On “Real Children” and British Spies

On “Real Children” and British Spies

I recently watched a detective show. One character sat in a restaurant next to a British spy, a senior MI-6 official, who happened to be a traitor. A gun half concealed in his pocket, he asked the Brit why he’d done it. The spy calmly ate his food and smirked at the weapon as only British spies can do.

He explained that MI-6 was populated by posh types—the sort who went to the right schools, the best universities, who had the right connections. “I came up hard,” the spy rasped, resentment smoldering in his eyes. “They let me in the club, you see, but never fully …”

Unfortunately, it didn’t turn out so well for the Brit. He was murdered by the NSA, as a result of a deal brokered by the other guy, who was framed for murder by the British guy, who was secretly working for the Iranians … It’s complicated! But, we can understand the British spy’s resentment. Americans often don’t like social class as a status marker. We like to believe anyone can earn a place at the table if he works hard. These two paths, class vs. merit, seem contradictory.

And yet, in a strange way, the dominant religious context in Israel in Jesus’ day held that both social class and hard work were paths to righteousness. If you were a Jew, then you were born with immense privilege. The popular sentiment was to really hate the Gentiles as the other, the inferior. The poor MI-6 spy wouldn’t have approved. And yet, the New Testament also shows us that former Pharisees kept pushing a “obey the Mosaic Law + Jesus” formula as the path for Gentile salvation (Acts 15:1-2; Gal 2:11-21). Secular Americans might appreciate this—if you work hard, you get your reward!

In this section, Paul tells us this is all a lie. Who is a child of God? The one who is born into the right class? Or, maybe the one who works hardest? Neither. I’ll let him explain …

This is part of a commentary series through the Book of Galatians. It began with Galatians 3:1-6. This series will progress until the book is finished, then circle back and cover ch. 1-2. This article covers Galatians 3:23 – 4:7.

Before the coming of this faith, we were held in custody under the law, locked up until the faith that was to come would be revealed.

Galatians 3:23

The NIVs translation might give the impression that, before Jesus came, believers were imprisoned by the Mosaic Law. It sounds negative, harsh—a terrible burden to be endured. But, we can also translate both phrases here (“held in custody” and “locked up”) in a positive sense (see the NLT translation here). If so, we have a statement that reads something like “… we were guarded by the law—hemmed in until the faith that was to come …”

Because Paul doesn’t see the Mosaic Law as an evil thing (when properly understood), he’s probably writing in a positive sense. The Mosaic Law was a guardrail that hemmed us in until the Messiah arrived with the New and better Covenant in hand. It was a positive thing, a protective shield.

  • Its ceremonial laws told us how to maintain relationship with God, teaching us about Jesus’ coming sacrifice by way of repeated, living object lessons.
  • Its moral laws codified principles of right and wrong.
  • Its civil laws helped maintain social order in the messiness of real life.

In Galatians 3:22 (“Scripture has locked up everything under the control of sin”) we saw Paul refer to Scripture in general as teaching no hope for “righteousness by works.” But here, he’s talking about something different.[1] He’s saying that, because we can’t be good enough to earn salvation ourselves (cp. Gal 2:21), God gave us a guardian, a watcher, a custodian to protect us while we waited for the Messiah. That custodian was the Mosaic Law.

So, the law didn’t lock us away for a millennium while we pined away for Jesus to set us free—the Psalmist certainly didn’t feel that way (“the precepts of the LORD are right, giving joy to the heart,” Ps 19:8)!

What did the law do, then?

Well, just like parents do with their own children, our Heavenly Father set boundaries and standards to govern our lives until the time came for our childhood to end. It ended when Jesus revealed Himself and His mission—“until the faith that was to come would be revealed,” (Gal 3:23). Now, “faith in God” means faith in Jesus Christ and everything He came to accomplish.

It wasn’t a new thing in the sense of being a “bolt from the blue.” No—it was simply the fulfillment of all the old promises. This is why Jesus didn’t start at the beginning (“Hi. My name is Jesus. There is only one God, and lemme tell you about Him …”). He didn’t have to explain as if He were a Martian who crash landed in a flying saucer. Instead, He assumed His audience would understand Him when He said, “The kingdom of heaven has come near. Repent and believe the good news!” (Mk 1:15).

So the law was our guardian until Christ came that we might be justified by faith. Now that this faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian.

Galatians 3:24-25

The faith about Jesus has now been revealed. The law used to be our guardian, but its time has now passed. The word for “guardian” here was often used to describe a servant who led a boy to and from school—a watcher and guide. That was the Mosaic Law’s purpose—not a vehicle for salvation, but a set of guardrails to keep our brothers and sisters from the Old Covenant headed the right way “until Christ came.” It “kept us under discipline, lest we should slip from his hands.”[2] This guardian’s purpose[3] was to make us long for a better way to deal with our sinfulness, a permanent solution. And, “now that this faith has come,” the law can be put away.

We’d be wrong to think “this faith” means salvation as we know it didn’t exist before, or that “justification by faith” was a new concept. This is just Paul’s shorthand way of saying “explicit faith in Jesus as the agent of salvation,” (cp. Simeon’s words in Luke 2:30). Abraham was justified by faith, too (Genesis 15:6)! But, God has filled in the details about“this faith” more and more as the bible’s storyline has gone along.   

Now that Paul has clarified what the Mosaic Law’s purpose was (to be a guide, a watcher, a guardian for us), he explains the implications of the New Covenant.  

So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.

Galatians 3:26-27

If you are in union with Christ Jesus—bonded to Him, joined together by faith—then you are a child of God. Not just you, but you and everyone else who has done the same. As we saw earlier, Paul loves this metaphorical picture of “union,” and he deploys it in many ways. Now, he asks us to picture a baptism, an immersion under water, a submersion which joins us to Christ. It’s as if, by faith, we’re fused to Christ by way of this baptism which plunges us beneath the waves and joins us to Him. Now, as we emerge from these metaphorical waters, we’re clothed with Christ Himself. He is us and we are Him. We’ve been made new. Paul will elaborate at length about this same picture in Romans 6.

There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

Galatians 3:28

In Christ’s new covenant family, this world’s ethnic, socio-cultural, and gender barriers are breached and torn down. This doesn’t mean those distinctions cease to exist in real life. It just means the corrupted value markers these distinctions represent in our fallen world have no cachet in God’s kingdom family.

  • If you’re a Jew who believes Jewish people are inherently superior, then you’re wrong. This was a common prejudicial assumption by some in Jesus’ day—but no more![4] Babylon’s culture is upended in Christ’s kingdom family.
  • If you’re a slave who believes you’re somehow less than a free brother or sister, Paul wants you to know that’s all wrong. Those class markers are obliterated—God doesn’t care about them at all.
  • If you’re a woman who is told patriarchal[5] norms are the way things are supposed to be, then Paul says this is all wrong. Those cultural prejudices are gone—men and women are equal in God’s family.[6]

The Judaizers would have the Galatians become their (wrong) kind of Old Covenant Christian as a pre-condition for entering the family—a “Jews vs. everyone else” kind of attitude. Paul says, “No!” For good measure, he tosses the socio-cultural and gender categories into the mix and says they’re also fake preconditions. The only thing which makes you a child of God is faith in Jesus—“the work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent,” (John 6:29). And, once a child of God, the racial, economic, and gender distinctions which this world abuses so much are relativized into proper proportion.

We are all one in Christ Jesus. Our collective diversity isn’t abolished but relativized and integrated into the one mosaic that is Christ’s family. “In other words, it is a oneness, because such differences cease to be a barrier and cause of pride or regret or embarrassment, and become rather a means to display the diverse richness of God’s creation and grace, both in the acceptance of the ‘all’ and in the gifting of each.”[7]

In short, Paul shows us a radically re-shaped social world. “The unavoidable inference from an assertion like this is, that Christianity did alter the condition of women and slaves.”[8]

If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.

Galatians 3:29

Who is a true child of Abraham? The one who belongs to Christ—the penultimate son of Abraham (Mt 1:1). Anyone who says Jewish people are the “real” children of Abraham are wrong. This has never been a genetic identity marker, but an ideological one—the true believer is the real son or daughter of Abraham and an heir according to the promise.

What promise is this? It’s the covenant with Abraham summed up as a single “promise bundle.” Once again, here they are:

Paul is saying that anyone who belongs to Christ is a child of Abraham and therefore an heir to all these promises. “So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith,” (Gal 3:26). There is no Jew v. Gentile distinction, now or forever. Elsewhere, Paul said a mystery that has since been revealed is that “Gentiles are heirs with Israel, members of one body, and sharers together in the promise of Christ Jesus,” (Eph 3:6). Jesus has made these two groups into one, creating “one new humanity out of the two,” (Eph 3:14, 19). Gentiles are “no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household,” (Eph 3:19).

Why is Paul saying this? Because he wants his audience to know how wrong the Judaizers are. They don’t understand what the Mosaic Law is about. It was a guardian, a guide, a guardrail to keep God’s people true until the Messiah arrived.

What I am saying is that as long as an heir is underage, he is no different from a slave, although he owns the whole estate. The heir is subject to guardians and trustees until the time set by his father.

Galatians 4:1-2

Jesus has now come and gone, and so the training wheels can be put away. The time set by our heavenly Father has arrived—that’s what Jesus said (“the time has come!” Mk 1:15)! Any believer is a child of Abraham, an heir according to the promise, and it’s all by trust in Jesus—not by a legalist “checklist” view of the Mosaic Law.

So also, when we were underage, we were in slavery under the elemental spiritual forces of the world.

Galatians 4:3

The analogy is easy—an underage heir might be an heir, but he doesn’t have any of the rights until he actually inherits the estate. But, when he does inherit, the guardians go away. So far, so good.

Paul says it’s similar with us before Christ saved us. But, what he says here is hard to understand. It’s difficult enough that I’ll spill a few ounces of ink spelling it out. What does the phrase behind the NIVs translation “elemental spiritual forces of the world” mean? The word means “the basic components of something.”[9] This could refer to anything—the physical world, physics, Star Wars, a decent espresso. It could also refer to the transcendent powers that control this world. So, for example:

  • Paul warns the church at Colosse to not be fooled by hollow and deceptive philosophy, “which depends on human tradition and the elemental spiritual forces,” (Col 2:8). This seems to mean the components which make up the false teaching from which they ought to run away. Or, it could refer to the demonic forces which rule this present evil age.
  • The person who wrote to the letter to the Hebrews said that by now they ought to be able to teach others about the faith, but instead “you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God’s word all over again,” (Heb 5:12). Here, the word means the ABCs of the Gospel—the rudimentary first principles they should have mastered long ago.
  • Peter said that one day, when the day of the Lord arrives, “the heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire …” (2 Pet 3:10). This means the components of the natural world will melt away to make way for the new creation.

But, what does Paul mean here? Because Paul hasn’t spoken about evil spiritual forces at all in this section, it probably means the “basic components” of some kind of teaching or doctrine. He’s been talking about the Mosaic Law[10]—warning against a false understanding of it. His audience is the Christians in the various churches in Galatia—some are Jewish and others are Gentile. He seems to be talking to both ethnic groups as one body (see Gal 4:8). So, it’s probably best to see the NIVs “elemental spiritual forces of the world” as referring to the false teaching, axioms, and principles we believed in before we come to Christ.

As we see it, the passage has reference to definite principles or axioms, according to which men lived before Christ, without finding redemption in them … And since the apostle speaks of being held in bondage under these rudiments, we shall probably have to think of the prescriptions and ordinances to which religious man outside of Christ surrendered himself, and by means of which he tried to achieve redemption.[11]

For the Jewish people, that false teaching was that wrong view of the Mosaic Law—the idea that God gave it as a vehicle for salvation. For Gentiles, it was whatever “spirit of the age” we followed. There are many teachings like this floating about today. Be true to yourself! Live your truth! Don’t let anybody tell you who you really are, inside! You do you! The times change, but the song remains the same.

