Book Review: Eschatology—Biblical, Historical, and Practical Approaches

Eschatology: Biblical, Historical, and Practical Approaches
edited by D. Jeffrey Bingham and Glenn R. Kreider

This review will be an abbreviated version of what I would normally do for a book of this sort, i.e., an edited volume with multiple contributors. Because I’ve not had the time to complete the full review, I thought I’d post what I’ve written thus far.

The book is broken up into four parts: (1) The Doctrine of the Future and Its Foundations, (2) The Doctrine of the Future in the Bible, (3) The Doctrine of the Future in the History of Christian Thought, and (4) The Doctrine of the Future and Christian Ministry.

Chapter 1—The Doctrine of the Future and Canonical Unity: Connecting the Future to the Past (Bingham)

This chapter begins with Marcion and a brief biography, the bulk of which concerns his theology. This early discussion focuses primarily on Marcion’s theological miscues as hashed out by Tertullian, Irenaeus, and other early church fathers and then segues to the topic of the chapter—canonical unity and the doctrine of the future. Bingham essentially looks to Irenaeus as a way to “account for the discontinuities between the Testaments without falling into the error or Marcionism” (48). Overall, this was a decent entry in the discussion and employing Irenaeus’ hermeneutic as means of avoiding Marcionism was an interesting take.

Chapter 2—The Doctrine of the Future and the Concept of Hope (Toussaint)

Toussaint begins with the following definition of hope—“desire accompanied by expectation” (54). Toussaint notes the trouble of defining hope using biblical Hebrew vocabulary and finds support in articles written in the 30s and 60s—surely this concept has been explored in more recent studies? (54) However, he does state this does not undervalue the virtue of the Hebrews (55). After a few notes on the use of the term ελπις in the NT, he moves to a brief discussion of hope in terms of result. The next few paragraphs take on a decidedly homiletical tone, practically reading a sermon manuscript. As above, this isn’t necessarily a criticism. Toussaint devotes the bulk of the chapter to a biblical-theological summary of hope, beginning (obviously) with Genesis, in which he cites the protoevangelium as the “first anticipation of a future good” (Gen 3:15). This, of course, is a much later Christian interpretation and one I don’t think the original audience would have made, but is a common interpretation of the serpent’s fate and isn’t really a surprise here, especially given the dispensational necessity of literal interpretations. The remainder of the OT discussion of hope focuses primarily on the Abrahamic and Davidic covenants, with brief references to the prophets and the historical Melchizedek, the brevity of which is due to the number of textual references (too many) and likely publication restraints. The discussion of hope in the NT follows the typical groupings—hope in the Gospels, Acts, Paul, general letters, and Revelation, each which traces the theme of future hope through a dispensational lens (58–69). Toussaint’s is what I would say is a fairly standard dispensational biblical-theological understanding of eschatology, but obviously articulated here around the concept of hope, specifically the hope of future life and restoration.

Chapter 3—The Doctrine of the Future and the Weakening of Prophecy (Ryrie)

Ryrie notes a number of questions that might be raised in the modern climate of never-edning prognostications about an impending apocalyptic end to our world—what does this mean for biblical prophecy? “Are they reliable? Were any of them false? How accurately can we expect yet unfulfilled prophecies to come to pass?” Ryrie begins with some “facts” about prophecy in the bible—(1) A true prophet is “someone who announces God’s will to people and/or predicts the future”, (2) some prophecies were wrong, (3) in OT times, false prophets were put to death; in NT times, they were to be tested, and (4) “[t]here are many true and accurate prophecies in the bible” (71–72). Notice that number two above Ryrie claims that some prophecies in the OT were false—GASP! Surely this didn’t come from the pen of a dispensationalist, right?! Yes, but he refers to the serpent’s (read Satan) statement to Eve that if she ate from the tree, she would not die. While I think this stretches things a bit concerning what is/is not prophecy, I’ll concede for the sake of making the point. As you might imagine, these opening paragraphs have very apologetic overtones and continues throughout the chapter. The purpose of this chapter, says Ryrie, is to explore how the existence and/or accuracy of yet-to-be-fulfilled prophecies are being weakened (72). The first example is the changing of traditional dates, particularly as it concerns certain books, e.g., Daniel, that is critical for dispensational readings of the biblical story to hold together. Likewise, Ryrie claims that the book of Revelation has also been subject to scholarly date shifting. His argument is that if Revelation were written in the 90s, then the content of chapters 4–19 would take place in the future; yet, some scholars have argued for a composition date in the 60s, which would then render the book’s prophecies fulfilled by 70 ce, when Jerusalem was sacked and the temple destroyed.

