Thursday, July 05, 2012
Response to Friendly Criticism of Understanding Jesus: Five Ways to Spiritual Enlightenment (Paternoster, 2011)
Having read and made extensive notes upon Understanding Jesus: Five Ways to Spiritual Enlightenment (Paternoster, 2011) an Oxford educated now retired Christian minister who is a friend of the family wrote to me with a number of questions and observations to be addressed by way of friendly criticism. I obtained permission to share his notes and my responses (in blue)...
The purpose of the following notes should not be misunderstood. While the general thrust of the book and presentation of its arguments are impressive, along the way there are issues which - unless I have occasionally misunderstood the reason for their inclusion – are to my mind insecure and therefore either detract from the argument, or give ammunition to those who wish to resist it, or probably both.
p 4. Misleading. Individuals named at lines 7-8 from different periods, not all of them early enough to assist the argument. Jury out over Nestorius: was he significantly heretical or not?
In my defence, I was quoting from a reputable scholar on the issue. If some of the names mentioned are too late to be of relevance at least some of the names are early enough to be of relevance. It seems clear that the earliest heretics were Gnostic or proto-Gnostic, and that they would have downplayed the physical humanity of Christ. Certainly the problem Ignatius faced around the turn of the 1st century was people denying the humanity of Christ rather than denying his deity, so I think the basic point stands.
p 7. Wording is odd: how can you believe you know? (Unless there is a subtle epistemological point here)
The subtle epistemological point is this: you can believe that you know something without actually knowing something (i.e. you can be sincerely wrong). My point here, contra the new atheism, is that the belief in Jesus exhibited by Ignatius and other second generation Christians was not an example of ‘blind faith’, but an example of people believing things they thought they knew to be true on the basis of adequate evidence. I am not, at this point, claiming that their beliefs were true or did constitute knowledge. Rather, I'm pointing out that, right or wrong, they thought they knew about Jesus (on the basis of eyewitness testimony), a claim with which one can agree even if one thinks their belief was wrong. However, this observation is incompatible with the neo-atheist misdefinition of ‘faith’ as necessarily blind.
p 12. Tertullian and Origen rather late to support the case
The sources listed on page 75 were written up to 145, 162 or 315 years after the events they report, and yet would feature in ancient history. Weak evidence is better than no evidence. That said, I did mention several other names on page 12 in the course of making my point, e.g. Clement and Polycarp.
p 26 and elsewhere. I find these diagrams and tables irritating but perhaps this is just me. I find it is an attempt to put an argument into boxes rather like a civil servant trying to explain something to me, as a rather thick citizen, on the government website.
I like the diagrams and tables and many books use them. I well remember the effect this type of bar chart had on me when I first saw them – much more powerful than a mere verbal report of the facts.
p 28. I can recall the time, was in 50 years ago, when philosophers thought that their sole task was to consider in some detail what words mean, while they rejected metaphysics as somehow improper.
p.98. 'Jesus personally encouraged his disciples to adopt such an attitude towards him' = reverencing him as divine. I'm not really sure about this. Typically the Synoptic Jesus is reticent about his identity. A neglected factor in the argument here is the early preaching of the gospel as recorded in Acts. The thrust of Peter's sermon at Pentecost is that the identity of Jesus emerges as a consequence of events, rather than as the motivator of them. If the argument around page 98 is sound, we might well expect a different presentation of the relevant matters in the early preaching. See also the sermon at the Beautiful Gate and Paul's first sermon.
I would say that it was events in the context of the claims that were jointly sufficient for the disciples understanding of Jesus. I’m not making claims about what the disciples understood at any particular stage of Jesus’ ministry, but about what Jesus was claiming over the course of his ministry.
It seems to me that the disciples were increasingly certain that Jesus was the Messiah (e.g. because they saw more and more healings, exorcisms, nature miracles) but, simultaneously, increasingly confused by Jesus’ understanding of what it was to be the Messiah (which was, on the whole, an inversion of contemporary expectations). The crucifixion all-but shattered their faith in Jesus, but the resurrection vindicated and transformed it (cf. Thomas: ‘My Lord and my God’, etc.)