So, Paul basically says (referring here to Jewish Christians like himself who have since seen the light), “so also, when we were underage, we were in slavery to this wrongheaded ‘follow the Law to earn salvation’ idea …”

For, even though the law itself was of divine origin, the use that men made of it was wrong. Those who lived under the law in this unwarranted way lived in the same condition of bondage as that under which the Gentiles, for all their exertion, also pined.[12]

But now, Christ has come and set the record straight. He’s the light which brings revelation to the Gentiles, and glory to Israel (Lk 2:30-31)—sweeping aside all false teaching and wrong ideas and drawing a line in the sand. He’s made these two groups into one, “for through him we both [i.e. both groups] have access to the Father by one Spirit,” (Eph 2:18).

But when the set time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those under the law, that we might receive adoption to sonship.

Galatians 4:4-5

The time came. Jesus arrived on Christmas morning. He was born under the authority of the Mosaic Law to rescue us from the law’s curse. The word “redeem” here means liberation from captivity in a slave market context. The idea is something like “rescued us from slavery for a really steep price.” Earlier, Paul said Christ had “redeemed us from the curse of the law,” (Gal 3:13). He means the same thing here. Christ came to set us free—all of us, Jew and Gentile—from the penalty of capital punishment that the Mosaic Law imposed because of our sinfulness. Jesus did this so we’d be adopted as sons and daughters in God’s family. Again, adoption has nothing to do with who your parents are. It has to do with faith in Jesus.

Because you are his sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out, “Abba, Father.” So you are no longer a slave, but God’s child; and since you are his child, God has made you also an heir.

Galatians 3:6-7

If you’re indwelt by the Holy Spirit, you’re a son or daughter of the King. You’re not a “slave” or underage heir waiting for title to the estate (see the analogy at Gal 4:1-2). Now you’re God’s child. The adoption metaphor is beautiful—an adopted child isn’t born into a family; she’s simply brought into it because the parents decide to show love. This is what God has done with we who are His children—we’re each adopted from Satan’s orphanage. And, because you’re His child, you’re also an heir—no matter who you are or where you’re from.

The Judaizers are peddling such a different message! They say, “do this, do that, follow these traditions, and you’ll be saved!” That’s why Paul called it “a different gospel,” (Gal 1:6). Our MI-6 spy might be confused, but he’s dead so I suppose it doesn’t matter. It’s not by merit or class that you enter God’s family. It’s simply by faith.

[1] Galatians 3:22 refers to the Scripture as being condemnatory, but in Galatians 3:23 Paul depicts the Mosaic Law as supervisory (Richard Longenecker, Galatians, in Word Biblical Commentary, vol. 41 (Waco: Word, 1990), p. 145). This observation is more inspired by Longenecker than a direct attribution—he saw Galatians 3:22 as referring to the Mosaic Law (Galatians, p. 144), whereas I disagree and believe it is Scripture in general.  

[2] Bengel, Gnomen, p. 4:30. 

[3] The Greek is a purpose clause (ἵνα ἐκ πίστεως δικαιωθῶμεν), explaining why the guardian was what it was. 

[4] If you’re interested in more about this attitude and how it shaped the actions of the religious leaders in Jesus’ day and the time period from the Book of Acts, see Alfred Edersheim, Sketches of Jewish Social Life in the Days of Christ (New York: Hodder & Stoughton, 1876), ch. 2 (https://bit.ly/3Y4hmxH). There are more up to date and scholarly books available, but this one is available for free to anyone with an internet connection, is short, and is accurate.  

[5] I mean “patriarchy” in this sense: “The predominance of men in positions of power and influence in society, with cultural values and norms favouring men,” (Oxford English Dictionary, s.v. “patriarchy,” noun, no. 3). 

[6] Paul’s statement has obvious social implications for how Christian men and women ought to relate to one another in marriage, in the New Covenant family, and in a Babylon society. However, Paul does not elaborate on that here, so neither will I.

[7] James D. G. Dunn, The Epistle to the Galatians, in Black’s New Testament Commentary (London: Continuum, 1993), p. 208.

[8] Henry Alford, The New Testament for English Readers: A Critical and Explanatory Commentary, New Edition., vol. 2 (London; Oxford; Cambridge: Rivingtons; Deighton, Bell and Co., 1872), p. 343.

[9] See (1) Walter Bauer, Frederick Danker (et al), A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 3rd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago, 2000), s.v. “στοιχεῖον,” p. 946, (2) Henry George Liddell (et al.), A Greek-English Lexicon (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996), p. 1647; (3) Timothy Friberg, Barbara Friberg, and Neva F. Miller, Analytical Lexicon of the Greek New Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2000), p. 357.

[10] “… certainly what Paul has primarily in view here is the law, and that as an instrument of spiritual bondage,” (Ronald Y. K. Fung, The Epistle to the Galatian, in NICNT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988; Kindle ed.), KL 2263).

[11] Herman Ridderbos, The Epistle of Paul to the Churches of Galatia, in NICNT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1953), pp. 153-154. See also (1) Henriksen, Galatians and Ephesians, p. 157, and (2) Hovey, Galatians, p. 52.

[12] Ridderbos, Galatians, p. 154. 

The Bible–Puzzle or Telescope?

The Bible–Puzzle or Telescope?

We need to read our bibles. God wants us to read our bibles—it is the story of Him revealing hidden things to us we would otherwise never know! Fair enough. But I first want to ask an important question—what is the best way to think of the Scriptures?

Different Christians answer in different ways; most often as the result of the different emphases of their theological traditions mediated from seminaries to pastors. How you answer the question above will determine what you think happens when you read your bibles. Only one of these answers is the best answer—which one is it?

We will first take a look at a passage from Psalm 119, then look at two possible frameworks for reading Scripture (a puzzle or a telescope?), then wrap up with what I feel is the best approach.

Words Which Give Light

Psalm 119 is a beautiful love song to God’s revelation. Today, on this side of the Cross, we often assume the psalmist is simply talking about the Bible (e.g. “I have hidden your word in my heart,” Psalm 119:11). But he was probably talking about revelation in a general sense.

“Revelation” is when God personally unveils Himself to His people to communicate things we would otherwise never know.[1] God revealed Himself in many ways—through visions, prophecies, individual guidance, dreams, divine appearances, angels, direct speech, most definitively in Jesus Christ (God’s “Word” (Jn 1:1, et al), His revelation, message, and literal speech embodied in the incarnation) … but also in written records. Strictly speaking, the bible is more an inspired and truthful record of God’s revelations than “the” revelation all by itself.[2] My point is that, while my comments here will focus on the Scriptures, all references in Psalm 119 to “the word” are probably about more than “the bible.”

Think about what the psalmist says in Psalm 119:129-136. He says God’s statutes are wonderful, and this loveliness drives him to loving obedience (Ps 119:129). This is not the rote obedience of a legalist, but the joyful response of a good child. He declares “the unfolding of your words gives light; it gives understanding to the simple,” (Ps 119:130). As God communicates to us (however He does it—“words” here means “speech”), His light shines into us, bringing understanding even to the most ordinary among us. God’s speech, His message, unspools and casts light into our hearts, minds, and souls—into our very being. 

So, the psalmist wants more and more—“longing for your commands,” (Ps 119:131). He wants more light, more understanding, more relationship. He wants to be a better child. He knows relationship with God is not about rote doctrine. “[R]evelation is primarily a spiritual transaction rather than mere illumination of the intellect … [i]t is easy to see how far removed this is from the bare communication of truth to the mind.”[3] It is “those who love your name” (Ps 119:132) who receive mercy, not “those who follow the checklist.”

So, when the psalmist asks God to “direct my footsteps according to your word” (Ps 119:133), he is asking for more than “help me not do that bad thing again.” There is that, but the reason why he asks “let no sin rule over me” is because he loves God and wants to be an obedient child (cp. Deut 6:4; Mk 12:28-32; Mt 9:13 (cf. Hos 6:6)). He even asks to be rescued from those who hinder him from obeying God’s precepts (Ps 119:134).

When he asks “make your face shine on your servant” (Ps 119:135), he is playing on God’s personal revelation as a luminescent cloud. Just as Moses came down from the mountain with his face all aglow from actual contact with Yahweh, so the psalmist figuratively asks for God to turn to him with blessing, with favor, with divine help—“teach me your decrees.” His love for God flows so deep that “streams of tears flow from my eyes, for your law is not obeyed,” (Ps 119:136). This is not the fuming rage of a legalist (cf. Jn 9:19-34), but the sorrow of a child brokenhearted about externalism in the congregation.

As we consider the psalmist’s attitude about God’s revelation, His “word” (in any format), let us return to the question I asked at the beginning—what is the best way to think about the Scriptures?

  1. a puzzle piece we look at to categorize knowledge, or
  2. a telescope we look through to see, know, experience, and love God?

Which model does our passage best suggest? To answer this question, we will consider each model in turn.

Bible as a Puzzle

When you believe the bible is one big puzzle to be sorted into categories, with various passages filed under this heading or that (“the proper task of theology is to exposit and elucidate the content of Scripture in an orderly way”),[4] then you may tend to read in a cold, analytical, and sterile fashion. It does not mean you will have this attitude—it just means you may lean in that direction, to greater or lesser extent.

  1. Faith can unwittingly become about intellectual knowledge. Do you believe Jesus is the Son of God? Do you believe in the virgin birth? Do you believe Jesus died on the Cross? Do you believe in the resurrection? And so it goes—intellect can unconsciously supplant trust, love, and commitment.
  2. And so, bible study can unconsciously degenerate into an autopsy—cold, dispassionate, clinical.
  3. We end up reading the bible for doctrine, for knowledge—not for love (notwithstanding the honest caveats).

This is often more an attitude or ethos than a conscious decision. Let me share one example from one very influential evangelical theologian from yesteryear. He is discussing the definition of “revelation.”

I have learned a lot from Carl Henry. I like Carl Henry. But, where is the love? Henry saw the Scriptures as a puzzle to be sorted, filed, indexed. A theologian was like a lawyer preparing a brief—“logical consistency is a negative test of truth and coherence a subordinate test.”[5] He looked at Scripture to find truth. This mindset may produce something like the following, which is largely a precis of some of Henry’s system:

  1. God reveals Himself through the bible—all knowledge (even revelation about Christ[6]) flows from the Scriptures. It is the “basic epistemological axiom.”[7]
  2. God does not reveal Himself as personal presence. That would open the door to a subjective mysticism. Instead, He reveals Himself via propositions—“a rational declaration capable of being either believed, doubted, or denied.” Revelation must be cognitive, which means it must be propositional, which means the Scriptures are the ballgame,[8] and the implication is the bible is a storehouse of data.
  3. Therefore, the Spirit’s job in this context is to help us interpret this data that is the bible. He has no meaningful role apart from this.[9] Henry saw danger when the Spirit was “severed from the Word,” and by “Word” Henry meant the Scriptures, not Jesus.[10] Representing this perspective downstream from Henry, John MacArthur did not misspeak when he wrote that the bible “is the only book that can totally transform someone from the inside out.”[11] It is telling that MacArthur did not credit Jesus with granting life, but rather the bible (energized with “Spirit-generated power”).[12]
  4. So, the most important thing we can do is study the bible. “Only the Bible can effect that kind of change in people’s lives, because only the Bible is empowered by the Spirit of God.”[13] The inevitable corollary is a strong defense of Scripture’s integrity, which explains the emphasis from these quarters on Scripture’s inerrancy.
  5. And so, our focus may subtly shift from relationship with the Messiah to whom the bible points, to “the bible” itself—to doctrine, knowledge, cold logic. Henry did not think rationalism was an error, so long as it was based on valid premises.[14]
  6. The bible becomes, de facto, the only channel for relationship with God. This is why many Christians who trend towards “knowledge” as their relationship paradigm for God are very uncomfortable with the “Jesus reveals Himself to Muslims via dreams” issue—because the bible is not in the driver’s seat. In a similar way, these Christians often speak about the Spirit to say what He does not do—it is frequently negative. I suspect these Christians are wary of something non-rational, something supernatural, something they cannot understand with the intellect.[15]

Here is an example. Sometime in years past, I was with a group of pastors, and we were discussing the “problem of evil.” One pastor brought up an example of someone who “walked away from the faith” after suffering sexual abuse as a teen. The woman told her pastor that, if her abuser ever became a Christian, “I could never share heaven with him!” 

A man in the group stabbed the air with a forefinger. “Her attitude is that ‘I’m more righteous than God, and so I’m more qualified to make a decision about that person’s fate!’”

There was a moment of silence. I suggested, “Maybe she’s just really hurting? Maybe that’s all that was behind that comment.”