  • This rings with scholarly paranoia to me—just because some scholars don’t buy into a particular dating scheme doesn’t mean they’re out to weaken or otherwise diminish prophetic texts.
  • This leads to the second example, which is essentially an expansion of the first—the embrace of preterism. Preterism is the view that the fulfillment of prophecies in Revelation took place prior to the fall of Jerusalem in 70 ce. Ryrie’s stringent hermeneutics, especially with regards to the date of Revelation, leads to the outstanding claim that even moderate preterism “eliminates some fulfillment and weakens the force of the entire body of biblical prophecy” (73).
  • His other examples of scholarship’s apparent quest to weaken prophecy are a focus on “genre-dependent” hermeneutics (74) and banking on “chance” (75–76), which is described as essentially waiting long enough that eventually anything can happen.
  • Thus far, this has been the most disappointing chapter. It’s practically a rehash of decades-old apologetics on the reliability of prophecy.

Chapter 4—The Doctrine of the Future, the Doctrine of God, and Predictive Prophecy (John and Stefana Laing)

In their chapter, the Laings set out to “address the reliability of the Bible to speak authoritatively concerning prophecy and future events, as its reliability is ground in God’s self-revelation, sovereignty, and omniscience” (78). Laing and Laing delve seek to ground their discussion in the person and nature of God and have produced what is thus far the most academically engaging chapter, at least through its opening sections. Though it is fairly predictable in terms of trajectory—you know where they will land ultimately—they provide a good discussion of theological concerns that underpin the bible’s reliability, specifically in terms of prophecy. The latter portion of the chapter concerns examples of fulfilled prophecy and, based on the groundwork laid previously, why we can trust in these particular prophecies. The chapter concludes with a few thoughts on how prophecy works and how to approach it. Though notably much less, there is a hint of suspicion cast upon liberal scholarship when they write, “there are examples of successful prophetic prediction that even the most liberal scholars cannot explain away” (101). Despite this, the Laings offer a fairly well written and most heavily footnoted chapter to this point in the book.

Section 2—The Doctrine of the Future in the Bible

  • The second section of chapters turns the focus to the biblical texts and how they demonstrate what the future holds in God’s plans.

Chapter 5—The Doctrine of the Future and Moses: “All Israel Shall Be Saved” (Block)

Like Toussaint before in chapter two, Block begins with the planting of the seed of eschatological hope in humanity’s heart that’s recorded in Gen 3:15—the protoevangelium—but proceeds for the length of his contribution to discuss Deuteronomy. Though I’ve known of Daniel Block for a number of years and have read some of his works, I was surprised to read the following statement in a volume saturated with Dispensational thought: “In His addresses Moses offers the most systematic instruction of Yahwistic theology to be found in the Hebrew Scriptures” (108; emphasis mine). My surprise is that this wording suggests a preservation of the old documentary-hypothesis view (JEPD) of the Pentateuch’s authorship, a view I assume most/all Dispensationalists would take issue with. Perhaps Block doesn’t subscribe to D/dispensationalism, but in any case, I was surprised by this statement.

Because this is a volume written for Craig Blaising (a leading Dispensationalist) by numerous scholars who hold to some form of Dispensationalism, it’s no surprise that it colors every chapter. Because of the prevalence of this interpretive matrix, perhaps the title could have indicated that. That it doesn’t is not necessarily a criticism, but just a point of note—this book concerns eschatology from a dispensational perspective. As such, each chapter is fairly predictable if you’re familiar with the tenets and tendencies of Dispensationalism in its various forms. If you’re friendly towards D/dispensationalism, then much of this book’s contents will ring familiar and true; if you’re not, then I doubt this volume would change your mind.

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Book Review: The Devil: A New Biography

Review---The-DevilThe Devil: A New Biography

by Philip C. Almond

Cornell University Press | Amazon

Many thanks to the kind folks at Cornell University Press for this review copy!

The devil (or Devil if you prefer) is a common figure in modern Christianity. Though his presence in the Bible is comparatively minimal, he figures prominently in a few key points in the overarching narrative of Scripture. However, despite his minor role in the stories of Scripture, tradition and history have shaped and molded this antagonist into a creature quite different from his earliest portrayals (perhaps more so visually than anything). This evolution, we might say, is the object of Almond’s work. The subtitle, A New Biography, might suggest a totally new approach to understanding the devil or perhaps bringing to bear new research that yields new insights. Perhaps neither is purely presented in this volume, though that does not negate its usefulness in providing a valuable resource for those interested in the matter.