Peter’s Pentecost sermon certainly begins with miraculous events – after all, Pentecost is taking place (!); but why does Peter think these events legitimate his designating Jesus as ‘the Lord’, ‘your Holy One’, ‘the Christ’, ‘Exalted [to the father’s right hand]’, saying he has ascended to God, saying he is ‘both Lord and Christ’? In particular, what about inviting people to repent and be baptised ‘in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins’ and to receive the Holy Spirit of God through such faith? Surely, because the resurrection and other miracles vindicate the personal claims that Jesus had made about himself through his teaching.
My focus in mounting the trilemma argument is the evidence concerning what Jesus verbally claimed for himself both implicitly and explicitly. As I show, the bottom line is that there is early and pervasive evidence, both indirect and direct evidence, that Jesus did verbally lay claim to divinity in both implicit and explicit ways.
pp 108-9. The argument from prophecy demands greater exposition and I note will get it, later in the book. There is a genuine exegetical problem regarding the key Old Testament passages concerned, namely, that the interpretation of these in the New Testament is typically selective rather than incorporative. The claim that Jesus relied on the Suffering Servant picture of Dt-Isaiah to designate himself and his purpose, is highly controversial for this reason
As you say, I come on to this subject later. I hope that my later discussion of typology may have mitigated some of these concerns.
p.116. Comparisons and contrasts between John and the Synoptic Gospels is a minefield. John's account of Peter's presence at part of the trial is compelling, whereas Matthew and Luke do not agree as to the point when Peter left the judicial proceedings. It might be perilous to make too much of Peter's presence as a witness to the key declaration of Jesus, therefore
On page 116 I don’t compare and/or contrast John and the Synoptics. Nor do I think I make ‘too much’ of Peter’s presence as a witness to the trial. Peter clearly did have quite a lot on his plate at the time! Nevertheless, he was there in person and a possible source of eyewitness testimony about the trial. Rather, in response to the question of who could have known what went on at Jesus’ trial, I simply point out that: 1) Luke says in his gospel introduction that he did historical research, and that there might have been documents of the trial he could have accessed, 2) Luke mentions Joanna the wife of Herod’s steward, who is another possible source, 3) that several members of the council were possible sources of info on the trial and that 4) John (a probable eyewitness) reports Peter and John both being at the trial. There is no lack of possible, plausible witnesses to Jesus’ trial.
p.145. In passing, I was surprised to find no reference in this discussion to Cardinal Newman's rejection of Hume's fallacious point of view
I can’t read everyone. Besides, I simply don’t have room to mention everyone I read. If I had quoted Newman, you might well be surprised that I had not quoted (as I did) John Earman’s noted recent treatment of Hume!
pp.147-8. I found myself asking, in reference to the quotation from Isaiah 40, whether the first hearers of the phrase 'a highway for our God' would imagine this to be a prophecy of God due to come in person, or rather a prophecy of God's presence evident in the action of selected and godly human beings (the same caveat has to be issued with regard to Craig's comment at the end of the quotation from the latter on pages 155-6). In any case, the syllogism on page 148 opens a can of worms. I am a long way from being up in the latest literature, but my recollection of these matters is that the Jews of Jesus' day did not suppose that Messiah was necessarily a divine figure, but a special and chosen messenger and figurehead from God. There has been a long argument about this and to assume one conclusion from several possible others is risky without supporting reasoning.
According to Dr. Norman L Geisler: ‘The Old Testament foreshadowings of the Messiah also pointed to his deity. Hence, when Jesus claimed to fulfil the Old Testament messianic predictions he thereby also claimed the deity attributed to the Messiah in those passages.’ - Christian Apologetics (Baker, 1979), p. 332.
I could have made use of Messianic prophecies from Isaiah 9:6-7, Psalm 45 and Psalm 110:1.
