Review of “Apologetics Beyond Reason”

Sire_Apologetics beyond reason cover

Moving away from rationally-based arguments to a more experiential (indeed, partly autobiographical) argument for God, James W. Sire’s latest book, Apologetics Beyond Reason: Why Seeing Really Is Believing (IVP, 2014) argues that “There is everything. Therefore there is a God. Either you see this or you don’t”; everything in this world points to God. Delving heavily into literature and art, Sire argues that intuition, or sudden glimpses into God’s presence, abound in the world. This is not contrary to logic; Sire simply emphasizes that these signs of transcendence which people experience and grasp are important pointers to the biblical God.

It is clear from the outset that the book has a more eclectic approach and personal tone than is typical for an apologetics book, which in my opinion works in Sire’s favor. If you’ve read many apologetics books, you may have found the arguments solid, but their tone quite detached and perhaps overly academic. Not so with Apologetics Beyond Reason, which critiques the notion of autonomous human reason, and re-defines apologetics: it is not an argument, but a call to grasp the truth of Christ and commit to him. After laying out his own background and definition of apologetics (preface, chapter 1), Sire explores Christian and non-Christian literature and art which he argues all point to God’s existence.

In chapter 2, Sire points out that people can learn to be aware of their presuppositions and examine whether or not they are sound and the best explanation of reality. However, he repeatedly affirms that human reason alone is insufficient to determine truth (29); as finite, and fallen, creatures, humans can only know the truth if the infinite God reveals himself and his truth to human beings (35, 39). All arguments must begin somewhere, Sire urges his readers to commit: begin with faith in God’s self-revelation, in the witness of the Spirit.

Chapter 3 moves to the “argument from God,” as the author terms it, which notes that Christians can have confidence in human reason (within limits) because of God, who is the source of truth and all creation, and indeed has created human rational abilities to lead to truth and knowledge of him (44-46). Here Sire prioritizes ontology (what exists) before epistemology (how one can know): it is God’s existence and establishing of reality that comes first, making human knowing secondary. Sire refers to this approach as arguing “from God” not “to God” (48).

The fourth chapter argues from literary theory. In literature, a world is created, and the reader can inhabit this creation, in some way experiencing what the world would be like if the creation’s worldview described reality as we know it. Sire views the world humans inhabit as reality, and a person’s lens or filter on reality is their worldview. Literature enables humans to ‘see’ a worldview embodied, and compare it to their own worldview and understanding of reality.

Chapter 5 examines the works of Gerard Manley Hopkins and Virginia Woolf, exploring the ways in which both, in different ways, point to God. With Hopkins, the gestures to God are deliberate, whereas with Woolf, decidedly a non-Christian, the ‘signs of transcendence’ are more implicit. For example, Sire concludes that literature conveys the message that humans are significant, and it also makes moral judgments. Surely moral judgments indicate the existence of another realm from which such values derive (97-98).

Seguing into the works of Goya in chapter 6, Apologetics Beyond Reason describes how the arts can push a person into searching for God, in the questions they provoke and in the fact that artistic works point to the existence of immaterial reality (100, 120).

The book concludes with what Sire describes as the ‘best argument’ of all: the argument from Jesus, God’s self-revelation who answers the deep enigmas of human existence, such as evil, suffering, salvation, reason, and body and soul (124, 131-35).

In short, this book offers a wonderful glimpse into how imagination, manifested in the arts, support a Christian worldview. Instead of explicitly or implicitly presupposing autonomous human reason as the basis for his arguments, the author supports a “chastened reason,” a view of human reason as dependable within limits. Also somewhat unusually in this time, he prioritizes metaphysics over epistemology. This book is an enjoyable and provocative read, and would be helpful to those who desire to expand their view of apologetics. It will not replace the standard texts used to introduce students to traditional Western arguments; instead, it offers a different approach and more personal touch which can bring fresh air to a sometimes stale topic. The book is available in paperback or e-book.

Thanks to IVP for the review copy!