You see, to him, there is not a person here with feelings—there is only icy logic, a remorseless conclusion based on theology. He did not see people who hurt—he saw problems to be categorized into doctrinal cubbyholes, to be sorted, filed, tagged. In practical terms, he unwittingly acted as if the Bible were a cadaver, and the question at hand was an excuse to grab a scalpel, slice it open, and pick at it. This man read the bible for knowledge. It was cold. Clinical. There was no love.

Of course, not everyone is like that pastor. But, some pastors (and some ordinary Christians) are not too far downstream from this. There is a better way!

Bible as a Telescope

At the back of all this is this question—what is a relationship with God about? There is a continuum, with “love” and “knowledge” at opposite poles. A ditch lies at either end—God is either Jello or an iceman. Both poles are important (it is kind of important to know about God, after all!), but you will likely tend towards one over the other—Carl Henry certainly did.

So, let me declare this—love must be the foundation for your relationship with God. Moses said it. Jesus affirmed it. I think that is pretty definitive! On this continuum, trend towards love.

If you think faith is about love and trust in Jesus, you will look through the bible to connect to God. But, if you think faith is about information about Jesus, then you may look at the bible as an end in and of itself. This last approach misses the point.[16]

Let me give you a few examples:

  1. You love espresso. You have an expensive espresso machine. Which is more important—the machine or the espresso it produces? The espresso, of course! Suppose someone objects, “Well, without the machine, we wouldn’t have espresso!” This is missing the point—the goal is to drink espresso! The machine is only valuable insofar as it makes the coffee.
  2. You have a telescope. It is a great telescope—the best! You set it up in your backyard, ready to go. Someone keeps gushing about the telescope; its the features and its general awesomeness. “Isn’t it great?” he asks. It might be a wonderful telescope, but the goal is to look through the scope to see the heavens! The telescope is not the point—it is simply a means to a greater end. It is a tool. To obsess over the telescope is to miss the point.

What I am suggesting is that the bible is a telescope. It lets us see, know, and experience God. It channels God, by the power of the Spirit. It does not exist for its own sake—its only job is to provide a scope to look through to see God and experience Him. We do not look at a telescope—we look through it to see the heavens. In the same way, you look through the Scriptures to see God—you do not look at it!

We saw from our text that as God’s revelation unfolds to us, it brings “light” to our eyes, giving understanding to the simple (Ps 119:130). The Scriptures (God’s truthful record of His revelation) are a telescope which bring God into focus, make Him present, confront us with Him for teaching, rebuking, correction, for training in righteousness (2 Tim 3:16)—“direct my footsteps according to your word” (Ps 119:133).

In another place, the psalmist says, “Your word is a lamp for my feet, a light on my path,” (Ps 119:105). God’s revelation lights our path so we can find our way to Him, so Jesus—the true light (Jn 1:9)—can shine upon we who are in darkness and guide our feet into the way of peace (Lk 1:79). Elsewhere, Solomon says our spirit is “the lamp of the Lord, that sheds light on one’s inmost being,” (Prov 20:27). We are lamps waiting to be lit by Yahweh—“light and life to all He brings!” (cp. Jn 1:4). His revelation—ultimately Jesus as the light of the world—illuminates us from the inside out. The Scriptures are a witness to that revelation (Jn 5:46)—they connect us to Jesus.

Read the Scriptures with Love!

This is what I’m saying, in the end:

  1. Read the bible to know God, not to know about God. This is not a call to toss doctrine to the winds—it is not a “we don’t need no theology in this here church!” attitude. It is a plea to keep warmth, love, and personal encounter with Christ via the Spirit at the forefront. Carl Henry was right to acknowledge that personal faith is a gift of the Spirit,[17] but I fear some who follow in his theological train unwittingly make the same acknowledgments in a pro forma manner.  
  2. Read the bible to love God, not to love facts about God. The demons know true doctrine and it does them no good (Jas 2:19)! “The purpose of theology [and bible reading!] is to clarify the propositions involved in faith, but we must never mistake belief in propositions for the faith.”[18]
  3. Read the bible to grow closer to Him in relationship, not to pick at Scriptures with tweezers.

I have one more example to give. Many years ago, I spoke to an individual who did not believe spiritual illumination helped us understand the bible. Instead, she said the Spirit “allows me to receive the text as it is.” I asked her to explain. She said the Spirit never helped people agree on what a text means. She said she had people in her church who were more spiritual than she, but worse bible interpreters—thus a person’s spirituality was irrelevant. The matter would always be settled by grammar, syntax, rules of interpretation.

I interrupted and asked her flat out, “Are you saying you never pray and ask to understand the bible?” She grimaced, then stammered a bit. “I don’t want to say the word ‘understand’ …” She then rallied, and repeated that interpretation was always settled by grammar and interpretative rules, and that the Spirit simply “enables me to accept the text as it is.”

Basically, she followed Carl Henry. She looked at the Scriptures to discover truth from the ink on the page or the pixels on the screen—she did not look through them to see, know, experience, and love God. If we are not careful, our faith may grow cold and rational. Emil Brunner remarked that “[t]his confusion, this replacing of personal understanding of faith by the intellectual, is probably the most fatal occurrence within the entire history of the church.”[19]

We need to read our bibles, but in the right way! 

  1. I like my espresso machine, but only because through it I see my espresso—the machine is a means to an end.
  2. We love our bibles, but only because it is a telescope we look through to see, know, and love God.
  3. The bible in your hand is God’s divine means to an end, and that end is a relationship with Him.
  4. It is not a puzzle we look at—it is a telescope we look through.

So, when you read your bibles, read them with an attitude of love—not the attitude of a mortician—so that through the Scriptures you can see, experience, and love God. Read for formation, not simply for information.[20]

[1] See Edgar Mullins, The Christian Religion in its Doctrinal Expression (Philadelphia: Roger Williams Press, 1917), p. 141. 

[2] This need not be categorized as a neo-orthodox statement. Long before Barth or Brunner put pen to paper, Edgar Mullins repeatedly called the Scripture “the record of God’s revelation,” (Christian Religion, pp. 137, 140, 142), as did Alvah Hovey before him (Manual of Christian Theology (New York: Silver, Burdett and Company, 1900), pp. 42, 85.   

[3] Mullins, Christian Religion, p. 141. 

[4] Carl F.H. Henry, God, Revelation, and Authority, vol. 1 (Waco: Word, 1976), p. 238. See especially ch(s). 13-14.

[5] Henry, God, Revelation, and Authority, p. 1:232. 

[6] To Henry, the Scripture is the reservoir or conduit of divine truth (Thesis No. 11, God, Revelation, and Authority, vol. 4(Waco: Word, 1979), p.7). It is the end of the line. The Spirit’s role in this context is to illuminate the Scripture (see Thesis No. 12, God, Revelation, and Authority, p.4:129) by enlivening it so we understand what it says. He only helps us interpret but imparts no new information (God, Revelation, and Authority, pp. 4:273, 275)—this is illumination, according to Henry. The Christian looks at the Bible as an end in and of itself.

[7] Henry, God, Revelation, and Authority, pp. 1:218f. 

[8] See Henry, God, Revelation, and Authority, pp. 3:455-459. 

[9] To Henry, the Scriptures are the vehicle and the Spirit simply shines a light upon them. “God intends that Scripture should function in our lives as his Spirit-illumined Word. It is the Spirit who opens man’s being to a keen personal awareness of God’s revelation. The Spirit empowers us to receive and appropriate the Scriptures, and promotes in us a normative theological comprehension for a transformed life. The Spirit gives a vital current focus to historical revelation and makes it powerfully real,” (God, Revelation, and Authority, p. 4:273).   

[10] Henry, God, Revelation, and Authority, pp. 3:482f. “The Bible supplies no basis for the theory that the logos of God must be something other than an intelligible spoken or written word.”

[11] John MacArthur (ed.), The Inerrant Word: Biblical, Historical, Theological, and Pastoral Perspectives (Wheaton: Crossway, 2016), p. 19.

[12] This relentless focus on the Scriptures to the exclusion of anything else led Emil Brunner to intemperately accuse such adherents of idolatry. “The habit of regarding the written word, the Bible, as the ‘Word of God’ exclusively—as is the case in the traditional equation of the ‘word’ of the Bible with the ‘Word of God’—an error which is constantly on the verge of being repeated—is actually a breach of the Second Commandment: it is the deification of a creature, bibliolatry,” (Revelation and Reason: The Christian Doctrine of Faith and Knowledge, trans. Olive Wyon (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1946), p. 120). 

[13] MacArthur, Inerrant Word, p. 20. 

[14] “The Christian protest against rationalism in its eighteenth-century deistic emphasis on the sufficiency of human speculation unenlightened by divine revelation is legitimate enough. What is objectionable about rationalism is not reason, however, but human reasoning deployed into the service of premises that flow from arbitrary and mistaken postulations about reality and truth. Christian theology unreservedly champions reason as an instrument for organizing data and drawing inferences from it, and as a logical discriminating faculty competent to test religious claims,” (God, Revelation, and Authority, p. 1:226). Emphasis added.

[15] Carl Henry wrote, “There is but one system of truth, and that system involves the right axiom and its theorems and premises derived with complete logical consistency,” (God, Revelation, and Authority, p. 1:227). 

[16] For the position I am advocating, see especially (1) Emil Brunner, Revelation and Reason, pp. 3-57, 118-136, and (2) William Hordern, A New Reformation Theology (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1959), pp. 31-76.  My telescope analogy is from Hordern (p. 70). For a helpful cautionary note hitting the brakes on Brunner (et al) while disagreeing with Henry’s more rationalistic perspective, see Millard Erickson, Christian Theology, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2013), pp. 157-163. See also James L. Garrett, Systematic Theology, vol. 1 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990), pp. 168-182 for a solid, helpful discussion on the bible and authority in Christianity.   

[17] Henry, God, Revelation, and Authority, p. 1:228.

[18] Hordern, New Reformation Theology, p. 72.  

[19] Emil Brunner, Truth as Encounter: A New Edition, Much Enlarged, of ‘The Divine-Human Encounter’ (London: SCM Press, 1964), p. 165.   

[20] Justo Gonzalez, Knowing Our Faith: A Guide for Believers, Seekers, and Christian Communities (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2019), p. 27. “… our main purpose in reading the Bible must not be information, but rather formation. When we read, for instance, the story of Abraham, what is important is not that we learn by heart the entire route of his pilgrimage, but rather that somehow we come to share that faith which guided him throughout his journey.”

Translating John 1:1-18

Translating John 1:1-18

Here is my translation of John 1:1-18, from the NA-28 Greek text. The notes in the text are footnotes, not the verse numbers–I did not include verse numbers:

In the beginning was the Messenger—God’s living embodiment of Himself,[1] and the Messenger was with God, and the Messenger was God.[2] This Messenger was there at the beginning[3] with God. Everything was created through Him, and apart from Him not one thing was created. Life was in Him,[4] and that life was the light for[5] men and women. The light is shining into the darkness, and the darkness has not overpowered it.[6]

A man arrived, sent from God. His name was John. He came to be a witness[7]—to testify about this light[8] so that everyone might believe through John.[9] This man was not that light, but came to testify about the light.

This light was[10] the true light[11] who shines upon all people, and it was coming into the world.[12] He was in the world, and this world was made by Him, and the world did not acknowledge Him. He came to His own, and they did not welcome Him. But, to as many as received Him, He gave them permission[13] to become God’s children. He only gave this permission to the ones who trust in His name[14]—not those who are born from normal descent, or from sexual passions, or from our own scheduled birth plans, but those born from God. 

And so, the Messenger became a human being and lived among us. We saw His majesty—glory like that of the one and only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. John was bearing witness about the Messenger, crying out and saying, “This is the one I was talking about, when I said, ‘The one who arrives after me is mightier than me, because He existed before me.’”[15]

This is why[16] from the Messenger’s unlimited supply[17] we have each received one gracious blessing after another.[18] For the law was given through Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ. Nobody has ever seen God at any time. The one and only God, whom the Father holds so dear[19]—He has made Him known!