I could also have been more explicit about Malachi 3’s talking about the messenger (identified by Jesus as John the baptist) preparing ‘the way before me [God]. Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple…’ – adding how Jesus came to the temple, called it his Father’s house and made various other very significant claims about himself in the temple (e.g. ‘before Abraham was, I am’ – John 8:58). cf. http://carm.org/religious-movements/jehovahs-witnesses/isaiah-403-mal-31-matt-33-prepare-way-lord
Then again, I could have talked about the overlap between Jesus’ self-designation as Messiah and his use of ‘the Son of Man’ designation, e.g. Daniel 7:13 ff (but I go into this elsewhere): Jesus claims to be the Messiah and he claims to be the Son of Man, hence Jesus claims that the Messiah and the Son of Man are one and the same person (i.e. himself), hence whenever Jesus claims to be the Messiah he is also implicitly claiming to be the Son of Man, with all that this entails.
p.159. 'To lay claim to... story wasn't made up'. I have puzzled about this and I still don't quite understand the logic of what is being claimed.
To make up a historical claim and get people to believe (or at least not to question it), one would be well advised to make up an event that wasn’t a) public, b) highly unusual and memorable in nature, c) subject to multiple eye-witnesses and hearsay witnesses in d) a specific, findable, geographic location. That this story breaks these common-sense rules is thus one indication that it wasn’t made-up.
p.164. David Winter is a nice chap but not a pundit. It doesn't help the status of the argument to quote someone who is a faithful priest and effective broadcaster but at best a secondary source in terms of the apologetic matter offered by the book. The same can be said mutatis mutandis of Michael Green (evangelist and priest), Lee Strobel (journalist) and even the much loved former Spurgeon's principal Raymond Brown, (Baptist minister with a doctorate in Church history - unless you mean the other Raymond Brown, an American RC biblical scholar).
I’m not sure exactly what this note refers to, as p. 164 is simply a book list that doesn’t contain anything by Brown, Green or Winter. However, on the general topic of quoting ‘non-scholars’, I think this is appropriate in a book such as this aimed at a non-specialist audience. I did of course do a lot of research and when I quoted from non-scholars I felt that what they said was an accurate summary of the facts of the matter. For example, while I quote David Winter at the start of chapter 5 on page 165, what he says is, I believe, true. I quoted scholars Graham Stanton and Graham Twelftree making much the same basic point as Winter on page 157.
Dr. Michael Green was educated at Clifton College and Exeter College, Oxford (Bachelor of Arts 1953, Master of Arts 1956) and subsequently at Queens' College, Cambridge (Bachelor of Arts 1957, Master of Arts 1961, Bachelor of Divinity 1966) while preparing for ordained ministry at Ridley Hall. He has been admitted to the degree of Doctor of Divinity by the Archbishop of Canterbury (1996) and the University of Toronto (1992). Green works with the Oxford Centre for Christian Apologetics (a joint project of RZIM international and Wycliff Hall, Oxford) and has co-published on apologetics with Dr Alister McGrath.
Lee Strobel is a well-regarded popular apologist who is generally summarising the thought of other, eminently credentialed scholars whom he has personally interviewed on the record for books that report their conversations. Even so, I am aware of certain criticism of Lee’s work and don’t rely on him where I know his claims are questionable.
In sum, while these non-academic voices might not be suitable sources for an academic thesis, they are good communicators of their material, which I only quote when I believe it to be accurate.
As for quoting Raymond Brown on page 153, from An Introduction to New Testament Christology (London: Geoffrey Chapman, 1994), this is indeed the noted American Roman Catholic scholar!
p.184. 'If we can refute all other theories... we will have proved the truth of the resurrection...' and p.195 'the failure of arguments... means that resurrection is the only adequate explanation'. This is the Sherlock Holmes approach to the dilemma, that is, that if all probable explanations for an event are disproved, the impossible must be the explanation. Of course I am committed to the objective truth of the Easter story, but there is a logical gap here which will not escape a professional philosopher: the alternative to accepting the impossible is that there is an adequate explanation that no one has yet encountered, and from the point of view of a certain kind of rationality, the resulting suspension of judgement is preferable. This is the reason, apart from brute rejection and unbelief, why a comprehensive defence of the Resurrection narrative such as the book provides does not result in mass conversion! Candidly, I think the existence of this chance for a suspension of judgement is what God intends in the general nature of things, but that is another matter.