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Congratulations to Mike Kibbe!

kibbe-mike-fprof Congratulations belongs to another PhD student who has successfully defended his dissertation and graduated with his doctoral degree from Wheaton. On March 21st of this year, Michael Kibbe defended his dissertation entitled “Godly Fear or Ungodly Failure? Hebrews 12:18-29 and the Sinai Narratives.” Mike’s work focuses on the book of Hebrews, examining its critique of Israel’s request at Sinai for Moses to be a mediator, a request that receives divine approval in the OT accounts of the story (Exod 20:18–21; Deut 5:23–29) and yet is heavily criticized by the writer of Hebrews. As Mike argues, the solution to this dilemma lies in Hebrews’ summons to Zion and the establishment of the New Covenant through the person and work of Christ.

Mike was guided in his doctoral work by his advisor, Dr. Douglas J. Moo. His second reader was Dr. Daniel I. Block and his external reader was Dr. Kenneth Schenck.

Mike adds his PhD in KibbesBiblical Theology—New Testament to an M.A. in Biblical Studies and Theology from Fuller Theological Seminary and a B.A. in pre-seminary Bible from Cedarville University. He and his wife, Annie, have two children, Sean and Eliana. Mike is currently serving in the role of Visiting Assistant Professor of New Testament here at Wheaton College.

Congratulations Mike! We have been privileged to study alongside you here at Wheaton!

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Forthcoming: The Collected Works of Eberhard Jüngel, Special 80th Birthday Edition

9780567447302_GI was browsing Amazon the other day to see what was forthcoming from T&T Clark. I noticed a forthcoming edition of God’s Being is in Becoming and, upon further inspection, discovered that T&T Clark is republishing his works this December for his 80th birthday. Many of Jüngel’s translated works can be difficult to find (or expensive) and so many should be grateful for this republication. Here’s a list of what will be published:

God as the Mystery of the World

God’s Being is in Becoming

Christ, Justice and Peace

Justification

Theological Essays

Theological Essays II

The Collected Works

I also noticed a festschrift with a great collection of essays. Here is the description:9780567153593

This volume is a collection of essays in honour of Tübingen theologian Eberhard Jüngel, and is presented to him on the occasion of his 80th birthday. Jüngel is widely held to be one of the most important Christian theologians of the past half-century. The essays honour Professor Jüngel both by offering critical interlocutions with his theology and by presenting constructive proposals on themes in contemporary dogmatics that are prominent in his writings. The Festschrift introduces a new generation of theologians to Eberhard Jüngel and his theology. The volume also includes an exhaustive bibliography of Jüngel’s writings and of secondary sources that deal extensively with his thought.

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Book Review: Kingdom through Covenant by Gentry and Wellum

Peter J .Gentry and Stephen J. Wellum, Kingdom through Covenant: A Biblical-Theological Understanding of the Covenants (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012), 848 pages

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“The idea of covenant is fundamental to the Bible’s story” (p. 21)—with this statement Peter J. Gentry and Stephen J. Wellum (GW) open up their extensive work on the metanarrative of Scripture. Integrating exegetical, biblical-theological, and systematic-theological insights, the authors seek to reconsider the nature of and the relationship between the different biblical covenants. On the basis of the assumption that both dominant theological strands—i.e., Covenant theology and Dispensationalism—ground their conclusions on inadequate convictions about the covenant(s), the co-authors set out to present an alternative reading, mediating between these two traditions. This “via media” proposal, labeled as “progressive covenantalism”, stresses “the unity of God’s plan” by tracing “God’s redemptive work through the biblical covenants” (p. 24). God’s kingdom is established through the covenants, which are climaxing in Christ. In this overarching divine plot both the prophetic nature of typology and the culminating role of Christ’s new covenant work as the fulfillment and telos of all the preceding covenant promises are central to understanding the development and function of the new covenant realities. Continue reading

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Review of Clarke, “Pentecostal Theology in Africa”

00_PICKWICK_TemplateIt is widely acknowledged that Pentecostal and charismatic influences are a powerful force in African Christianity. The late Ogbu Kalu accomplished much in describing Pentecostal origins and history on the continent. In Pentecostal Theology in Africa, editor Clifton Clarke aims to continue and expand the study of Pentecostalism in Africa through theological analysis. The volume includes contributions from African and Western scholars, and is divided into two parts: the first analyzes theological currents, the second addresses pragmatic concerns and implications.

