Category Archives: Biblical Studies

A Theory about Theory?

W. Jackson Watts

Recently I was preparing a sermon from Ephesians 3:1-13 as part of a series on Ephesians at my church. During my study I consulted several commentaries, including the NIV Application Commentary on Ephesians, authored by Klyne Snodgrass, now professor emeritus at North Park Theological Seminary.

Each volume in this commentary set is divided into three sections for each passage: (1) Original Meaning, in which the text is exegeted; (2) Bridging Contexts, in which the key themes and issues that arise from that exegesis are discussed; and (3) Contemporary Significance, in which some application is provided. Hence, the sub-theme of the entire set: “From biblical text…to contemporary life.”

I do sometimes scratch my head a bit with where the authors go with application of passages. For example, on this passage, Snodgrass says:

“In urging that we value the treasure of revelation, I am not urging focus on a particular theory of revelation. Theories are fine, as long as we do not forget that the revelation is unsearchable and inexhaustible and that our theories are always inadequate. People do  not have to use the same words—such as ‘inerrancy’—to value the treasure. To set up a particular expression as a necessary description canonizes the wrong material and only detracts from the revelation. What people need to know is that the gospel is truth  from God (1:13). While some theories are inadequate, several others are legitimate and useful. But our theories must not become substitutes for the revelation itself. We study the revelation, not our theories.”[1]

Criticisms of inerrancy abound, and it seems Snodgrass is at least implicating himself in that body of criticism. However, I’m interested in the larger criticism about theories of revelation which he offers.

What Does He Mean by “Theories of Revelation”?

First, Snodgrass is especially anxious about theories of revelation. Most Bible students learn about some such theories in the course of study. These concern how the Bible came to exist in its present form, which belongs more properly to studies of canon. Then there are ideas about the nature of biblical inspiration, which deal with the nature of the text and how it may or may not convey truth to the reader.

Right off hand, I cannot think of any evangelical theory of revelation that claims our understanding of revelation is not unsearchable, or inexhaustible. This includes our ability to apprehend all biblical texts to the point of 100% certainty and clarity, or our ability to be able to retrace with minute precision every revelatory moment in history. So Snodgrass’ claim about the adequacy of our theories makes me ask, “Does adequacy require comprehensiveness?” In my experience, the adequacy or sufficiency of a model or theory about the Bible does not require inexhaustibility to be faithful or legitimate.

I also wonder if theory, for him, includes any account or idea itself about revelation. As a former professor of biblical literature, I have a hard time imagining that in Snodgrass’ 40+ years of teaching he never utilized models, categories, or perhaps theories about textual composition. If the biblical text is somehow connected to what he means about revelation, then I wonder how he carefully avoided “inadequate theories” of revelation. It would be helpful for readers to know which ones he considered “legitimate and useful,” and what criteria one might employ to make that determination.

Which Revelation?

It would also be useful to know what Professor Snodgrass really means by revelation. The institution he taught at is a part of the Evangelical Covenant Church, which affirms the centrality of the Word of God. Their website does not explain, however, what this means. What counts as the Word? The written, canonical text? The message the text gives rise to? Surely some explanations or accounts (or theories?) might prove useful in helping us make sense of this.

The revelation that Paul speaks about in these passages seems to be the Damascus Road experience, through which the risen Christ called him to salvation and to preach the Gospel to the Gentiles. Yet when evangelicals typically speak of revelation they either mean general revelation available to all human beings (via creation, conscience), or special revelation (namely, the person of Christ and canonical Scripture). Categories or distinctions then become essential for helping us move from the revelation Paul speaks of, to the larger question of how we steward God’s revelation, namely, the Gospel of Christ for Jew and Gentile alike.

Does our attempt to distinguish, categorize, and perhaps even theorize about the relationship between these forms of revelation inherently diminish our stewardship of it? Or does it actually bring more clarity into how we ought to be handling the revelation? I opt for the latter.

A Question of Discipleship?

One aim of Snodgrass that I do appreciate has to do with discipleship. In the preceding paragraph he points to the fact that when we truly value the revelation of God we focus on the Gospel, which has implications not only for conversion, but discipleship.

In the context of Ephesians 3:1-13, the passage he is commenting upon, Paul is under house arrest for fulfilling his ministry to the Gentiles. His passion for the “mystery of Christ” compelled him to share, even emboldening him in the face of adversity. Snodgrass argues, “The value we place on something determines the hardship we are willing to endure for it. We will expend enormous energy and resources to care for a person or a prized possession we value a great deal. Paul valued the gospel enough to go to prison for it.”[2]

The larger point is well taken. We can intellectualize and become overly theoretical about biblical truth or principles to the point that we devalue actual lived obedience. But again, the question is whether theories or accounts of revelation inherently do this.