As you point out, the crucial thing about an argument by elimination is whether or not the argument rests upon a false disjunction. However, this issue is mentioned p. 184 by Kreeft and Tacelli, who note that the argument doesn’t need to be watertight if it works with ‘live options’, so that one isn’t concerned that maybe Jesus was actually a Martian, etc. Believing Jesus to be a Martin, or whatever, looks far less plausible than the ‘live options’ of deceit or delusion on the part of the disciples, for example. If the resurrection is a better explanation that the best ‘live’ alternatives options one can imagine, then this is a good reason to accept the resurrection.
Moreover, argument by elimination is not the only argument form given in the chapter, since p. 195-196 discusses the ‘argument to the best explanation’ form of the case given by William Lane Craig and N.T. Wright.
The recommended resources take a wide variety of methodological approaches to the resurrection.
p.188. Jewish expectations of the identity, behaviour and destiny of Messiah are a minefield of study and scholarship. This arises later in the book (chapter 6) and I merely note now the apparent conflict between Craig's first point (the absence of Jewish expectation of a convicted and executed Messiah) and Geisler's claim, reported on p.218, that Jewish rabbis in Old Testament times considered Isaiah 53 to be a description of Messiah.
I suppose that Geisler and/or Craig might be taken as speaking in general terms without ruining either point; but it is also worth remembering that people aren’t necessarily consistent in their beliefs!
On the one hand, Norman L. Geisler is far from my only source for believing that the traditional interpretation of Isaiah 53 was Messianic, and certainly not the modern ‘nation of Israel’ interpretation. Dr Arnold G. Fruchtenbaum (systematic theology, New York University) agrees that:
‘the historical Jewish interpretation of Isaiah 53 is that it speaks of the Messiah, not of the nation. In fact, the first rabbi ever to claim that Isaiah 53 speaks of the nation and not of an individual was Rashi, about the year A.D. 1100. I might add that he was opposed in this interpretation by the majority of the rabbis of his day; and the rabbis continued to oppose his interpretation for centuries after him. Historically, it was not until the 1800s that the “national interpretation” of Isaiah 53 became the dominant rabbinical view.’ – ‘The Messianic Prophecies Fulfilled in Jesus’, The Big Argument: Does God Exist? (ed. John Ashton & Michael Westacott; Master, 2006), p. 339.
Jewish Christian scholar Dr Michael L. Brown states:
‘Early Jewish interpretations about Isaiah 53 are varied… But nowhere in the classical, foundational, authoritative Jewish writings do we find the interpretation of this passage refers to the nation of Israel. References to the servant as a people actually end with Isaiah 48:20. Many traditional Jewish interpreters, from the Targum to today, had no problem seeing this passage as referring to the Messiah… They didn’t have any difficulty interpreting it independently of the preceding context of the return from Babylonian exhile.’ (in Lee Strobel, The Case for the Real Jesus, Zondervan, 2007, p. 213.)
Craig A. Evans points out that: ‘both the Great Isaiah Scroll of Qumran and the Masoretic Text appear to view Isaiah 52:7-12 and the well-known Song of the Suffering Servant, 52:13-53:12, as two related units, perhaps with 52:7-12 introducing the song. Interestingly enough, this is how several modern commentators understand the sense of Isaiah 52-53, even though no reference is made to the Great Isaiah Scroll. Even the later Aramaic translation and paraphrase called the Targum links Isaiah 52:7 with the Song of the Suffering Servant. We see this in a change of wording in 53:1. The Hebrew’s, ‘Who has believed our report?’ becomes in the Targum, ‘Who has believed this our good tidings?’ This means that the good tidings (or gospel) announced by the prophet in 52:7 have to do with the Lord’s Suffering Servant in 53:1. Indeed, the Targum goes on to identify the Servant as none other than the Messiah.’ – Jesus and His World: The archaeological evidence (London: SPCK, 2012), p. 79.
