what means might one divide the JEDP documents? Why are other ancient near eastern texts treated as discrete, unified documents, but biblical texts are treated radically different?

Tuttobene attempts to put her fingers on the contradictions between a Romanticist view of cultural evolution, and the evolutionary model of religion of the Enlightenment. Moreover, she raises questions about how these contradictions give rise to other ambiguities in the actual application of biblical historical criticism.

Implications

I think the biggest takeaway from Miss Tuttobene’s presentation is two-fold. First, it is incredibly difficult to uproot widely accepted theories once they have taken hold. Therefore, one quite literally needs to focus on the roots of such theories, as well as the components of the theory’s application, in order to launch an effective critique on a bad theory.

Second, I don’t think we have given nearly enough consideration to how secular views of progress (whether they concern religion or society in general) undergird much of our contemporary life. When we think about how many ethical debates go, whether on human rights, capitalism, religious liberty, or other matters, we can always tease out some implicit view of progress that is supposedly what should direct where we land on these debates.

Instead of spending all of our time debating the particulars of policy proposals (and we should do this), we need to spend more time and energy targeting the problematic assumptions about cultural progress that underlie our debates. Tuttobene’s paper helps us think about this concerning biblical scholarship, but even in other areas also.

Raven Tuttobene: I Love Lucy: Assumptions in Using Cultural Evolution as the Basis for the Documentary Hypothesis

 

The Meaning of Baptism (Part 2 of 2)

by Kevin L. Hester

In my previous article, we examined the theological significance of baptism. We saw that baptism provides a picture of salvation from repentance to consummation in the resurrection of the last day. Baptism teaches us that our salvation comes by virtue of our union with Christ and wrests in His work on our behalf. We also noted that when an individual comes to baptism he or she testifies to the work of grace done in his or her life and pledges him or herself to a life of obedience to God’s covenant.

In this article, we will examine how these biblical truths of baptism impact our understanding of the proper subject of baptism (who is an appropriate candidate for baptism). We will see that believer’s baptism is the most appropriate understanding and application of these biblical images.

Biblical Data Concerning Believer’s Baptism

The primary passage that teaches believer’s baptism is the Great Commission of Christ to his disciples. This commission is found in Matthew 28:18-20 and Mark 16:15-16. Since the authenticity of the Markan passage is not attested in many of the earlier manuscripts, we will here confine ourselves to the passage in Matthew.

Christ commands His disciples to go and make disciples of all nations. The verb here is “to make disciples.” It is surrounded by three attendant circumstance participles: go, baptize, and teach. The simplest and most probable reading of this verse is that in order to make disciples, the apostles must go, baptize, and teach. This teaching would be made up of Jesus’ commandment that is the Gospel. We should therefore see that any proper subject of baptism should be able to be taught.

Acts 2:38 also comes to bear on the concept of believer’s baptism. Peter commands the Jews on the day of Pentecost to “repent and be baptized.” This again would seem to imply that the proper subject of baptism should be able to repent.

These primary passages on baptism seem to indicate that it should be preceded by faith and repentance. In Christ’s command, one must be able to believe and be taught in order to be a disciple and therefore receive the ordinance of baptism. Since infants are incapable of faith, repentance, or belief, they should not be considered proper subjects of baptism.

However, proponents of infant baptism have raised a number of objections. Here we will consider a few of them.

Objections to Believer’s Baptism

One of the first arguments for infant baptism that deserves attention is the historical precedent of infant baptism. This cannot be denied. We know that by the third century Tertullian, speaking as an opponent of infant baptism, notes its practice. In response to this, we should first note that the concept of baptismal regeneration that came to be common in the primitive church would easily have led to this type of practice. As the early church came to understand baptism as necessary for salvation, it is easy to see how infant baptism could be so easily accepted. We should also note that although the practice of the early church is to be highly valued, only Scripture is to be seen as normative for the body of Christ.

Another common objection concerns the response of Christ to the disciples when they forbade the bringing of infants to Him for His blessing. In Matthew 19:14 Jesus says “suffer the little children to come to me, for of such is the kingdom of heaven” (AV) or the “kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these” (NASB). The assertion is that since the kingdom of heaven is made up of infants as well as believing adults then why should we not baptize them as well?

In his work Christian Baptism, the paedobaptist John Murray rightly identifies toioutos as referring to the class of infants, but he neglects to see the metonymy of the term “children” as a reference to those believing in Christ.[1] The kingdom does not belong to them exclusively, but to those that are “such as them.” Matthew 18:3 seems to shed more light on this passage. Here, Christ calls a child to Him and placing him on his knee he says, “unless you become like children you shall not enter the kingdom of heaven.” We see then that this verse speaks of the humility and trust of a child. In the light of this verse and its similarities with 19:14, we should likely interpret this verse in the same way.