Here is the Christmastide sermon I preached from this text. I didn’t use my own translation for the sermon, because I find that sometimes confuses people. So, I stuck with my normal preaching translation–the NIV (2011):

[1] This word carries a wide semantic range. Here, it refers to Jesus as the embodied personification of God’s message (Mounce, Expository Dictionary, pp. 1201, 448, 803). Mounce notes “[t]his flexibility has its root in the use of logos in Greco-Roman literary culture, where it could stand on its own for the spoken word, ‘a message,’ as well as what one does, ‘a deed,’” (p. 803). LSJ notes the term in this context means Christ personified as God’s agent in creation and world-government (Greek-English Lexicon, 1996, p. 1059; cf. BDAG, p. 601, ¶3). The “word” here is God’s divine message, personified in Jesus (Friberg, 3c). See especially Moises Silva’s conclusion on this matter (NIDNTTE, 3:169). 

Because “logos” here is a noun, I decided to render it as Messenger. One could argue I should be explanatory, and write “in the beginning was ‘God’s self-revelation’ or ‘very personal message.’” I chose not to do that, because I believe “logos” throughout this section refers to Jesus as a proper noun. So, I opted for Messenger, and I’ll leave it at that.

[2] In a copulative sentence with two nominatives, the one with the article is typically the subject. See Richard Young’s discussion (Intermediate Grammar, pp. 64-66). 

[3] I believe the preposition is specifying a point in time, which I rendered as “there at the beginning.”

[4] I take the preposition to be expressing metaphorical space. It’s tempting to go with association (“with Him was life”), but that isn’t what John appears to be saying (cp. John 5:26). 

[5] This is an objective genitive. 

[6] The phrase “the light is shining” is an imperfective aspect (present tense-form), while the “darkness has not overpowered it” is the perfective aspect (aorist). In the latter case, John seems to be viewing the darkness’ defeat as an undefined whole, viewing the situation in one grand sweep as if from a helicopter or via drone footage. The light is still shining, and the darkness has not overcome it.

[7] Woodenly, this reads “he came for a witness.” But, the word “witness” is a noun, which indicates that was why John came—to be a witness. 

[8] This is a subjunctive purpose clause which functions in apposition to the description of John as a witness. 

[9] The pronoun in ἵνα πάντες πιστεύσωσιν διʼ αὐτοῦ refers to John, not to Jesus. Both antecedents preceding and following this refer to John.

[10] This is an imperfect “being” verb, and you have to supply the subject—in this case, it is “the light.” 

[11] Here, both nominatives have the article, so we operate by Rule 3d in Young (Intermediate Grammar, p. 65), and conclude the first nominative is the subject, and the second is the predicate nominative. 

[12] The participle is an adverbial participle of attendant circumstance. It’s tempting to see means or reason, but I don’t think they fit.  

[13] God gives them the power to become His children. But, to forestall the idea that salvation is something we do, a translation ought to try to convey that. I think “permission” does the trick, here. See BDAG (p. 352, ¶2) and especially LSJ (s.v. “ἐξουσία,” 1996 ver.) for the rendering of “permission to.”

[14] This phrase τοῖς πιστεύουσιν εἰς τὸ ὄνομα αὐτοῦ is usually moved and folded into the middle of v.12. It’s an apposition, further explaining to whom Jesus gave permission to become God’s children. It doesn’t have to be moved to the middle of v.12; it can stand here on its own as an introduction to v.13. This makes better sense, or else v.13 just begins with no connective tissue. It’s the ones who believe in Jesus who get this permission, not those who are born from blood (etc.) It’s cleaner to leave this clause at the end of v.12. Because I’m leaving it here at the end (as it is in the Greek), I have to be a bit explanatory—which is why the sentence doesn’t simply begin with “to the ones who …”

[15] This sense has several different senses: “The one who arrives after me (in time—this is not about being a disciple of John) is mightier than me (i.e. before John in rank), because He existed before me (in time).

[16] The conjunction here specifies reason—the grounds for knowing something is true. John was right to say that Jesus is mightier than he—this is why from the Messenger’s unlimited supply we have each received … etc.). 

[17] The sense here is Christ’s fullness, completeness, the sum-total of His being (see BDAG, p. 829-830, ¶3b; LSJ, s.v. “πλήρωμα,” ¶6). Christ is a reservoir, dispensing grace upon grace. I chose to follow Julian Anderson’s translation (The New Testament in Everyday American English) and render this as “unlimited supply.” This might be a bit more concrete than John intended, but I feel the communicative clarity is worth it. 

[18] The best sense seems to be multiple graces being piled up on top of one another, like rolling waves. The NIV 2011’s rendering of one single grace surpassing another single grace seems to refer to the Old v. New Covenants, but I don’t think this is correct. But, I won’t quibble with those who like it.

[19] The well-known expression here is “in the bosum of the Father.” This really means something like “in closest association with” or “really close to.” See the discussion in the UBS Handbook on the Gospel of John. 

The church is a subversive society

The church is a subversive society

The president of Southern Seminary is on record as saying that government funding for religious schools is wrong, that Baptists “consistently oppose” the public reading of Scripture in public schools, and he even agonized over whether it would “subsidize religion” for churches to be tax-exempt.[1] This president is not Al Mohler, but his predecessor Edgar Mullins, writing in 1908. Some religious outsiders (and perhaps not a few Baptists) would be surprised to learn this. Yet, Mullins was no maverick—so why do his views seem so out of step with evangelical political discourse today?

Broadly speaking, church and state relations can be framed as four choices:[2]

  • Theocracy. The church controls the State. For example, Rousas Rushdoony, an architect of Christian Reconstructionism, believed the Great Commission was about the church’s mandate to remake society. He declared that focus on salvation of souls at the expense of this mandate was “heretical.”[3]
  • Constantianism. The State favors the church, which in turn accommodates itself to the government. This is a quid pro quo partnership.
  • Free church in a free state. Government leaves people alone to worship (or not) as they wish, and the church supports that aim so all can freely choose their own path—without implicit or explicit State sanction.
  • Isolation. Christians withdraw. They watch their own movies, listen to their own music, go to their own clubs, and effectively segregate themselves from society, culture, and the wider world.  

The third path is the historic Baptist position, and it is the one Mullins represented. This is a framework that can bring clarity in polarized times—and, as a bonus, it is enshrined in the 1st Amendment. The position is simple, and one can appreciate it regardless of its sectarian origins:

  1. Each person is responsible for her own relationship with God,
  2. In order to be responsible, each person must be free to make her own choice,
  3. So, the best model for church and state relations is “a free church in a free state.”     

Salvation is an individual affair. Jesus calls individuals to “repent and believe,” (Mark 1:15). The Apostle Paul tells believers to put away their old selves, and “put on” their new status as God’s children (Ephesians 4:22-23). The Scriptures speak of individual judgment (1 Corinthians 3:12-15; Revelation 20:11-15). That being the case, choosing God—loving Him with everything you have (cf. Deuteronomy 6:5; Mark 12:28-31)—cannot be based on implicit or explicit coercion. It must be a free choice, an intelligent and willful decision. You cannot force love in a marriage, nor can you compel love for Christ. God is interested in our hearts, which must be freely given. As one early Baptist wrote, “You may force men to church against their consciences, but they will believe as they did afore.”[4]

If all this is true, then it suggests Christians ought to support “a free church in a free state.” The two pillars of this position are codified in the 1st Amendment as the “free exercise” and the “establishment” clauses:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof …

Essentially, these two pillars say (1) government will not establish a religion, nor will it (2) prohibit people from freely exercising their religious beliefs. As Christians today survey the evangelical landscape and wonder what to think about the intersection of church and politics, the Baptist ethos is one worth considering. Here are some questions to make this less abstract—consider them in the context of “a free church in a free state,” and the “free exercise” and “establishment” principles.

  1. Should Christians support compulsory Christian prayer in public schools? This practice would compel all students to pray in a Christian manner, regardless of their own beliefs. This is coercion. It also violates the establishment clause. This is why Engel v. Vitale (370 U.S. 421 (1962)) went the way it did—not because “secularists” were on the march, but on principle.
  2. Ought a nativity scene be displayed on public property? Would this be favoring Christianity? What should you think if someone says, “This is a Christian nation, and while other faiths can worship as they wish, the nativity scene must go up!” If government cannot “establish” religion, then what is the solution, here?
  3. May a football coach employed by a public school be fired for engaging in prayer on a football field after a game? The Bremerton, WA school district thought this violated the establishment clause. The Supreme disagreed (Kennedy v. Bremerton School District, 597 U.S. ___ (2022)).

More examples could be given. The “free church in a free state” framework is a flexible model that eschews government coercion in matters of faith, while safeguarding a person’s right to exercise that faith. Government has struggled to fairly implement this framework in the messiness of real life; at times favoring accommodationist or separationist views to solve the muddle.[5]

The point is that there is no theocracy. There is also no church and State quid pro quo partnership. Nor is there a need to withdraw from public life and embrace isolationism. There are only houses of faith being asked to be left alone, declining special treatment, not lobbying for “access” and “power,” not pushing for an explicit or implicit establishment of Christianity—because one day the shoe may be on the other foot. It can do this because the church’s job is not to underwrite American democracy, but to be a counter-cultural community of “foreigners” waiting for the better tomorrow, witnessing for Christ and the Gospel.[6] To be this alternative community, the church must demand to be left alone—not cry out for special favors or long for sepia-toned nostalgia of a bygone de facto Christendom. This is what Howard Snyder called the “countersystem” or “subversive” model,[7] wherein the church is a community summoning people to leave the secular city and join a new society.

Thinking citizens cannot escape this sectarian discussion, because the post-Trump GOP is suffused with populist derivatives of Christian Reconstructionism. Those unfamiliar with the broader stream of Christian theology may assume Reconstructionism is Christianity. Indeed, the “free church in a free state” ethos has fallen on hard times in public discourse—especially at the hands of leaders who know better. Much of the popular uproar in evangelical circles about “losing our country” is because America has been disestablishing Christianity as its de facto civil religion for at least the past two generations.

This framework is sometimes dismissed as utopian or naïve. Somebody’s values will be legislated, why not make sure they are Christian values? There are good books which flesh out the framework I can only sketch here.[8] Suffice it to say that God’s community is not the State; “Church and State might in a perfect society coalesce into one; but meantime their functions must be kept separate.”[9] As one theologian observed, “the church is a colony, an island of one culture in the middle of another.”[10] Resident aliens never mistake a foreign country as their own.

For healthy civic discourse, to ensure a decision for Christ is freely made (whichever way it may go), so the church can be the church, and for a measure of sane pluralism in an insane world—both Christians and concerned citizens should champion the “free church in a free state” ethos.

[1] Edgar Y. Mullins, The Axioms of Religion (Philadelphia: American Baptist Publication Society, 1908), pp. 197-200.

[2] There are many helpful ways to frame this issue—this is merely one of them. 

[3] Rousas J. Rushdoony, Christianity and the State (Vallecito: Chalcedon, 1986), pp. 19, 35. 

[4] Leonard Busher, “Religion’s Peace, 1614,” from H. Leon McBeth, A Sourcebook for Baptist Heritage (Nashville, TN: B&H, 1990), p. 73. 

[5] Take the example of a nativity scene at the county courthouse. A separationist ethic would ban all religious displays at Christmas. An accommodationist view would allow any group to put up any display it wants at Christmas. 

[6] See Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon, Resident Aliens, expended ed. (Nashville: Abingdon, 2014), ch. 2.

[7] Howard Snyder, Models of the Kingdom (Nashville: Abingdon, 1991), pp. 77-85.  

[8] See especially Hauerwas and Willimon, Resident Aliens. 

[9] Mullins, Axioms of Religion, p. 195.

[10] Hauerwas and Willimon, Resident Aliens, p. 12. 

What I read in 2022

What I read in 2022

I do most of my “reading” by audiobook, while driving to and from work. I read 59 books this past year. Some biography, some history, some theology, and a lot of Christian religious and social history. Here’s the list; perhaps you’ll grab some of these and find them helpful. See also my lists from 2021, 2020, 2019, 2018, and 2017.

My Top 10 Books of 2022

A Gospel for the Poor: Global Social Christianity and the Latin American Evangelical Left by David Kirkpatrick. An extraordinary book that opened my eyes to the Latin American wing of evangelicalism and introduced me to Rene Padilla (et al), the Lausanne Covennant, and the concept of integral mission.