Almond claims that it was the story of Enoch’s watchers that birthed the notion of places beneath the earth as abodes for evil angels/demons (5). This conception of evil angels was nurtured by early Christian apologists and ultimately spawned the conception of the devil as a wholly evil being whose primary purpose was to thwart the work of God. Almond also suggests the book of Zechariah (composed around 500 BCE) is a turning point in the history of the Devil (18) and traces the origins of Jewish (and ultimately Christian) demonology to Second Temple Jewish works such as the books of Enoch and Jubilees. Almond provides a brief discussion of early Christian writers’ perpetration of the devil as Satan, Lucifer, etc., or the bad guy.

Almond essentially argues that the devil’s place in Christian thought was borne out of a commitment “to the doctrine of one God who primary attribute was goodness” and could not accept that there was an opposing principle of evil that had existed from eternity or that God himself had created a being who by nature was evil. Thus, Satan became the fall guy—the explanation for evil in the world (47). It seems as though the Devil has been mistreated throughout history, being blamed for many things that could ultimately be explained naturalistically or by other means.

Almond takes the reader down a long historical road, along the way demonstrating the ways in which the Devil had morphed from an anonymous though testy adversary in the pages of the Hebrew Bible to the outright malevolent enemy of God in the Christian church. Along the way the Devil is gradually depicted in more overt gestures of evil and wickedness and linked to all manner of demonic and ungodly practices, e.g., magic, witchcraft, sorcery, possession, etc. Despite centuries of debate and research concerning the nature and activity of the devil, ultimately, according to Almond, the devil was relegated to the domain of credulity and superstition (205).

This book is similar to volumes that survey a history of interpretation of a particular text, theological problem, etc., only this concerns the development of Satan from tester and adversary in the Hebrew Bible to the malevolent antichrist enemy of God of the early church and beyond. This book also achieves two ends that are too frequently mutually exclusive—useful information and entertainment. That is not to say that Almond sacrifices historical detail for anecdotal tidbits all for the sake of entertaining the reader, but one cannot help but come away with at least a grin after reading some of the ways in which previous generations attempted to understand and explain the role of the devil in various practices and beliefs. Perhaps it is too much of a gesture to suggest that Almond is intentionally being humorous; rather, it is the historical data that is simply humorous at points.

There was a current than ran beneath the entirety of this book, a current that seemed to feed the vegetation atop the soil—the devil was an invention, a means by which to explain evil and to account in some way for its origin and continued presence in the world. This will be the primary point of departure for readers who believe in the existence and activity of the devil, regardless of the extent. However, despite this, Almond never writes in such a way that is critical (in a negative sense) of or in any way derogatory of those who hold this belief.

In sum, Almond’s book is indeed helpful and useful and is quite a feat considering the amount of material available for study. Though one could levy the criticism that Almond is minimally selective in his choice of texts and their interpreters to analyze, he does well and tackles many of the important voices in this long-debated subject.

Errata were minimal, the only noticeable error being his use of ὁσατανᾶς instead of ὁ Σατανᾶς (23).

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Book Review: Toxic Spirituality

Toxic Spirituality: Four Enduring Temptations of Christian Faith by Eric Gritsch

Fortress | Amazon | CBD

Emeritus Professor of Church History at Gettysburg Lutheran Seminary Eric Gritsch offers a “reality check” to the church at large concerning four strains of Christianity that have “weakened, indeed abused, the core of Christian tradition.”  Who are these four horsemen who have run roughshod over Christianity’s core and left it a trampled and disfigured mess?  Anti-Semitism, Fundamentalism, Triumphalism, and Moralism.  Gritsch takes on each rider (keeping with the theme) head on, mincing no words and pulling no punches.  The use of the word “toxic” in the title itself gives readers a glimpse of the book’s tone and readers will come away from this book with no doubt the author views these four “temptations” as having poisoned the well from which Christians throughout history have drunk.  At the outset, Gritsch acknowledges that there are other toxic expressions of Christianity that are dangerous (e.g. racism and sexism), but believes them to have their origins in “the cesspool of the four poisons that threaten historical Christianity” (6).