Perhaps Dr. Snodgrass could have served the reader better had he said something like this: “We must never substitute our theorizing for the glory of God itself. Our theories are only good insomuch that they find Scriptural support, for insomuch that they find Scriptural support they are able to bring the minds and hearts (that God’s Spirit indwells) into contact with God’s own mind and heart.”

In the end, Snodgrass seems to have a theory about theory. I’m just not persuaded that this theory, embedded ever-so-slightly in a biblical commentary, will help us to avoid the speculations that don’t promote “the stewardship from God that is by faith.” (1 Tim. 1:4). We need a more careful account about how theological models, categories, and theories can best point us to the Lord.

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[1] Klyne Snodgrass, The NIV Application Commentary: Ephesians (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), 170.

[2] Snodgrass, NIV Application Commentary: Ephesians, 171.

Free Will Baptists and the Evangelical Theological Society: Part 2

W. Jackson Watts

In my previous post I discussed the value and significance of Free Will Baptists being involved with the Evangelical Theological Society. In this post I will focus more specifically on the 2018 Meeting and what it, and future meetings, may offer for our people.

The 2018 Program

This year’s program will be held in the beautiful city of Denver on November 13-15. The current cost to attend for non-members is only $85, a reasonable fee given the vast amount of content on the program. The Exhibit Hall is perhaps worth the price of the conference alone. It has displays from a number of parachurch ministries, some of which provide free resources to attendees. More significantly, book vendors from dozens of companies, publishing houses, and other ministries are present selling discounted books (as in, cheaper than Amazon). So whether you want to purchase a commentary set, apologetic resources, or books for your local church’s men’s group, there is something for everyone. More information on attending the meeting can be found here. [i]

I’m excited about this year’s plenary speakers, which include Michael Haykin, Michael Horton, and Craig Keener, all great scholars in their own right. Also, Dr. David Dockery will be giving the Presidential Address. Some will know Dockery and Haykin’s names as they have both been guest speakers at Welch College in recent years.

So which Free Will Baptists will be presenting? Below are the presenters, their paper titles, and the sections they will be presenting in.

Baptist Studies

Matthew Pinson – “The Holy Spirit in Seventeenth-Century General Baptist Theology.”

(Pinson also serves on the steering committee for the Baptist Studies study group)

Church History

Jesse Owens – “Matthew Caffyn, Thomas Monck, and English General Baptism Creedalism.”

Old Testament Backgrounds / Ancient Near East

Matthew McAffee – “Lexicography and the Comparative Method: Some Methodological Considerations.”

(McAffee will also be moderating this session, and serves on the steering committee of the Old Testament Backgrounds/Ancient Near East section)

Septuagint Studies

Zach Vickery – “The Translation Technique of LXX-Ruth.”

Pastoral Epistles

Jeff Cockrell – “The Good Deposit in 2 Timothy: Its Content and Trust”

There is truly something at ETS for everyone. Now as a pastor I am the first to realize that one can only attend some many conferences, retreats, and/or seminars each year. We all have to make choices. Some of those are aligned with our personal interests, some with our vocational goals or needs, and some with the expectations of our churches. While these are all different, they often (and probably should) overlap. I find ETS to be an event that is beneficial on all three fronts, so I try to attend the annual meeting at least every other year. Usually flights can be booked to these cities for reasonable prices, hotel rooms can be shared with other Free Will Baptist brethren, and the actual conference fee isn’t too expensive, especially the earlier you book.

Imagine going to a conference every year where there is something there for you whether you are preparing to preach through Hebrews, or getting ready to start a church-based missions program. Maybe you’re a business person who simply teaches Sunday School—there are usually sessions on economics and Christianity. Imagine there is some debate developing in your church around questions of gender, sexuality, and male-female roles in the church or home. There is something at ETS for you. Just about anything in the areas of theology, church history, biblical studies, ethics, and more can be found on the ETS program.

Perhaps one of the most rewarding aspects of such a broad program is that one has the opportunity to not just attend paper presentations that appeal to areas we are already interested in, but areas where we have little interest or knowledge. I think it’s helpful to pick a few paper topics (as best as you can discern them from the title in the program) that you think are probably relevant and important, but ones you know little about. Between listening to the paper and interacting with presenters as time allows, one can further their education and equipping for ministry on the spot.