The Journey of Modern Theology by Roger Olson. Olson’s magnum opus, a historical survey of modern theology. I was introduced to more thinkers in this book than I ever have from one volume. Accurate, engaging. It expands your horizons and makes you realize how small a world your particular theological tribe inhabits. Very, very helpful.

Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation by Kristin Kobes DuMez. I also read this in 2021, but decided to review it once more. This is an astounding book. It gave me the framework for understanding white evangelicalism as a sociological category, rather than simply a set of shared theological commitments. Very well-written, and engaging. This is a landmark book that came along at the right time.

Deep State: Trump, the FBI, and the Rule of Law by James B. Stewart. An outstanding piece of journalism about the entire Trump + FBI investigation debacle. Very informative. Stewart gave a one-hour talk about this book which I found fascinating.

White Evangelicals and Right-Wing Populism by Marcia Pally. An astonishing work, short, but packing a large punch. Its value is Pally’s discussion of populism and its triggers applied to Trump and the current evangelical scene. Pally gave one of the best interviews I’ve ever heard here if you wish to get a preview of the book.

The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan. An earth-shattering classic. This work is generally credited with launching second-wave feminism in the United States. It examines “the problem that has no name;” the mid-century, middle-class, white housewife’s sense of loneliness, despair, and purposelessness because she was socialized to not expect or want an identity of her own–everything was subsumed into her husband and family. I see some flavors of complementarian Christianity basically want to enshrine this imaginary utopia as the Christian ideal. I say no. A truly remarkable book.

Mission Between the Times by Rene Padilla. Everything about this little collection of essays is so great. It’s like a breath of fresh air because it doesn’t come from the white, conservative evangelical world. Every pastor or thinking Christian would benefit greatly from reading this volume. Padilla focuses on our “mission between the times” of Jesus’ advents, with critiques of the Western evangelical framework and the incessant wedge it wishes to drive between social responsibility and the Gospel. He comes from Latin American evangelicalism and a completely different context, so his insights are quite refreshing. Padilla did his PhD under F.F. Bruce.

Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism by Molly Worthen. This is a book for the ages. A survey of evangelical intellectual life in the 20th century. Worthen sees evangelicalism as being shaped by a “crisis of authority,” as they tried to balance competing and contradictory emphases and forge an identity.

While they differ from one another on the details of their ideas about God and humankind, three elemental concerns unite them: how to repair the fracture between spiritual and rational knowledge; how to assure salvation and a true relationship with God; and how to resolve the tension between the demands of personal belief and the constraints of a secularized public square. These are problems of intellectual and spiritual authority. None, on its own, is unique to evangelicals. But in combination, under the pressures of Western history, and in the absence of a magisterial arbiter capable of settling uncertainties and disagreements, these concerns have shaped a distinctive spiritual community.

Worthen, Molly. Apostles of Reason (p. 4).

How to be Evangelical Without Being Conservative by Roger Olson. Everything about this little book is refreshing, correct, wholesome, and good. I cannot recommend this book highly enough. For people like me, who are somewhat disillusioned with the tradition they inherited, Olson’s project here is a breath of delightfully fresh air.

The Fifties by David Halberstam. Delightful, majestic, very impressive book. I don’t know how Halberstam did it. It’s a series of chapters of various popular figures, events, and cultural touchpoints of the 1950s. He argues that the chaos of the 1960s didn’t come from nowhere–the foundations were all laid in the 1950s, which are typically remembered in sepia as Mayberry. Without a doubt this was the most enjoyable book I read this year.

The Rest of Them from 2022

Axioms of Religion by Edgar Y. Mullins. An older book (ca. 1908) by the former President of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. It presents the Baptist view of Christianity in a comprehensive, winsome way that will benefit any reader. Mullins frames Christianity as a series of axioms which the Baptist ethos best supports. Likely the best apologetic for Baptist polity that I’ve yet read. It’s a shame it’s not well known, today.

The Christian View of Science and Scripture by Bernard Ramm. This was paradigm-shattering for me. Though this work is well-nigh 70 years old, it still captures the basic issues and does it very well. Ramm came out for progressive creationism in an intelligent, winsome way. If you come from a tradition which believes Ken Ham is the 13th apostle, that the Ark Encounter is a good thing, and that the Institute for Creation Research is the only faithful place where science can be done from a faithful Christian perspective, then Ramm will either enlighten you or make you really mad. His burden was to issue a call for charity and clear thinking on science and Scripture. Did he succeed? Read it and see.

Creation Revealed in Six Days by P.J. Wiseman. An interesting little book, largely forgotten to history, which I saw referenced in Ramm’s work (above). The author argues that Genesis 1-2 does not tell us how God created everything. Rather, they record that God took six days to reveal the fact of the creation. This is an attempt to reconcile science and Scripture in the late 1940s. I do not think Wiseman was a crank, and the book is well-reasoned and interesting. You can download a PDF for free at the link.

The Doctrine of the Trinity by Leonard Hodgson. A very good monograph from an Anglican theologian, adapted from a lecture series, which proposes a social theory of the Trinity. Very helpful, well-reasoned. I laughed out loud when Hodgson accurately surveyed the doctrine of eternal generation, then frankly admitted that he had no idea what people meant when they spoke about it. I sympathize and agree!

The Bible Made Impossible: Why Biblicism is Not a Truly Evangelical Reading of Scripture by Christian Smith. This is a provocative book which challenges the way certain conservative Christians read and use the Bible. I agree with much (not all) of this book, and many of Smith’s criticisms are quite accurate. This book is a very helpful prompt for serious introspection.

The Battle for the Bible by Harold Lindsell. A silly little screed from the late 1970s. This is fundamentalism at its worst. Lindsell wrote like a wounded lover lashing out at the woman who wronged him.

The Great Sex Rescue: The Lies You’ve Been Taught and How to Become What God Intended by Sheila W. Gregoire. An outstanding book which details the weirdness and stupidity of much of what conservative Christianity teaches about marriage roles. So, the authors spend much of their time analyzing the best-selling “marriage books” on the Christian market. I suppose it’s because I didn’t grow up as a Christian, but I’ve always found much of conservative Christianity’s rules about dating and marriage roles as absurd, purely cultural, and frankly stupid. The “Billy Graham rule”? Really dumb and unworkable in the modern office environment. This is a wonderful book. If I had to recommend a book for soon-to-be-married couples, I’d buy this one for them so they’d have insight into false narratives around marriage, love, and sex. For pre-marital counseling, I always use Tim and Kathy Keller’s The Meaning of Marriage.

Desperate: An Epic Battle for Clean Water and Justice in Appalacia by Kris Maher. Very entertaining and horrifying piece of journalism.

Christ in Crisis: Why We Need to Reclaim Jesus by Jim Wallis. I read this book, but remember almost nothing about it. I thought it was vague and basically “meh.”

Fundamentalism and American Culture (3rd edition) by George Marsden. A classic for a reason. You must read it. His latest updates encompass the Trump years. Here is a good interview with Marsden about this latest edition, which I enjoyed listening to.

10 Questions to Diagnose Your Spiritual Health by Donald Whitney. Breezy. Short. Good. I read it, then gave away several copies to the congregation.

The Reason for God by Tim Keller. This is a very good book to give someone who has questions about the Christian faith. Keller is a great writer, and communicates very well. We read this book at church in conjunction with the group study materials.

Towards a Recovery of Christian Belief by Carl F.H. Henry. Excellent precis of Henry’s theological program. If his seven-volume God, Revelation, and Authority is intimidating to you, then this slim little volume will give you the basics of Henry’s thought. Incidentally, Roger Olson’s discussion of Henry in his Journey of Modern Theology (above) is quite good.

A Matter of Days: Resolving a Creation Controversy (2nd expanded edition) by Hugh Ross. A winsome, very helpful book by perhaps the most well-known Christian apologist who is not a young-earth creationist. I was particularly moved by Ross’ insistence that the universe must be 14 billion (ish) years old because of the time it takes light to travel. This is very persuasive to me. I know very little about science so I am a great disadvantage when it comes to weighing these matters. Ross makes a good case and I appreciated this book.

Gospel & Law: Contrast or Continuum? The Hermeneutics of Dispensationalism and Covenant Theology by Daniel Fuller. This is an older classic. It made a great impression upon me when I read it, early in 2022. I’m at a loss now to remember much about it. I need to read it again, but I suspect I mentally ditched it when I discovered the delights of progressive covenantalism.

Den of Thieves by James B. Stewart. A fascinating look at the securities scandals of the late 1980s. This was a joy to read.

On Religion by Friedrich Schleiermacher. This is an apologetic work directed to a particular intellectual elite, at a particular time. Some of it was interesting. Much of it was forgettable. I need to read it again.

A Promised Land by Barack Obama. A beautiful memoir by an important President.

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. This is a classic for a reason. I usually don’t include fiction books in this annual list, but I made an exception for this one. A moving book.

Principles of Expository Preaching by Merrill Unger. Meh. It’s an older book. It’s very didactic, written with no warmth, and pretty stale. It’s not bad. It’s just very basic.

Elmer Gantry by Sinclair Lewis. Another novel–an infamous satire of fundamentalism, written in 1927. It’s a very sad book, because Gantry is a terrible man. Lewis apparently saw religion as a con-game–or, perhaps better, he saw fundamentalism as a con-game. What’s astonishing is that Lewis clearly understood the fundamentalism he was criticizing. The dialogue and theological reasoning he inputs to his characters is astonishingly accurate. To truly appreciate this book, you need to understand the context of the aftermath of the fundamentalist-modernist controversy in the United States.

American Apocalypse: A History of Modern Evangelicalism by Matthew A. Sutton. A great work of history. Sutton presents the modern evangelical world as a result of an incessant apocalyptic mindset.

Grammar of Prophecy by R.B. Girdlestone. Probably the best book on prophecy I’ve ever read. I haven’t read everything on prophecy (there’s a whole lot of junk), but I’ve read a lot–and this is the best of the lot. An older book, from the late 19th century.

The Interpretation of Prophecy by Patrick Fairbairn. A longer work, just as good as Gilderstone. Great stuff. I suggest people ditch dispensational sensationalists and just read Gilderstone and Fairbairn!

Biblical Hermeneutics by Milton S. Terry. An old classic. A bit long, but a great resource full of keen insight.

Plowshares and Pruning Hooks: Rethinking the Language of Biblical Apocalyptic by D. Brent Sandy. A helpful corrective to dispensationalist interpretive excesses. Lots of common sense, here.

The Hidden Motives of Pastoral Action by Luis Segundo. I remember this book was good. Unfortunately, I don’t remember anything else about it. This is a call to action from a Latin American liberation theologian.

Truth as Encounter by Emil Brunner. A beautiful little book outlining Brunner’s conception of faith as “truth + encounter.” If you’ve read Brunner’s Dogmatics (3 vols.) then this isn’t new. But, it’s helpful to have this in one small volume. Brunner was a real treasure to the church. He is my favorite theologian.

Freedom from Fear: The American People in Depression and War 1929-1945 by David Kennedy. Great history. I loved this book.

Interpreting the Parables (2nd edition) by Craig Blomberg. Read for a class. Good book.

Stories With Intent (2nd edition) by Klyne Snodgrass. Read for a class. Too much material here. It can’t be read as a book. It’s basically an encyclopedia. Much of the info is useless for a pastor. It could be one-third the length.

Anatomy of a Revived Church by Thom Rainer. Rainer excels at very short, very quick books. This one is quite helpful. Every pastor of a small church will appreciate it.

FDR by Jean E. Smith. An epic biography that I enjoyed a lot. I have a newfound appreciation for Roosevelt and what he accomplished.

A Godly Hero: The Life of William Jennings Bryan by Michael Kazin. A good biography of an important man. Kazin is laboring under a handicap here, because he notes that the majority of Bryan’s private correspondence was destroyed. The result is that we don’t really get to understand Bryan very much. I don’t think this is Kazim’s fault. The impression I left it with is that Bryan was a bit of a dreamer, unrealistic, and not somebody I’d take very seriously were he alive today. I feel bad for having that opinion, but that’s where I’m at. For me, the most valuable aspect of this book is that Bryan is a shining example of the kind of populist American Christianity that used to exist–one that believed the Bible, was generally conservative, yet upheld social reform as a Christian imperative. What a concept!