On the other hand, as I note elsewhere, under the pressure of the Roman occupation the Jew’s of Jesus’ day had apparently forefronted the glorious, victorious, kingly aspects of messianic prophecy at the expense of the suffering servant aspect. The disciple’s behaviour in the gospels certainly bears out the belief that they wanted Jesus to ‘kick Roman butt’ (e.g. Peter carrying a sword to the garden). Jesus upended these expectations by placing the suffering servant in the here and now and the conquering king at the second coming (some later Jewish thought apparently made the less economical move of splitting these two paradoxical functions between two different Messiah’s – cf. http://jewsforjesus.org/publications/issues/15_5/returningking).
cf. Dr. Michael L. Brown’s work on this topic in e.g. The Gospel According to Isaiah 53 (ed. Darrell Bock & Mitch Glasler; Kregel) www.kregel.com/Media/MediaManager/Chapter2.pdf and in Answering Jewish Objections to Jesus (Baker, 2003).
Lee Strobel and Mark Mittleberg discuss fulfilled prophecy:
p.199. The closing quotation from Craig is theologically vital: it is the identity of the raised one which really matters. This factor represents one reason why no one bends might and main to defend the historicity of the raising of the son of the widow of Nain, for example. I would have thought there was a case in any revision of the book to make more of the identity of the one raised as an additional reason for accepting the truth of the Easter story.
I agree with you that it is a good point well worth flagging up. I thought I'd made the point sufficiently clear by making it the very conclusion of the chapter.
pp.213-4. Here the chapter begins to get into deep waters. The translation of Genesis 49:10 is insecure. The interpretation of Daniel 9:24-26 is disputable: even the very conservative New Bible Commentary isn't sure about it! Old Testament scholarship deserves better treatment than it receives in these all-too-brief discussions.
I admit to being dependent upon my referenced source, among others (e.g. Jewish Christian scholar Dr Michael L. Brown), for this interpretation of Genesis 49:10. However, Rabbi Zlotowitz remarks: ‘The general consensus [with a few exceptions] of rabbinic interpretation is that this phrase refers to the coming of the Messiah. This passage accordingly constitutes the primary Torah source for the belief that the Messiah will come. The overwhelming consensus of Rabbinic Commentary interprets this verse to allude to the Messiah.’ Again: ‘Rashi says that the verse refers to the Messiah. Targum Onkelos renders the verse as referring to the Messiah. Nachmanides agrees, as does Rabbi Ashtruc in the commentary Midrashei Torah, and Gur Aryeh, and Rabbi Sforno, and Midrash Tanchuma, the Jerusalem Targum, Targum Pseudo-Jonathan, Yalkut, the Talmud, and Midrash Rabbah.’ (cf. http://hadavar.org/drupal/book/export/html/110).
As for Daniel 9, I was well aware of the controversies surrounding this passage and noted in the book that ‘The interpretation of this passage is much discussed’ before providing what seems to me to be ‘one plausible reading’ thereof on the basis of my research. Again, I am reliant upon my referenced sources. In addition, cf. www.thechristianrabbi.org/messianicappearance.htm
I would note that neither passage forms a central part of my case. I don’t calculate any odds off these passages for the prophetic odds calculation I give in this chapter, and should these interpretations be wrong my overall argument would thus not be greatly affected.
p.215 (and admittedly I begin to declare my concern with the argument from prophecy). I would not include many of these texts as genuinely messianic and so I regard this accumulation of references as, frankly, mistaken. The problem is not my own personal taste commitments, but that in a book of declared converting purpose such disputable material may detract from that purpose in the minds of those for whom it is intended.