The book as a whole is more descriptive than prescriptive, which can be frustrating as contributors rarely disclose their own judgments of the trends they explore. The various contributors examine various ways in which Pentecostalism has been contextualized in Africa, as well as how and why this branch of Christianity gives greater agency to African churches and why Pentecostalism is appealing in an African context. For example, several authors note that the holistic view of Pentecostalism coheres well with traditional African worldviews, such as its acknowledgement and address of spiritual forces at work in the world. The authors offer varying views on how Pentecostals have dealt with African traditional religion. Pentecostal Theology in Africa is more theological than historical in focus, and tends to focus on West Africa without adequately representing other parts of the continent.

Standout essays in the book include Clifton R. Clarke’s tribute to Ogbu Kalu and Clarke’s methodological proposal, John Gallegos’s “African Pentecostal Hermeneutics,” David Ngong’s “African Pentecostal Pneumatology,” David Ogungbile’s assessment of the prosperity gospel in Pentecostalism, and Maria Frahm-Arp’s contribution on how biblical texts form Pentecostal evangelical charismatic views of gender. Unfortunately, Frahm-Arp’s essay provides one of the only instances in the book of engagement with biblical bases for Pentecostal positions.

This book is most suited to graduate students, or readers with some familiarity with Pentecostalism in Africa and African theology. The volume’s strength is the wide range of topics it examines; a weakness is that the majority of the contributors are still Western or located in the West. Was there no way to include more voices from Pentecostals on the ground?

Overall, the volume is a helpful contribution to the field, deepening understanding of the theology underlying African Pentecostalism, deserving 3.5 out of 5 stars. Thank you to Pickwick for the review copy.

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Book Review: Matthew, Texts @ Contexts

Matthew Texts and ContextsFortress / Amazon

Duran, Nicole Wilkinson, and James P. Grimshaw, eds. Matthew. Texts @ Contexts. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2013. Xxii + 351 pp. $49.

Among the myriad of commentaries on the book of Matthew, Fortress has just put out one with a significantly different angle, or perhaps we might say it has several different angles. As part of their new Texts @ Contexts commentary series, this commentary on Matthew edited by Nicole Wilkinson Duran and James P. Grimshaw is a gathering of sixteen essays from scholars of a variety of diverse contexts who have been brought together in order to shed new light on the book of Matthew. These contexts include differing ethnic cultures, religious traditions, and social environments, covering “work conditions, disabilities, ecological trauma, nonviolent resistance movements, post-Communism and globalization, single mothers and preacher’s kids, womanism, and masculinity studies” (1). Although each author represents a differing reading context, the commitment remains for them to be in dialogue with traditional scholarship and faithful to the biblical text in its ancient world context. As the editors state, the goal of the work is to “have a conversation that takes seriously both the ancient text and its many contemporary contexts” (1).

Continue reading

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Review of Georg Walser’s OT Quotations in Hebrews

Wasler, Georg. Old Testament Quotations in Hebrews.Walser WUNT 2/356. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2013.

According to Walser, recent scholarship on Hebrews has failed to take into account the complexity of biblical text-traditions that existed in the first century CE, especially as demonstrated in the burgeoning field of LXX studies (3–4). Walser attempts to resolve this problem by examining the reception history of some texts cited in Hebrews in order to create a more comprehensive picture of the texts available to the author of Hebrews as well as the contexts in which they were used (3).

The bulk of the book (chs. 2–4; pp. 29–183) deals with three texts: Jer 31:33//Heb 8:10 and 10:16; Ps 40:7b//Heb 10:5; Gen 47:31b//Heb 11:21. Each of these chapters has four parts:

1) a brief overview of the relationship between the MT and LXX versions of the OT text under consideration

2) the reception history of that text in early Judaism

3) the reception history of that text in early Christianity (with separate sections for Greek and Latin traditions, up to ca. 500 CE)

4) the form and function of that OT text in Hebrews

These three texts, Walser says, “were chosen because the Old Testament texts quoted existed in different versions at the time when the New Testament text was composed” (190; cf. 23–24). This is one of the strengths of the study: Walser has not necessarily chosen the most significant OT texts for Hebrews (e.g., Ps 110:1, 4), but he has chosen some of the most difficult, simply because our data suggests sufficient textual variation in the first century to make the question of Hebrews’ source material rather complicated.