Death in Mud Lick: A Coal Country Fight Again the Drug Companies that Delivered the Opioid Epidemic by Eric Eyre. A beautiful piece of investigative journalism. I thought it was much better than Beth Macy’s Dopesick (see below), which has received far more press.

Stained Glass Ceilings: How Evangelicals Do Gender and Practice Power by Lisa Weaver Swartz. An excellent comparative survey of how two conservative seminaries (one egalitarian the other complementarian) teach gendered roles to their students and their wider ecclesiastical orbits.

Fundamentalist U: Keeping the Faith in American Higher Education by Adam Latts. A delightful and enlightening look at how conservative Christian institutions have tried to “keep the faith” in the American higher education world in the 20th century. Very good book.

The Bible Told Them So: How Southern Evangelicals Fought to Preserve White Supremacy by J. Russell Hawkins. A good book. It gets a bit repetitive, but that’s probably because I’ve read enough along this same line that the stories begin to blur and I lose patience. If you want a great entry point to understand how sociology and culture can create systemic, structural sin, then this is a book to read.

Guaranteed Pure: The Moody Bible Institute, Business, and the Making of Modern Evangelicalism by Timothy Gloege. A delightful book that uses Moody Bible Institute as a prism to frame evangelicalism as a business venture that markets a deliberately generic product with sectarian emphases rounded off (i.e. conservative Christianity) to its constituents. It also acts as a good historical survey of Moody. Highly recommended.

Christianity and the State by Rousas Rushdoony. This is an important book because it reveals at least three key truths; (1) it helps you understand the Christian Nationalist ethos so popular nowadays–much of it is a populist and bastardized flavor of Reconstructionism, (2) it reveals that presuppositionalism as a prism for truth can take you to places where you ought not go, and (3) it proves Rushdoony was quite possibly insane.

Dopesick by Beth Macy. Repetitive. I’d already read A Death in Mud Lick, so perhaps I wasn’t in the mood to cover the same ground again. Still, I feel that book was much better.

The Case for a New Reformation Theology by William Hordern. A generally excellent little book. This was part of a trio of books which Westminster Press put out in the mid-1950s surveying (1) evangelicalism (penned by Edward Carnell as The Case for Orthodox Theology), neo-orthodoxy (this volume), and liberalism (L. Harold DeWolf). Most evangelicals from my orbit know nothing about neo-orthodoxy except that “it’s bad.” What little most people know is that neo-orthodoxy is soft on the doctrine of Scripture. I’ve read Barth on this, and Brunner, and Bloesch, and now Hordern. I don’t believe this charge is quite right. This is a good book.

Two Views on Women in Ministry, rev. ed., by James R. Beck. This is an excellent “two views” book about the ever-present flashpoint of women in ministry. Linda Belleville’s contribution (egalitarian) was particularly instructive for me.

The Last Things: An Eschatology for Laymen by George Ladd. The best little volume on eschatology yet written, that I’ve seen. Historic premillennialist in perspective.

Progressive Covenantalism: Charting a Course Between Dispensationalism and Covenant Theologies ed. Stephen Wellum and Brent Parker. A series of essays fleshing out certain key aspects of a theological system called progressive covenantalism. This is a framework that relies heavily on typology, which Bernard Ramm recommended as an interpretive grid long ago in his Protestant Biblical Interpretation. I believe this approach holds great promise, and I liked these essays.

The Great Reversal: Reconciling Evangelism and Social Concern by David O. Moberg. This classic text is a short, accessible, breezy primer for bible-believing Christians who need a guide to help them think rightly about evangelism and social concern. There was a time when Christians were at the forefront of social betterment, driven by Gospel impulses. Now, after the fundamentalist-modernist controversy, these same impulses are derided in some quarters as “social gospel,” or (more lately) as “woke.” Too often, those who toss these epithets have not read Rauschenbusch themselves, do not understand their own history, and are captive to a very particular flavor of Christian expression that has baptized its outward face in a politicio-conservative philosophy. A few of the chapters here are a bit dated, but this does not detract from the book’s value.

Models of the Kingdom by Howard Snyder. A very helpful little book that provides a taxonomy to chart the different conceptions of “the kingdom of God” that you find in the Christian family throughout the centuries. It will probably help you clarify your own thinking on this subject.

Washington’s Crossing by David H. Fischer. A definitive account of the most crucial period of the American Revolution. I’ve read this book three times now–usually once every few years.

America’s Religious History: Faith, Politics, and the Shaping of a Nation by Thomas Kidd. This seems to be an undergrad-level survey of religion in America. There’s nothing new here, but Kidd does a wonderful job sketching the landscape. If you’re not familiar with this story (like too many reporters at major news outlets are), then this is a worthy book to get.

On Lady Tremaine and God’s Promise

On Lady Tremaine and God’s Promise

The stepdaughter was essentially a slave in her own home. But, what could she do? Her father had died, and the cold and cruel stepmother wasted no time in forwarding the prospects of her own two homely daughters. And so, bit by bit, the poor stepdaughter became no better than a servant—forced to sweep, clean, cook, and tend to the very home in which she had known such joy and carefree light when she was a little girl.

I’m speaking, of course, about Cinderella. There is a moment early in the film when word comes from on high that there was to be a royal ball in honor of the Prince. The boy hadn’t yet married and so the King and the Grand Duke had decided enough was enough—“it’s high time he married and settled down!”

The stepmother, Lady Tremaine, saw her chance. What an opportunity for her daughters! If she could marry one of them off to the Prince, her life’s work would be nearly complete! Cinderella, lurking in the corner, sidled over bravely and declared she could go to the ball, too! Her stepsisters mocked her. How ridiculous! Never!

But Lady Tremaine, never one to miss an opportunity to twist the knife into the odd back, said she could go. “I see no reason why you can’t go… if you get all your work done.”

Cinderella is ecstatic, and rushes away to dig out an old dress from a closet. The stepdaughters descend upon their mother, aghast. How could she agree to such a thing! Outrageous! Didn’t she realize what she’d just said? Lady Tremaine smiled like an evil cat and purred, “Of course. I said, ‘if.’”

There is a moment of silence. Then, they all begin cackling. Cinderella won’t go to the ball—not if they can help it! They’ll make sure she doesn’t get her work done.

Lady Tremaine and her schemes are a helpful way to picture Paul’s point in our passage (Gal 3:15-22). God made a promise to Abraham—a promise based on faith and trust, not merit. Jesus is the ultimate “child of Abraham,” the one who makes all these promises come true. So, who partakes in these promises? It’s the ones who believe in the true “son of Abraham,” Jesus.

The alternative is to see God as a bit like Lady Tremaine, putting a theoretical “if you do this, then I give you that” out there all while knowing we can’t pull it off. This is basically what the Judaizers are proposing (see Gal 3:1-6). It’s a warped twisting of the Old Covenant, and it doesn’t lead anywhere. Cinderella wouldn’t have made it to the ball without a divine intervention from the Fairy Godmother, because she was trapped in a cycle she couldn’t break. So too, we can never complete a “follow these rules and I’ll give you salvation” program—it’s an escape room from hell from which we won’t ever find our way out.

Paul says there is a different way—a better way. The way it was supposed to be from the beginning. A way Abraham understood. He wants us to understand that, so he begins with an analogy about Abraham.

This is part of a commentary series through the Book of Galatians. It began with Galatians 3:1-6. This series will progress until the book is finished, then circle back and cover ch. 1-2. This article covers Galatians 3:15-22.

Let’s see what Paul has to say.

Brothers and sisters, let me take an example from everyday life. Just as no one can set aside or add to a human covenant that has been duly established, so it is in this case (Galatians 3:15).

Galatians 3:15

Sometimes it’s helpful to put things in everyday terms. Suppose you have a contract or some other legal arrangement.[1] We all know that, once the signatures are on the dotted line, then the deed is done. It’s sealed. You can’t add to or delete anything. It is what it is. Well, Paul says, it’s the same in this case with God and His arrangements with us!

“How so?” you ask. Paul answers …

The promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed. Scripture does not say “and to seeds,” meaning many people, but “and to your seed,” meaning one person, who is Christ.

Galatians 3:16, quoting Genesis 12:7; 13:15; 24:7

God made a promise—an irrevocable contract—with Abraham and his descendant. But Paul points out something pretty curious. The promise was to Abraham and his descendant—singular. It wasn’t to all Abraham’s offspring, but to one descendant in particular, who is Christ.  

What does this mean?

If you’re a believer, then you’re metaphysically fused with Christ—made one with Him on an invisible level. Your bible translation probably has the phrase “in Christ” a lot in Paul’s letters, because it’s one of his favorite expressions. We’re “baptized into Christ,” “buried with Him through baptism into death,” “crucified with Him,” and “alive to God in Christ Jesus,” (Rom 6:1-11). All this language is expressing that, when we trust in Jesus, we’re made one with him in an unseen way. Perhaps the closest thing I can compare it to is a marriage; there’s a oneness that happens in marriage that’s unseen, hidden, but very real. What Paul is saying is these promises were to Abraham and His crowning descendent, Jesus—along with everyone else who has been made one with Him (see Gal 3:29).

God made several promises to Abraham (see Genesis 22:17-18), and all of them are fulfilled through Christ—including the promise of the land. Paul wrote, “Scripture does not say ‘and to seeds,’ meaning many people, but ‘and to your seed,’ meaning one person, who is Christ,” (Galatians 3:16). This “and to your seed” quotation is from the Greek version of Genesis 17:8, which refers to that land promise. Paul is saying that all the promises to Abraham—even the one about “the whole land of Canaan” (Gen 17:8)—are fulfilled by Christ as the representative son of Abraham (Mt 1:1).

This suggests that Abraham and his physical descendants are a foreshadowing of Jesus and His spiritual brethren.[2] If so, then we can understand all the precious promises to Abraham as shadows of a greater fulfillment—maybe something like this:

So, back to the point.

Paul is saying that, if God made unbreakable promises to Abraham and his descendant—a promise based on faith and trust—then God certainly hasn’t changed the terms of the promise later on. “It was not through the law that Abraham and his offspring (singular—Jesus) received the promise that he would be heir of the world, but through the righteousness that comes by faith,” (Romans 4:13). So, the Judaizers who are peddling the “work to earn your salvation” message are wrong. They have to be wrong. If they’re right, then God changed the terms of the agreement.

Darth Vader once said, “I’m altering the deal! Pray I don’t alter it any further …”[3] Well, God doesn’t alter deals. Unlike Vader, he’s trustworthy.   

What I mean is this: The law, introduced 430 years later, does not set aside the covenant previously established by God and thus do away with the promise. For if the inheritance depends on the law, then it no longer depends on the promise; but God in his grace gave it to Abraham through a promise.

Galatians 3:17-18

The Mosaic law didn’t change the terms of the deal. If we have faith like Abraham, then we’re children according to the promise. Things didn’t change at Mt. Sinai. Instead, it’s the wrong ideas of relationship with God that has warped the common understanding of the Mosaic law by Jesus’ day, and Paul’s, too. Inheritance of the promise isn’t based on effort, but on faith.

Why, then, was the law given at all?

Galatians 3:19

That’s a fair question. If the Mosaic law was never a vehicle for salvation, then what was it?

It was added because of transgressions until the Seed to whom the promise referred had come.

Galatians 3:19

Notice that all the promises to Abraham are summed up as one package (“the promise”—singular), and that Paul attributes this whole bundle to one representative “seed”—Jesus (see the same at Romans 4:13).[4] The Mosaic Law was a tool to hem us in until Christ would come. It told us how to live, how to act, how to maintain loving relationship with God and with each other. It told us how to be God’s people, for a particular time in a particular place, until Christ would arrive on the scene. Picture God’s people from the Exodus to Pentecost as being in a plane, circling the airport, waiting on clearance to land. They know they’ll land, but they aren’t yet there.

So, God told us how to live until He “landed the plane.” We break the law, we feel guilt, we confess our sin and perform the ritual to atone for that sin. We go on. It’s in this way that the Mosaic law “hems us in” and keeps us on the right track, until the Messiah arrives in the First Advent.

The law was given through angels and entrusted to a mediator. A mediator, however, implies more than one party; but God is one.