As stated above, Gritsch begins with the notion of anti-Semitism.  With each of these four, he begins with a historical analysis of the birth and development of each, which proves to be a great help, particularly for readers who are not so clear on the history through which the author moves. The author notes writes more of what he calls “anti-Judaism” than pure anti-Semitism, though obviously the former is inextricably bound to the latter. One thing that Gritsch does not do is white wash history–he lays it out in all its ugliness for inspection and interpretation. Gritsch tags such revered early churchmen as Chrysostom and Augustine for their role in at least creating an atmosphere of anti-Judaism and later leaders such as Luther do not escape criticism either. Gritsch also notes the role of supercessionism in the perpetuation of anti-Judaism in the middle ages and beyond. Nazi Germany and the Holocaust are perhaps obvious out-workings of anti-Judaism, but what may be somewhat surprising is the Catholic church’s rather unfortunate cooperation with the Nazis. Though their relationship was not indicative of full blown anti-Semitism, the mere reality of such a relationship is another chapter in the long history of misdeeds by the church. Of course, it wasn’t just the Catholic church that was tangled up in this dark era of European history, but the Protestants as well. The last part of the chapter Gritsch writes essentially that if the apostolic testimony about Christ had been heeded, anti-Judaism perhaps could have been far less prominent. He rightly notes that the NT contains plenty of polemics against particular aspects of first-century Judaism, but nothing that could be considered anti-Semitic (though I am sure plenty would disagree). Given his disavowal of supercessionism, Gritsch holds that the church hasn’t replaced Israel or in any way become the new Israel, but in some mysterious way Israel and the church are both of God’s people and will receive eschatological blessing.

The second chapter concerns fundamentalism and was easily the one I most looked forward to. However, I was quite surprised that Gritsch does not define fundamentalism quite the way I might. I fully expected the discussion to center on KJV-onlyism. What I got was discussion of various evangelicals, their organizations, and the role they played in American church life and politics. Gritsch defines fundamentalism as “an excessive adherence to the literal interpretation of the Bible”, which he says is also know as “bibliolatry” (45). This extreme stance on the bible gave rise to fundamentalism in general and numerous offshoots along various trajectories. Fundamentalism of the evangelical variety prided itself on its desire to separate from the “liberal” wing of Christianity. One aspect of this was what Gritsch calls the “crusade against Darwinism,” a conflict that has been rekindled of late. Any perceived threat to the fundamentals of Christianity, whether Darwin’s theory of evolution or liberal Christianity, was fuel for the fire and fundamentalism thus sought to be wholly separate.

As I mentioned, I was quite surprised that the author did not discuss KJV-onlyism, perhaps one of the best known (or infamous) strains of fundamentalism in modern American Christianity. In addition to the evangelical-political fundamentalism of the 20th century, Gritsch devotes several pages to the discussion of traditionalism, which in turn gave rise to the papacy and Roman Catholic fundamentalism. Let the fun begin! As with evangelicals in the previous section, Gritsch does not tread lightly in his overview of Roman Catholic traditionalism. In Protestant eyes, particularly those of more conservative evangelicals, Roman Catholics are frequently (and unfairly) eyed as suspicious because of the authority given to tradition. Gritsch lasers in on a couple of aspects of RC traditionalism that stemmed from the church’s struggle to define tradition and its role in church governance—the authority of Rome and Marian devotion. The fusing of scripture and tradition by Second Vatican Council as the “single sacred deposit of the Word of God which is entrusted to the church” provokes some Gritsch’s harsher criticism. He claims that Catholic traditionalist fundamentalism gave birth to an unholy Trinity: tradition, Scripture, and the magisterium. Whether evangelical or Catholic, fundamentalism is “an attempt to claim authority over a sacred tradition as an antidote for a society that has strayed from its cultural moorings.” It is “marked by a continual drive for security among anxious believers who feel destined to preserve a certain way of life and thought, grounded in a preferred culture” (77).

Chapter three concerns triumphalism, which Gritsch traces back to the “unholy alliance” of the state and the church initiated under the rule of Constantine and perpetuated by his successors.  Gritsch astutely notes “It is an irony of history that the first political benefactor of Christianity used the title ‘Prince of Peace’ for his ambitious climb to the autocracy” (89). Gritsch continues with an overview of Constantine’s successors and their own quasi-theocratic desires. This breed of Christianity, at least in part, was as oppressive and murderous as extremist sects of Islam are today. Gritsch also give attention to such theocrats as Thomas Müntzer and groups of like-minded folk such as the Anabaptists. The less-theocratic also are discussed, e.g., Calvin, Puritans, Montanists, monastics, Hutterites, etc. Gritsch may be criticized for going after low-hanging fruit in some sections of this chapter; however, the sins committed by Christians throughout history have been fairly well documented and there is little here that will surprise students of Christian history and Gritsch is right to point out some of the more significant people and movements that exemplify what he calls “triumphalism.”