I’m thankful that Free Will Baptist brethren in the past like Dr. Robert Picirilli, Bro. Leroy Forlines, Bro. Ralph Hampton, and Dr. Garnett Reid got involved with ETS and put it on the radar of younger pastor-scholars who now have a chance to grow and serve, hopefully more effectively in the years ahead.

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[i] Each year the Evangelical Philosophical Society also has its meeting concurrently with ETS. And for the few who may be interested, the Academy of American Religion and the Society of Biblical Literature sometimes holds its annual meetings in the same city, usually right before or after ETS.

Free Will Baptists and the Evangelical Theological Society

W. Jackson Watts

In past posts on this blog I have highlighted the increased involvement of Free Will Baptists with the Evangelical Theological Society (ETS). According to their website, ETS is a professional academic society of biblical and theological scholars, pastors, and students. As part of the society’s work in fostering Christian scholarship, they hold regular meetings (both regionally and a national one), and they also produce a quarterly journal known as JETS.

ETS dates back to 1949, and so they have been in existence long enough to exert a fair amount of influence on the shape of evangelical scholarship, both in America and abroad. In many ways ETS is very conservative due to its massive numbers of members who are Southern Baptist and Presbyterian (PCA), for example. On the other hand, the organization has a fairly “big-tent” approach to evangelical identity. I happen to be a full member in the society, and each year the statement I must sign to continue with my membership is limited to two affirmations. First, “The Bible alone, and the Bible in its entirety, is the Word of God written and is therefore inerrant in the autographs.” Second, “God is a Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, each an uncreated person, one in essence, equal in power and glory.”

Beyond these affirmations, there is quite a breadth of views represented among the society’s members. However, as the organization is an academic society and not a church or denomination, this is to be expected.

I think that the Free Will Baptist presence in ETS is notable for several reasons. First, for papers to be accepted onto the program they usually have to clear some hurdles in the review process that typically ensures they are of a certain quality. Like anything else, the range of papers presented across a program with hundreds of papers includes some which are more or less convincing, more or less cogent, more or less academic. Still, simply to be on the program is a positive sign as we assess the state of Free Will Baptist scholarship.

Second, the annual ETS meeting usually gives some indication of trends in the broader Protestant and evangelical world. To be a participant in the meeting gives one access to the discussions that are shaping not just the academy, but also the church. Being plugged into these discussions, and trying to influence them in one direction or another, is a way to promote and preserve theological integrity. As one of the Theological Commission’s stated purposes is “to alert our people of theological trends that could threaten our theological integrity as a denomination,” being a participant in ETS helps us be keenly aware of those trends, at least as they arise from academic circles.

Third, participating in ETS allows our scholars, whether they be younger graduate students, pastors, or professors, to meet and network with people doing meaningful, Christian scholarship in other parts of the country and the world. We all know that we learn best in the context of community. Similarly, such relationships are vital for the cultivation of our own ability to think, write, and minister well.

One fact that should encourage many of our readers is how often a person will attend the presentation of one of our Free Will Baptist presenters, and during the Q&A time or after the session we learn of people interested in Classical (or Reformed) Arminianism. Or we encounter people from other denominations who affirm our view of apostasy, and are looking for dialogue partners in better articulating that theology. I can think of a number of occasions when I have either witnessed or personally experienced this. Such interactions not only give credibility to Free Will Baptist identity and theology, but they remind us of the progress we are making. They also remind us of the work we have ahead of us in raising up the next generation of leaders who will preach, teach, publish, and persuade.

Part two of this post will appear next week.

Symposium Recap – Jeff Cockrell on the New Perspective on Paul and Its Effects

by Rodney Holloman

“What value, if any, is there in this new perspective?” was the question asked by Dr. Jeff Cockrell as he began his presentation. I chuckled as this is what I am normally thinking when approaching this area of study and I appreciated him acknowledging this concern at the beginning.

He began with an overview of Luther and the Reformers’ view of the perspicuity of Scripture and how the plain sense of Scripture is given in the reading of the Scriptures themselves. Using three of the Reformation Solas (sola gratia, sola fide, and sola scriptura) as guideposts for the next section, Cockrell gave the background of some of the major figures in the New Perspective on Paul followed by what he termed the “emergence of the New Perspective.” Continue reading Symposium Recap – Jeff Cockrell on the New Perspective on Paul and Its Effects

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