Another common objection to believer’s baptism is the instances of household baptisms in the New Testament. In Acts 16:15, 33, and 1 Corinthians 1:6 we find mention of such baptisms. This argument from silence states that it is highly unlikely that none of the households mentioned contained infants. While it is possible that there would have been infants in such houses, we must make several observations.

First, in reference to “all” of the household being baptized, we must be careful to define “all” according to its discourse. If we see the Great Commission of Christ in the background, we must infer that no infants were baptized in such houses. Moreover, the baptism of the jailer’s household in Acts 16:33 is followed by a statement in verse 34 that, “he and all his household had believed.” This demonstrates explicitly, even if we deny the comment regarding the discourse of “all”, that all the members of his household had fulfilled the requirements of baptism before the ordinance was offered.

Perhaps the strongest argument against believer’s baptism is the relationship between the circumcision of the Abrahamic covenant and the baptism of the New Covenant. Both were initiatory rites of spiritual covenants. Both were administered by Christ and extended to the members of the covenant and their children. It is also presumed that the two, respectively, are “signs and seals” of the same reality. Because of these similarities and because infants were circumcised then infants also ought to be baptized.

The first two premises will be granted.  However, we should not deny the differences of the two covenants. The New Covenant is called a “better” or a “more complete” covenant in Hebrews 8:6. The superiority lies not in the spiritual nature of the New Covenant over the physical nature of the Old because both are spiritual. The superiority lies in the “promise.” Namely, the word will be placed upon their minds and written upon their hearts.

Under the Abrahamic covenant, circumcision was meant to denote participation in the covenant as a natural descendant of Abraham and the inner reality of faith. Paul reminds us that not all Israel is Israel and there is a circumcision that is uncircumcision (see Rom. 2:25 and 9:6). Ishmael was circumcised as a descendant of Abraham, yet he did not exhibit the inner spiritual reality. In the New Covenant the sign is narrowed to denote only the spiritual reality. Baptism is therefore more narrow than circumcision in scope even though it proclaims many of the same promises. The faith which was meant to be portrayed in circumcision has been made a reality in the New Covenant where Christ has written the law upon our hearts and placed it in our minds. This reality seems to demonstrate that believer’s baptism, as the initiatory rite of the New Covenant, is better in that it more closely appropriates the spiritual reality of the covenant of redemption.

It should also be noted that Abraham was specifically commanded to circumcise infants, yet we have not been so commanded to follow this practice in baptism. Similarly, while women were not circumcised under the Abrahamic covenant, they are admitted to baptism because of explicit references to their baptism in the New Testament.

Conclusion

We have examined the signification of baptism and its promises. We have also looked at the biblical passages which seem to teach the precedent of believer’s baptism and attempted to answer many objections to a believer’s baptism-only position. It seems that as baptism signifies many aspects of redemption such as regeneration, union with Christ and adoption-all of which are received through faith-it is best to adopt the position that believer’s baptism only is to be preferred.

The biblical data seems to agree with this assertion in that it appears to teach that candidates for baptism must be able to repent, believe, and be taught. We have also seen that the application of circumcision to infants is not to be carried over to baptism because of the narrower application of the New Covenant. It seems then best to conclude that the proper subject of baptism should be a believer in Christ and not infants who are incapable of such belief.

______________________________

[1] John Murray, Christian Baptism (Philadelphia: The Committee on Christian Education, Orthodox Presbyterian Church, 1952), 61. This work was reissued under the same title by P&R Publishing in 1992.

Individual Election, Corporate Election, and Arminianism

by Matthew Pinson

There is a flurry of activity at present from quarters in the Arminian theological community on the doctrine of corporate election. The exponents of this view are able and must be reckoned with, both by Calvinists and Arminians who emphasize the individual, personal nature of election to salvation.

However, to hear some Arminians talk, it is almost as though corporate election is the Arminian view. So I am offering this post not so much to make an argument for the individual, personal nature of election from an Arminian vantage point, but to remind my readers that there is another view among Arminians in opposition to the corporate election view. It may be a minority view, but there is a perspective with a long and distinguished history among Arminians and other non-Calvinists: that election to salvation is personal and individual. And this is not just a Reformed Arminian view. Many biblical interpreters outside Calvinism have interpreted the election passages in a more personal-individual manner.

As food for thought, I have cut and pasted some brief statements from a few modern-day Arminian authors who espouse this perspective. First is a short summary statement by Robert Picirilli, followed by a more direct statement of the doctrine by Jack Cottrell. Lastly, I have presented some brief comments Leroy Forlines makes about individual, personal election in the context of his interpretation of Romans 9.

Continue reading Individual Election, Corporate Election, and Arminianism