pp216-9. These pages need an essay, not a notice. In summary, the points to consider would be (1) it is plain enough that in deutero-Isaiah, the servant of the Lord is indeed the people of Israel (for example 44:2). Distinct passages in this document are generally understood to be 'servant songs' relating to Israel collectively. Why should Isaiah 52:13 ff, the fourth song, be any different? It is different in that it is not quite clear who the speaker or speakers are and whether he/they change in the course of a longish passage: but this does not mitigate against the claim that the servant is Israel. It is possible to argue that Jesus is going to define himself as the personification of Israel collectively, but this contention would take us into the realm of Jesus' self-understanding in his use of this and other Old Testament categories, together with the theory that Jesus engaged in an original reworking and combining of them: but this claim is not quite what the argument of the book says. (2) we are given a sympathetic (to the argument) English version of the fourth servant song: other translations produce verses or part-verses which cannot possibly be true of the individual Jesus, but then of course we are into highly technical argument concerning the exact meanings of Hebrew words and pointings (3) it is worth asking what possible purpose the prophet, speaking for God, would have had in speaking to the people in Babylon (assuming the theory of the multiple authorship of Isaiah) of a coming, individual sin-bearer, or what possible meaning the people would have given this. In other words, over- enthusiastic interpretation fails to consider the sitz in leben concerned (4) I am not at all sure that Geisler is correct in saying that the rabbis considered the fourth servant song to be indeed a prophecy of Messiah: all my teaching, admittedly long ago, was otherwise, to the effect that Jesus' use of this passage to describe himself and his ministry was original to him, but I am not in touch with the latest research (5) in any case it is vigorously argued by some New Testament scholars that Jesus did not use the suffering servant picture of himself (although Peter certainly does in his first letter and Philip may have done in his encounter with the Ethiopian eunuch). All this means there is a great deal of argument here and my concern is that a single-minded statement of one point of view, devoid of the acknowledgement that there are others, detracts from the sense of fairness which is important to the effect of the book on educated and potentially convertible minds and hearts: on the reasonable assumption that this is the kind of reader from whom the book is intended.
See my previous comments about Isaiah 53.
Pp 219-22. You can guess that I'm not any more satisfied with the appeal to the text of Psalm 22. A good deal of, to my mind, spurious thinking has been erected on the premise that in quoting the first verse of this psalm, while in extremis, Jesus had in mind this or that further verse(s) within it and its/their historical/theological implications. What, in such appalling agony of body? Surely this is unnatural special pleading. In any case, the later parts of the psalm are triumphant, restorative, peaceful and not true of the crucified and dying Christ.
I can only say that it doesn’t strike me – or many other commentators - as implausible that the suffering Jesus would be quoting scripture on the cross (he is certainly reported as saying various things from the cross by multiple witnesses). Dr. Michael L. Brown affirms that Jesus ‘applied Psalm 22 to himself on the cross.’ (The Case for the Real Jesus, p. 199.) Psalm 22 is an obviously relevant Psalm for him to quote. Jesus’ crucifixion is a moment of triumph as well as of suffering; the triumph of his submission to the will of the Father despite his fear of the cross exhibited in the garden, the inauguration of the new covenant discussed at the last supper, etc. Jesus’ final cry of ‘it is finished’ comports with the ending of Psalm 22: ‘It is done’. Dr Arnold G. Fruchtenbaum notes that ‘the rabbis in the Yalkut (another Aramaic paraphrase) also understood the passage to refer to Maschiach ben Yosef.’ – op cit, p. 353. Professor John H. Reumann concludes that: ‘Jesus’ death is veiled in language of the Twenty-Second Psalm. A case can be made that he himself thought and expressed himself in its words, in typical Klagelied piety.’ – ‘Psalm 22 at the Cross’, http://int.sagepub.com/content/28/1/39.full.pdf
Pp 223-8. I'm grateful for this section and amused that it manages to touch on the each of the historically important theories as to the meaning of the atonement bar one, that is, the classical or Victor theory. The rejection of the penal substitutionary theory, historically important in modern evangelical history, will bring some stern rebuke on Peter's head and the suggestion in very strict quarters that the book should be read only in closed rooms and must be handed from person to person only in brown wrappers. The rejection, however, is in line with what I think is the best modern evangelical thinking, although as I indicate it is controversial.