Galatians 3:19-20

The Mosaic law was entrusted to a mediator—Moses. But this new arrangement, this new covenant, is different. Now, there’s only one party. God Himself makes the contract and obligates Himself to carry it out. There is a straight line starting from (1) when God chose His people by promise with Abraham, (2) connecting right to His promise to David of a perfect king, and from there (3) on to God’s pledge of perfect peace through a new and better arrangement. Along this track, the Mosaic law is just a guardrail keeping us on the trail. It isn’t a different trail at all.

Is the law, therefore, opposed to the promises of God? Absolutely not! For if a law had been given that could impart life, then righteousness would certainly have come by the law. But Scripture has locked up everything under the control of sin, so that what was promised, being given through faith in Jesus Christ, might be given to those who believe.

Galatians 3:21-22

So, then, what does the Law have to do with God’s promises to Abraham? Well, first, if righteousness could have come by way of following the law, then it would have (cf. Gal 2:21). But, in the second place—and here is the crux of it all—the Mosaic law showed us our sin, reminded us of it all the time, so that we’d be ever more ready to embrace the permanent solution Christ offered when He came.

Paul uses a strange phrase. He says the Scripture “locked up everything under the control of sin,” (Gal 3:22). He seems to mean that, although it’s theoretically possible that a perfect person could come along, obey the law in every respect, and receive righteousness as a reward—it’ll never happen. Why not? Because Scripture (the entire Old Covenant canon) shows us we’re not that good. We never will be. It shows us that everything is “locked up” under sin’s power.[5] The original imagery is that of a school of fish swept up in a fisherman’s net—caught! We’re all trapped, as if the door of a great dungeon has swung shut on us.[6] So, that “perfect person” won’t ever come along in this world … unless that person comes from outside the bubble.

When we see God’s rules, then consider our own constant failure to live up to them, then we’re driven to put faith and trust in the promised Savior—the One who loved God perfectly and obeyed the law completely, in our place, as our substitute.[7] That dungeon swings shut … but why? “So that what was promised, being given through faith in Jesus Christ, might be given to those who believe,” (Gal 3:22). “It was to make them understand their real inner life, their alienation from himself, and their need of his grace.”[8]

All those promises to Abraham—which Paul once more sums up as one bundle of blessings (“what was promised”)—are given to those who believe and have faith in Jesus Christ. Once more Abraham, his physical descendants, and the literal promises in the land corresponded to and prefigured something much better.

That was the Law’s purpose. It wasn’t a vehicle for salvation. It was tool to make us look forward to the Messiah so Abraham’s offspring—the true offspring (cf. Luke 3:8)—would recognize Him when He came.  

[1] The Greek word here is the same one we often translate as “covenant,” and some translators assume Paul is referring to a will. It doesn’t matter—Paul just wants you to imagine a legal contract in your mind. 

[2] See especially Thomas R. Schreiner, Galatians, in ZECNT (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010), at Galatians 3:16a-d.

“… if the blessing promise includes a reconstituting of the “seed” with a global identity in Christ, then one should be cautious to separate the land promise from this same transformation. Indeed, within the argument of Galatians 3, the eschatological fulfillment of the land promise appears to stand behind Paul’s argument,” (Jason DeRouchie, “Counting Stars With Abraham And The Prophets: New Covenant Ecclesiology In OT Perspective, in JETS 58:3 (Sep 2015), p. 480)

[3] See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3D8TEJtQRhw

[4] For the typological implications of Paul’s declaration that Abraham and his offspring would receive the promise (singular) that he would be heir of the world, see especially (1) Douglas Moo, The Epistle to the Romans, in NICNT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996), pp. 273-274; (2) John Murray, Epistle to the Romans, combined ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1968), pp. 141-142; and (3) Emil Brunner, The Letter to the Romans (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1959), pp. 36-40.

[5] The preposition in this statement conveys authority: ἀλλὰ συνέκλεισεν ἡ γραφὴ τὰ πάντα ὑπὸ ἁμαρτίαν.

[6] A.T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament (Nashville: Broadman, 1931), Gal 3:22. Johann Albrecht Bengel, Gnomon of the New Testament, ed. M. Ernest Bengel and J. C. F. Steudel, trans. James Bryce, vol. 4 (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1860), p. 29.

[7] “But, with the help of the Holy Spirit, the prisoners’ very consciousness of their galling bondage and of their total inability to burst their chains, causes them to yearn for a divine Deliverer and to shout for joy when they hear his approaching footsteps,” (William Hendriksen, Galatians and Ephesians, combined ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1979), p. 144).

[8] Alvah Hovey, Commentary on the Epistle to the Galatians, in American Commentary (Philadelphia: American Baptist Publication Society, 1890), p. 48.  

What 1 Timothy 2:11-15 Means

What 1 Timothy 2:11-15 Means

This passage is not about circumscribing women’s roles in church life. It is a response to a particular situation among certain Christian women in the Ephesian congregation involving false teachers, moral and sexual asceticism, and a tyrannical and domineering attitude towards men—all of which is causing a disturbance in the force.

Christians should not carelessly impute complementarian or egalitarian perspectives on gender roles to interpreters of this passage—it is not a shorthand for alleged “apostasy.” This is my paraphrase:

Woman must learn in a calm and peaceful manner—with complete obedience. I don’t permit woman to be to be lecturing or being a domineering tyrant to man. Instead, she must be calm and peaceful. This is what I mean—men and women are partners and so a domineering attitude towards men is wrong. Also, Eve was deceived while Adam wasn’t—we need one another!

But women will be rescued from all that false teaching about men and sexual abstinence by embracing their role as mothers—if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety.

What follows is my commentary.

A Third Rail of the New Testament

This passage is the flashpoint of the controversy about women’s roles in the church. It has drawn significant attention over the past generation as the “can women preach?” question has become more pressing. People often take one of these two approaches:

Circumscribing women’s roles

Women must remain silent during corporate worship, may never teach men, ought to be subject to their husbands via a gendered hierarchy, are somehow functionally inferior to men as evidenced by Eve’s deception by the serpent, and women’s primary role and conduit to spiritual fulfillment is to be pregnant.

One representative example is William Hendriksen. He wrote that women do not belong teaching in the church, just as fish do not belong on dry land. Spiritual welfare is imperiled if women give in to this “unholy tampering.” She is a woman; thus she cannot teach. She follows, is receptive, is a user of tools the man invents. To teach is contrary to her nature. She is only a blessing to man to the extent she realizes this fact. Sin entered creation when she chose to lead, rather than follow. Adam was not deceived, but she was—thus Hendriksen hints (but does not say) that she is intellectually inferior. Only by way of bearing children are women truly happy—though Betty Friedan would surely beg to differ.[1]

Solving a local problem in Ephesus

These advocates believe we must interpret the passage in the context of a local situation regarding some Christian women in Ephesus. This framework re-colors the whole thing in a very different hue. This means the translation choices in most English translations can be made better, and that the passage is really about Paul telling Timothy to not let certain spiritually immature female troublemakers cause disturbances in the community. 

One representative example is Linda Belleville. She emphasizes the context of the letter as an aid to interpretation, and concludes: “A reasonable reconstruction of 1 Tim. 2:11-15 would be as follows: The women at Ephesus (perhaps encouraged by the false teachers) were trying to gain an advantage over the men in the congregation by teaching in a dictatorial fashion. The men in response became angry and disputed what the women were doing … Paul would then be prohibiting teaching that tries to get the upper hand and not teaching per se.”[2]

The literature on this passage is immense. Scholars continue to issue dueling essays. And so it goes. But, any competent student of koine Greek can ignore most of the literature. Any trained pastor can form reasonable and well-informed conclusions by consulting lexicons, his favorite intermediate grammar, by minding the context which prompted Paul’s letter … and only then dipping a toe (no more than that—you may not make it out alive!) into the tsunami of literature on this passage. We need not be intimidated by the oodles of paper, ink, and megabytes spilt on this passage.

My Presuppositions

These are some conclusions which guide my interpretation of the passage. In other words, I do not come to this passage as a blank slate. This is not the place to defend these presuppositions, but I do wish to disclose that they exist:

  1. Phoebe was a deacon (Rom 16:1), and thus held an office in a local church. This presumably meant she was articulate, spiritually mature, and a good Christian woman.
  2. The “women” in 1 Tim 3:11 are female deacons.
  3. Aquila and Priscilla were a church planting team; there was no gendered hierarchy at work whereby she merely “helped” her husband.
  4. Gen 2:18 does not say a woman is a subordinate “helper” to the man—an assistant’s role. The word actually expresses something like “help without which a task is impossible.” A figurative extension at Gen 2:18 would be “Eve completes Adam” as a man, because neither is complete without a relationship with the other.[3]
  5. Paul calls Euodia and Syntyche his “co-workers” in the Gospel who have “contended” with him (Phil 4:2-4). The strong “we need to get along” vibe throughout the whole letter to the Philippians may have as its object the conflict between these two women. 
  6. The Philippian church apparently met in Lydia’s home (Acts 16:13-15, 40). She may have been a leader in the church, but in any case was likely influential—Euodia and Syntyche attended worship there.
  7. The gender conflict at Genesis 3:16 is a result of the Fall, not a feature of the good creation (contra. the Danvers Statement, Affirmation 3). This suggests the New Covenant ethos would not accept a construct for the Christian marriage relationship which sees women as functional subordinates—it aims at modeling the better tomorrow (i.e. the original intent of creation) today. The Scriptures do not flatly outlaw slavery, but sane interpreters discern a trajectory which abolishes the concept as the new tomorrow draws closer. I see a similar ethos at work with gender hierarchy.[4]

I cannot accept any interpretation of this passage which suggests the following:

  1. Women are, at an innate level, intellectually, emotionally, or otherwise functionally inferior to men. I have worked alongside women for 20 years in the military and in State government. They are not functionally inferior to men in any manner relevant to the passage. Those who suggest otherwise are either sexist[5] or naïve.
  2. Women literally cannot speak during worship services.
  3. Conflict with other advice Paul has given about women’s roles in the congregation—all the advice must be rationally harmonized.
  4. Any advice that suggests women can only be happy and fulfilled if they have children.

1 Timothy Context

False teachers stalk the land in the Ephesian Christian community:

  • They focus on idle weirdness or absurd speculations, desiring to be teachers but understanding little (1 Tim 1:3-5). Some have departed from a faith centered on love and service in favor of this idle foolishness (1 Tim 1:6).
  • The focus on a pastor’s character qualities is perhaps a corrective to the false teaching (1 Tim 3:1-7), as are those of the deacons (1 Tim 3:8-10).
  • The woman deacons are specifically not to be “malicious talkers, but temperate and trustworthy in everything” (1 Tim 2:12). This focus on temperance comports quite well with Paul’s twice-repeated emphasis on calmness and peaceableness (ἐν ἡσυχίᾳ; 1 Tim 2:11-12).
  • Paul’s warning about not being hasty to lay hands on anyone is a call to be really sure pastors and deacons are stable people with proven character (1 Tim 5:22) (i.e. not like these false teachers or their women converts).
  • Paul gave instructions to Timothy so can explain how believers ought to conduct themselves in the household of faith (1 Tim 3:14-15)—presumably because false teachers have thrown everything into an uproar.
  • A bizarre sexual and moral ascetism has taken root, causing people to depart from the faith (1 Tim 4:1-5). This may be the same sexual ascetism which was at play in Corinth (1 Cor 7).
  • Younger widows are a problem in this Christian community—gossiping, spreading rumors, teaching weird things they do not understand, and some have even departed the faith (1 Tim 5:13-15; cp. 1 Tim 4:7).
  • False teachers likely bring accusations against elders, so Timothy must be cautious before entertaining these allegations (1 Tim 5:19).
  • Love of money is behind at least some of this madness (1 Tim 6:10).

Some commentators believe Artemis worship is behind the false teaching and the women in Ephesus (see Acts 19). The idea is something like “Artemis worship elevated women, and Christian women were being deceived into believing they could take that ethos into the Christian community, and so that’s why the women were being domineering tyrants and lording it over men.”

The problem is that I have not personally found any evidence to support the idea that Artemis worship taught women to elevate themselves while simultaneously denigrating men. A coterie of scholarly, reliable, general bible reference tools fails to mention this idea, which indicates this point is not as settled as its advocates would have us believe. If one must dig into specialist journals to substantiate this claim, then is it really an argument with traction? This does not mean the idea is wrong, but it should give one pause before pegging the false teaching as being connected to Artemis worship.