Chapter Two: Jeremiah 31:33 (38:33 LXX) has one particular variation of interest to Walser: the singular תורה (found in all Hebrew mss) and the plural νόμους (found in all Greek mss except Sinaiticus [32–33]). Walser notes that all early Jewish references to this text have the singular form, and all early Christian references have the plural form, but he admits that “there is no indication whatsoever that the plural of the LXX version was used [i.e., made a point of interest] by any of the early Church Fathers in their interpretation of the text” (85). And yet, he argues, “it is not unlikely that the plural of laws in Jer 31:33 still promoted the interpretation of the law as something other than the Torah” (89). More specifically, the use of the plural form in Hebrews makes it likely that, as was sometimes the case in later Christian use of the text, “the teaching of Jesus was in fact included in what was put into the heart of the people” (88).

Chapter Three: The differences between MT and LXX versions of Ps 40:7b clearly go beyond those of Jer 31:33; here we have “you have dug ears for me” (MT) vs. “a body you have prepared for me” (LXX). The former likely refers to a posture of obedience (rather than the offering of sacrifices), while the latter identifies oneself as the sacrifice to be offered. In this chapter Walser makes three basic arguments: both options appear frequently in early Christian literature (136), the LXX version as it appears in Hebrews (“a body you have prepared for me”) is not, as is sometimes thought to be the case, the product of the author of Hebrews himself (139), and “the meaning of the LXX version is actually the same as the MT version” (140).

Chapter Four: The final text, Gen 47:31b (in Heb 11:21), contains less variation than even Jer 31:33. “The difference between the two versions is, from a technical point of view, very small and only affects the vocalization of the Hebrew consonantal text מטה [either “bed” or “staff”] and the addition of αὐτου in the Septuagint” (142). Thus in the MT, “Then Israel bowed himself on the head of the bed,” while in the LXX, “And Israel did obeisance upon the top of his staff.” Walser further argues that the LXX rendering of מטה probably indicates the object of worship, while the MT rendering identifies the place of worship (182). He concludes that “the meaning of Gen 47:31b in Heb 11:21 is still unknown” (182), but “the main conclusion, and what is most important for the present investigation, is the fact that there actually existed several versions of the Hebrew text at the time when Hebrews was composed, and that there also existed interpretations based on the different versions, which were used by the Jewish community as well as by the early Church” (183).

The strengths of this book are primarily in the data: the central chapters provide a ton of reception-historical information, drawing from every source imaginable: Mishnah, Talmud, Pseudepigrapha, Latin and Greek Fathers, important NT mss (B46 [ca. 200 CE] plays a key role in chapter four), and so on. In terms of primary texts and translations dealing with the three key OT texts, this book will be a go-to reference source. One concluding observation arising from all this data is worth repeating: “in at least some cases the Jewish and Christian communities did not interpret the same text differently, but they interpreted different texts differently, and, as could be expected when using different texts, they came to very different conclusions” (189; emphasis original).

Walser is also right, generally speaking, when he says that literature on the OT in the NT oversimplifies the state of the text in the first century, and in particular that NT scholars would benefit from closer attention to recent Septuagint scholarship (I place myself among the guilty!). I am more confident than Walser about our ability to grasp the meaning of the text by means of the data available to us (see below), but his word of caution against overconfidence and oversimplification of the issues at stake is certainly a valuable one.