The next chapter concerns moralism, which Gritsch does not so much define as he describes with examples throughout church history, as in the previous chapters. From the seven deadly sins of Pope Gregory I and Dante’s The Divine Comedy to various church councils, from the Enlightenment to the rise of Fundamentalism, moralism is apparently an effort to bring about moral unity among Christians, which ironically enough, tends to happen along denominational or other exclusionary lines.

Chapter five is a concluding section in which the author offers some measure of synthesis and analysis of these dreaded four horsemen whose rampant plodding through Church history have left not only real casualties in the paths they’ve trod, but a damaged witness to those who examine, however briefly, the history of the Church. Gritsch says “Anti-Semitism, Fundamentalism, Triumphalism, and Moralism embody sin in their direct, or indirect, rejection of Christian life as penultimate, and they fall victim to a realized eschatology—as if the hope for the ultimate, eternal life with God in Christ had already been fulfilled. This historical perversion is the most visible symptom of spiritual poisoning” (160).

This being my first read of Gritsch, I must say it was quite good work—astute, brutally honest, and fascinating. Though not without its faults (e.g., I don’t know that I’d quite say that evangelizing Jews is representative of anti-Judaism), Gritsch is spot-on in his analysis of these four elements of Christian history. While other aspects of Christian praxis have likewise morphed into damaging offshoots, Gritsch ably demonstrates the dangers of these four. A great read—plenty of food for thought and prayer here.

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Stories and History

I was watching an episode earlier of White Collar (one of my favorite shows!) and the main character, Neal, made an interesting comment that prompted this post. He said something to the effect of “Stories are worthless if there’s nothing to back them up.” In the context of the show’s story it made sense, but in literature, obviously it doesn’t quite work out as well. I’ve been thinking lately about various “stories” in scripture and how we as interpreters approach them. For many, the biblical accounts are essentially meaningless if they didn’t actually happen. For others, they are perfectly fine to read the stories as purely literary works without foisting upon them the burden of being historically true and/or accurate.

I must admit that at one time I would have fallen into the first camp. Accounts such as the exodus, Elijah’s showdown with the prophets of Baal, or Jonah’s exploits in Nineveh I would have declared as actual historical events without batting an eye. For the record, I do believe these events in the Hebrew Bible took place as recorded; however, if the evidence were compelling to see them as purely literary-theological works and the events described therein didn’t literally happen, I would be ok with that. I have come to see the bible as both a book and a collection of books, understanding that each book possesses its own uniqueness while at the same time contributing to a larger narrative.

One thing that still nags at me is somewhat inherent in the statement quoted at the first: if the bible were merely a collection of literary works, however theologically oriented they may be, would I be compelled to think more highly of and worship God, of whom these stories speak so highly? I chose the stories above (the first two primarily) because they are accounts that tell of awesome displays of power and those displays are compelling to me, personally, as reasons to hold a higher view of God than perhaps others might. To know (insomuch as we can “know”) that God has acted in history motivates my worship. This is especially true when it comes to Christ.

I do believe there are plenty of accounts in the scripture that are not actual historical events and I can appreciate them for what they are and what they say/teach about God. But to read the bible without seeing God as having acted in history, however accurately you believe those acts are recorded, seems to miss much of what the biblical authors intended.

What are your thoughts on this matter?

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Are you a hyper-fundamentalist?

If you’re not sure, check out Kevin Bauder’s list and see if you fit the bill. These 8 characteristics are from his chapter in Zondervan’s forthcoming Four Views on the Spectrum of Evangelism.  Yes, I know that such lists are hardly authoritative, but he is awfully accurate. So, get out your pen but pray you don’t have to check off too many!

(via Fundamentally Reformed)

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Post-9/11

Head over to Ben Meyers’ blog Faith and Theology and read Kim Fabricius’ post-9/11 sermon about “the chosen.” It’s well-written and, though you may not agree with everything she says, it’s worth the few minutes it will take you to read it. Here’s a quote:

The Chosen People can in no way be taken to refer to a specific nation-state. To suggest that the United States, or England – or even Wales! – is The Chosen People is sheer hubris based on distorted theology. Even the nation-state of Israel cannot claim the title. No nation-state can. Because after Christ the term no longer refers to a geographical or cultural entity. Because, on the one hand, “being in Christ” has replaced “being in the land”, and, on the other hand, the land has expanded to encompass the whole world. In Christ, all people are Chosen People.

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