While I don’t reject the biblical language or image of substitution, you are quite right in picking up on the fact that I reject at least certain widespread understandings of ‘substitutionary atonement’. I appreciate your comments here about my being in line with the best modern evangelical thinking on the matter.
p.229. I think we have a tangle here and in the immediately following pages. I can't see it is in any way unavoidable that Paul really did believe the parousia ('second coming') would take place just round the corner and in his lifetime. The reasons why he should conclude that this was the case, and even that he did, are disputed of course, as is almost everything in biblical eschatology. I think the book attempts to soften this feature of New Testament textual difficulty or even explain it away. Strict biblical conservatives cannot accept it because they then have to accept that Paul's perspective changes as he gets to the Pastoral letters, and the idea that the perspective of inspired Scripture should change is unacceptable: but their dilemma is only avoided by getting two or three separate pairs of knickers in a twist simultaneously. It's a very uncomfortable experience.
Note. Perhaps I've read the wrong books or was raised theologically speaking at the wrong time: but I find this chapter the least satisfactory of all so far. I thoroughly agree with the brief summary on page 234 of those elements in Old Testament prophetic writings which Jesus, so to speak, took to himself and acted out as illustrations of his purpose and mission: but as the book points out, this is not quite the normal understanding of the 'argument from prophecy'. Among other things I'm grateful for, however, is the illuminating excursus on foreknowledge and free will: I have always accepted the commonsense of the point of view expounded, without being able to express it so lucidly. 'True wit is nature to advantage dressed,/What oft was thought but ne’er so well expressed' (Alexander Pope)
I don’t deny that maybe Paul and certainly many other early Christians thought that Jesus would come back in their lifetimes – but I do deny that the New Testament teaches that Jesus would indeed return during the lifetime of Paul and the other early Christians.
Paul clearly believed that he was living in the end times, that Jesus might come back any day and that Christian life should be lived in the expectation of the second coming and also that the time of Jesus’ return was unknown, that there was no problem with Jesus returning after people who had become Christians had themselves died, etc.
Paul’s familiarity with Jesus’ teaching about his return – which teaching clearly rejects a specific schedule for the second coming - is reviewed by David Wenham, Did St Paul Get Jesus Right? TheGospel According to Paul (Lion, 2010), p. 72-76.
I’m glad the rather philosophical point about foreknowledge and freedom was clearly communicated and well taken.
p.243ff. I could not decide whether Peter (author, not apostle) thinks that religious experience is a separate strand of proof which can stand alone, so to speak; or whether he is arguing that, given the testimony accrued in previous chapters, religious experience on the part of believers is a concomitant line of evidence only. Perhaps I have read it all too quickly.
I am making a cumulative case which requires that one think each element of the case have some weight to add to the overall case, but wherein the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. A cumulative case is not like a chain of links that is only as strong as its weakest link, but like a steel rope made up of multiple intertwined strands. As far as my argument goes, religious experience may or may not stand sufficient alone – this is something I am happy to leave the reader to decide from their perspective.
p.246ff. The expression 'words of knowledge' arises from traditional translations and exegesis of 1 Corinthians 12:8. Quite apart from the evidence adduced in these pages, the fact is that this traditional exegesis is hotly disputed and may be misconceived. The assumption among people of charismatic inclination that it refers principally to the kind of unexpected, expressed insights Peter describes is disputed, say, in the vast commentary on 1 Corinthians by Anthony Thistleton (pages 938-944).
The point at issue here is of course the actual occurrence of ‘words of knowledge’ in the ‘charismatic’ sense (the one’s I reference arose in Church of England congregation). I think it would be a mistake to decide the meaning of 1 Cor 12:8 absent the evidence adduced for the kinds of insights mentioned in this chapter, for if such event do occur then the plausibility of taking this verse to mean that such events occur is thereby increased. The verse and the events are mutually reinforcing. Still it’s the events that I need for my argument, not the specific interpretation of the verse in question.