On to the weaknesses. First, the title of the book (OT Quotations in Hebrews) is misleading: this book is not really about Hebrews at all, but rather about the reception history of some OT texts that happen to appear in Hebrews as well as scores of other places. The quote from p. 183 given above tells the story: we don’t know what Gen 47:31b means in Heb 11:21, but “what is most important for the present investigation” is that we can know some things about text traditions that existed contemporaneously with Hebrews (183). A similar point arises from his conclusion about Ps 40:7 in Heb 10:5: “later sources have little to add about the understanding of Hebrews in this case” (139)—if the book were actually about Hebrews, this final claim would render the whole chapter rather superfluous.

Second, at least one of the three variations in form under discussion (singular vs. plural “law” in Jeremiah 31; the same might be true of “bed” vs. “staff” in Genesis 47) are inconsequential for their received meaning. Walser repeatedly identifies early Christian citations of Jer 31:33 that use the plural form but make no use of that form in their discussion (57, 58, 60 [2x], 61, 64, 65 [2x], 66, 67, 69, 70, 75, 77, 79, 81, 82, 83), and concludes that, as I cited earlier, “there is no indication whatsoever that the plural of the LXX version was used by any of the early Church Fathers in their interpretation of the text” (85). My question: Why make the form of νόμος the interpretive hinge when there are more important differences between Jeremiah (MT) and Jeremiah (LXX) from which to choose?

Third, I found unsubstantiated one of Walser’s major claims—that “interpretations are not always based on the version of the text that is actually quoted in the context of the interpretation” (17). That is, Walser argues that an author may have quoted the LXX version of Ps 40:7b (for example), but was actually interpreting the MT version. This claim is repeated ad nauseum (107, 127, 138–39, 169, 172, 178, 182, 186, 187, 188, 189, 191), but Walser offers a plausible argument on its behalf only once, in discussing Chrysostom’s correlation of Ps 18:44–45 with Ps 40:7b (121). One possible example a hermeneutical principle does not make.

Fourth, Walser’s use of later material to shed light on Hebrews is not in itself objectionable—undoubtedly, as he assumes, later traditions can be indicative of earlier ones. What is objectionable, however, is his frequent suggestion that the existence of a later interpretive tradition necessarily indicates awareness of that tradition by the author of Hebrews (e.g., 109, 135, 138). This is pure speculation on Walser’s part—possible, but impossible to prove.

Fifth, the book contains other numerous interpretive leaps that seemed to me unwarranted by the available data. For example, he claims that we need not distinguish between quotation and allusion simply because what appears to be an allusion may simply be a quotation of a text-form unknown to us (25). This may be true in some sense, but Hebrews’ unique way of introducing some Scriptures (as direct divine discourse) also suggests that the author is using certain texts for more fundamental rhetorical and structural purposes than others—in this case, Ps 40:7 and Jer 31:33 play a far more significant role in the argument of the letter than Gen 47:31. The distinction between citation and allusion remains important, I think.

Walser also appears to assume that all interpretations are conscious decisions between text-types—that is, interpreters had the various options in front of them and thus a choice for one wasby definition a choice against another (e.g., 158, 168–69).  On a related point, Walser claims that unless an author gives an explicit interpretation of a text, “no clear interaction can be traced between the quoted text and the argumentation of the author” (186, referring to Jer 31:33 in Hebrews 8:10 and 10:16). That is, if I have understood him correctly, we cannot know why authors cite other texts unless they clearly spell out for us why they have done so. These two issues strike me as a rather wooden hermeneutic—the meaning of the text is derivative of purely explicit and external factors.

In light of these issues, I wonder if the only plausible outcome of Walser’s method is differánce—perpetual deferral of any conclusion regarding the meaning of the biblical text. If the version of the text being interpreted is not the one being cited, if the best a dissertation on the OT in Hebrews can say is “the meaning of [the OT text as appropriated by Hebrews] is still unknown,” and if textual meaning is a function of choices between text-types and we don’t know what the options were, when will we ever be able to say anything about the meaning of the text itself? Walser summarizes his project this way: “there is still a lot to be done before a correct evaluation can be made of how the texts could or should be interpreted” (191). But is he asking the impossible, requiring that we do no actual biblical interpretation until one has gathered all the textual variations that existed in the first century and were therefore known to the author of Hebrews?

*Thanks to Mohr Siebeck for providing a review copy.

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