p.256ff. I was in some measure amused by the listing of miracles of healing known to sundry esteemed personalities, in the light of the fact that one of Pete's allies is Dr Peter May who has spent much of his time debunking claims of miraculous healing (and I once found myself interviewing him and reporting on his debunkings) by Morris Cerullo, among others. While I was a newspaper editor, I also attended healing events conducted by two well-known evangelical figures and concluded without hesitation that the individuals concerned were hucksters, though I could not possibly say so in print for fear of having a writ land on my editorial desk: so I described what I had witnessed at the events concerned and let my readers make up their own minds. I conclude that a reference to the difference between the genuine and the spurious would have been appropriate at this point in the argument. From a different point of view, there is a difficulty with laying too much stress on miracles of healing, namely, that most sick people don't experience them. The pastoral consequences of helping someone through their complaint that 'God doesn't love me as much as he loved that person' or that 'God isn't fair, he just heals some people and lets others go on suffering and there's no reason why he should do this' - are very real: not to say the pastoral consequences of trying to explain to people, if explanation is available, why God appears to be willing to answer some fervent prayers and to turn his back on others. These issues are so hard to deal with from the pastoral point of view that most pastors pray with the sick but don't pray for them, that is, not for their recovery, so as not to add to their burdens. The retelling of a handful of healing stories therefore creates apologetic difficulties of an unintended kind: the brief reference to the problem at the foot of page 272 does not solve them.
Dr May has done the church sterling service in routing out false miracle claims, and he is keen to emphasise the qualitative difference between the healing carried out by Jesus in the New Testament and the majority of healing today; but he does agree with me that the existence of counterfeits doesn’t exclude the existence of the genuine article.
Wanting to focus upon the evidence for what I know to be a contentious claim, I was left with little space to address the obvious corollary question of fairness. As a pastor you may be particularly sensitive to the pastoral issues here. I think my remarks on pages 272-273 offer a sufficient, if brief, apologetic response: 1) healing is a supererogatory gift and not a right, and 2) whatever question about God’s ways of working in the world may be raised by thinking that a miracle has happened - whether in the Bible (where Jesus clearly did not heal everyone in the world at the time) or today - that question can’t be used to abrogate the evidence that raised it, or inferences from this evidence, without sawing through the branch upon which it rests. However, perhaps I should have said more on the pastoral subject. For example, I could have noted that evidence for miracles of healing, exorcism and words of knowledge are of course evidence of good things being done for people, and that good things are more likely to be done by a good person than a bad person; whilst more general religious experience clearly involves an experience of the goodness and/or holiness of God. I could also have reminded readers that several other parts of the book deal with the question of Jesus’ moral character and his suffering on our behalf, and that this context helps to deal with the issue here.
In short, when writing the book I wanted to acknowledge rather than ignore the obvious issue, but to do so in a way that flagged up both why I wasn’t able to take more time to deal with it and which pointed to resources for dealing with it. Hence I raised it at the close of the chapter, just before the recommended resources, which contained many resources dealing with the problem of evil.
p.277. The definition of the kingdom as 'what life would be like if... human lives' is surprising, despite its source. Most New Testament scholars known to me would be far more emphatic as to its meaning, and indeed placed the emphasis elsewhere. Further, the paragraph moves from the essentially Synoptic phraseology of 'Kingdom of God' to the Johannine phraseology of shepherds, sheep and gates without explanation or mention that kingdom concepts virtually vanish in John.
I am of course here merely jogging the reader memory as to the earlier discussion of the kingdom of God, cf. pages 106 ff. At this point I’m basically doing systematic theology, not a study of the differences between Synoptic and Johannine expressions of the gospel.
p.281. The exposition of the 'birth from above' metaphor strikes me as mistaken. It is explained as 'God's gift of himself to human beings' but birth is something that happens to you and which you cannot resist: nor can the woman giving birth arrest the process, though that may be to press the metaphor too far. It is the essence of any gift, however, that it can be resisted or returned.
The exposition here is Professor Dallas Willard’s. I would think it is pushing the metaphor of the ‘new birth’ too far to use it to say that one has no choice about being born again. To be reborn is to enter into a second form of life, enabled by the indwelling Spirit of God – but this new life is a gift that can clearly be refused. cf. John 3:3-21.