We can say at least this for background:

  1. Artemis worship suffused Ephesian culture.
  2. It was a major engine of the local economy.
  3. It focused on a female, virgin goddess likely linked to a fertility cult.
  4. Male eunuchs worked as priests in the Artemis temple (Strabo, Geography, 14.1.23)

One need not posit an “Artemis + female exaltation + male denigration = Ephesian false teaching” nexus in order to understand what is happening, here:

  1. Certain women are being disorderly, ostentatious, domineering.
  2. These traits are fruit of the false teaching in the church, which is characterized by idle speculations, old wives tales, asceticism, and love of money.
  3. Pastors are being accused of error, likely by the false teachers and these tyrannical women who are immature and unstable in their faith.
  4. So, the believing community is generally quite unsettled and messed up by all this.

Craig Keener’s summary is correct: “In 1 Timothy, false teachers advocating asceticism (4:3) based on the law (1:7) are undermining the work of Paul and his companions in Ephesus (1:3).”[6]

The first thing Paul wants Timothy to do is re-center the congregation around prayer, so the community can lead quiet, peaceful lives.

1 Timothy 2:1-10

1-2: I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people—for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness (NIV)

It’s the duty of the Church to pray on behalf of two groups; (1) all people, and (2) people in “high positions.” The two prepositions (“ὑπὲρ πάντων ἀνθρώπων ὑπὲρ βασιλέων …”) suggest these are two groups.

The purpose of these prayers (“ἵνα … διάγωμεν”) is so that Christians might lead peaceful and quiet lives, for the spread of the Gospel.

3-4: This is good, and pleases God our Savior, who wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth (NIV)

Again, this quiet life is an aid to evangelism—a strategy so the church can be the church and get on with its mission.

5-7: For there is one God and one mediator between God and mankind, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all people. This has now been witnessed to at the proper time. And for this purpose I was appointed a herald and an apostle—I am telling the truth, I am not lying—and a true and faithful teacher of the Gentiles (NIV)

This is an aside about Christ, which stems from the discussion of the church’s mission in vv. 1-4.

8: Therefore I want the men everywhere to pray, lifting up holy hands without anger or disputing (NIV)

Paul returns to his charge to Timothy that he wage the good warfare” against Satan by “holding faith and a good conscience,” (1 Tim 1:18-19). He begins with advice about the men, and here we have the first evidence about the specific problem in Ephesus which bears on our passage. The men are angry and are quarreling—but why?

There was evidently something in the air which prompted Paul to offer this advice—sane men do not generally go about being angry or disputing about stuff without some perceived justification. There is an unmentioned “something” there that is causing problems. Some disagree and think Paul is just giving instructions about prayer for no pressing reason.[7] This is simplistic—why are the men upset and the women acting the way they are? There is an elephant in this room! There is something wrong.

9-10: I also want the women to dress modestly, with decency and propriety, adorning themselves, not with elaborate hairstyles or gold or pearls or expensive clothes, but with good deeds, appropriate for women who profess to worship God (NIV).

Now, to the women. The Ephesian Christian women are being materially ostentatious when they ought to be modest women known for their good deeds—for Christian fruit.

Again, something is happening here that prompts Paul to write what he does. Are these twin issues—male hostility and female outward showiness—related? Because what follows centers on female Christian behavior (the men are not mentioned again),[8] they likely are related, and certain ladies are the culprits.[9] This is a uniquely Ephesian problem, and what follows ought to be interpreted in light of the specific local situation which prompted Paul to write what he did to Timothy.

I once heard an impassioned sermon where the preacher made this verse about how women should dress modestly. It is true this command is in the text, but there is something more going on. 

1 Timothy 2:11

A woman should learn in quietness and full submission (NIV)

γυνὴ ἐν ἡσυχίᾳ μανθανέτω ἐν πάσῃ ὑποταγῇ. Woodenly, this is rendered, “The woman must learn quietly, with complete submissiveness.” The ESVs rendering turns the verb into a second-person imperative directed to Timothy (“let the woman …”). This is incorrect—it is a third-person imperative with “woman” as the subject of the verb = “the woman must learn …” The NIV is correct, here.

v.11 is Paul’s summary statement, with vv. 12-14 fleshing out the issue. Women’s actions in Ephesus are a threat to the congregation, in some form or fashion. Paul is talking about women in general, not wives.[10]

Should ἐν ἡσυχίᾳ be rendered as “in quietness”? This word can refer to:[11]

  1. demeanor—an inward calm[12] or a quiet, peaceful manner[13]—in which case it means something like “without causing a disturbance”, or
  2. it literally means the woman must say little or nothing.

Due to 1 Corinthians 11:5 and to practical experience, it likely means the former. The women in Ephesus must not create disturbances, be loud, disruptive, be a loud distraction. “In the present context listening quietly with deference and attentiveness to the one teaching is indicated.”[14]

ἐν πάσῃ ὑποταγῇ (“in complete submission”). To whom must the ladies submit? Likely either to their pastors, or to God. Perhaps it is best to leave it open, but my money is on their pastors.  

We are left with a translation that reads something like, “Woman must learn in a calm and peaceful manner—with complete obedience” (ἐν conveys manner in both instances, here).

This command about manner—“in a calm and peaceful manner, in complete obedience”—suggests there is something going on in the Ephesian Christian community which prompted Paul’s remark. He is calling for a peaceful demeanor or attitude among certain ladies—something is wrong. This will be fleshed out in the verses to come.

1 Timothy 2:12

I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet (NIV)

διδάσκειν δὲ γυναικὶ οὐκ ἐπιτρέπω οὐδὲ αὐθεντεῖν ἀνδρός, ἀλλʼ εἶναι ἐν ἡσυχίᾳ. “In fact (conjunction of emphasis),[15] I do not permit (verb) woman (direct object) to be teaching (infinitive direct object #1, complementing the verb) or exercising authority over (infinitive direct object #2, complementing the verb) a man.

Paul does not permit the disruptive women in the Ephesian congregation to do two things:

  1. “teach,” and
  2. αὐθεντεῖν

The word αὐθεντεῖν (in any form) occurs only here in the NT, and nowhere in the LXX or the apostolic fathers. This word’s meaning is a point of great contention in the church gender debates, but it isn’t nearly as difficult as some would have it be. One scholar suggests that standard lexicons expunge any meaning which suggests a negative sense (“domineer,” etc.).[16] This cannot be taken seriously. Still, we ought to be cautious about what this word means:

  • BDAG: “to assume a stance of independent authority.”[17]
  • Louw-Nida 37.21: “to control in a domineering manner.”
  • Liddell-Scott: “to have full power or authority over.”[18]
  • Friberg suggests, “strictly, of one who acts on his own authority; hence have control over, domineer, lord it over.”[19]
  • Mounce: “to have authority over; to domineer.”[20]
  • Moulton and Milligan suggest “master, autocrat.”[21] This analysis is likely better because it goes beyond the single NT usage.

I take Moulton and Milligan as definitive; the word does not mean “exercise authority,” here. The NIV is incorrect. It means something like “to domineer.” Context is determinative for me. Because I think certain women in Ephesus are being disruptive, disobeying their pastors, I believe a negative connotation of “domineering tyrant” is best.

διδάσκειν δὲ γυναικὶ οὐκ ἐπιτρέπω οὐδὲ αὐθεντεῖν ἀνδρός. This is an objective genitive, with “men” acting as the implied object of the infinitives. So, we ought to render it something like “I do not permit woman to be teaching or being a domineering tyrant to man.”

What does “teach” mean? διδάσκειν δὲ γυναικὶ οὐκ ἐπιτρέπω οὐδὲ αὐθεντεῖν ἀνδρός.

Paul does not permit the disruptive women to be teaching or being domineering tyrants. Because I interpret “domineering tyrant” as a negative connotation, the “teaching” must also be rendered in a negative fashion.[22] The prohibitions are either positive or both negative. The negative conjunction οὐδὲ joins negative clauses of like kind together—examples abound in the New Testament where it essentially functions as an “or” to connect two negative things (Mt 6:20, 28; 1 Pet 2:22, etc.) In these circumstances, the conjunction follows on the heels of a preceding negation, and that is what we have here (οὐκ … οὐδὲ).

So, I think we are on safe ground to render the generic “to be teaching” as something more negative, like “to be giving lectures” or “to be giving diatribes.” Linda Belleville suggests the “neither … nor” construction in this case further defines a shared purpose—women should not teach with the aim of domineering over a man.[23] I am skeptical.[24] Regardless, I do not think I even need to go there if I render “teach” in the negative manner which the construction suggests.

Instead, Paul says, ἀλλʼ εἶναι ἐν ἡσυχίᾳ—which NIV translates “she must be quiet.” We now meet our friend ἡσυχίᾳ once more, and again it can carry one of two meanings; (1) complete silence, which is impossible to harmonize with Paul’s statements in 1 Cor 11, 14, or (2) a demeanor marked by calm peace. Because this v.12 continues on from v.11, I take the word to have the same meaning of demeanor as it did previously—it is not about “silence.” So, we are left with a phrase that means something like “Instead (a strong adversative conjunction), she must be calm and peaceful!”

So, in full, v. 12 reads: “In fact, I don’t permit woman to be to be lecturing or being a domineering tyrant to man. Instead, she must be calm and peaceful.”

Who is this representative “man” to whom the generic woman must not modify her behavior? Because the discussion of pastoral leadership follows right on the heels of this discussion, I presume the Christian women in the Ephesian congregation are being unruly, disrespectful, and abusive towards their pastor—Timothy.

What is it that they cannot teach? Likely the Gospel and its implications, because these confused women do not understand it—they are immature. The issue is that of immature Christians (who, in this specific context, happen to be women—likely younger widows) who think they know something when they in fact do not. They want to lecture, harangue, or push their diatribes onto the pastor, and they must stop. Paul will not permit it to continue, which means Timothy must end it. The issue is not “women can’t teach.” The issue is “Christians (who, in this case, happen to be women) can’t act like this!”

Where is this haranguing not to occur? I think it is best to see this as a general prohibition that it must not happen in the gathered life of the congregation. This means Sunday morning, at the Lord’s Supper, at bible study, at any event where the congregation is present or otherwise invited. To make it just about “Sunday morning” is restrictive in an artificial and cardboard manner.

1 Timothy 2:13-14

For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor (NIV).

Paul provides two reasons for his instructions about demeanor (the conjunction is explanatory for what came before)[25]—reasons why women must be calm and peaceful, must show full obedience, mustn’t lecture/harangue, or be domineering tyrants towards men:

  1. because Adam was made first
  2. and because Eve was deceived, and Adam was not

The difficulty is understanding what on earth Paul means to say. Are women intellectually inferior? Is Adam somehow better than Eve, because she was created after him? We must dive into the text a bit more:

πρῶτος. “Because Adam was made first, then Eve.”

This can mean either[26] (1) “first in a sequence,” which means Adam was created before Eve, or (2) “most prominent/important,” in which case Paul would mean something like “Adam was made foremost.”

The first sense is correct. This does not mean Eve is ontologically inferior. It either suggests (1) some kind of hierarchical ordering between men and women,[27] or (2) a simple sequence of events to advance a simple explanation for Paul’s prohibition on domineering conduct—Eve completed Adam as his partner, not as his domineering boss.[28]

I do not believe a hierarchical ordering is in the cards because it has a poor connection to what Paul is saying. Women must not be domineering tyrants towards pastors, must be calm and peaceful in church, must not lecture and rail at their pastors … because of male headship in the marriage relationship and the church? Would it not be better to simply say “don’t do it because it’s wrong”? That is essentially what Paul is saying in the second option, explaining the statement in v.11. He is saying, “You can’t act that way. I won’t permit it. Men and women are partners—a team!” The false teaching is producing an attitude among certain women that must be stopped!

Admittedly, this position depends on the reader importing theological freight from Genesis 2:18 and 1 Corinthians 11:11. This doesn’t mean it is wrong, but it does require one to discount the “plain meaning” in favor of a “deeper” analysis.[29]

Both perspectives believe the women are acting wrongly. Some believe the wrongness is their rebellion against male headship. I say the wrongness is their spiritual attitude of haughtiness that (for whatever reason) denigrates men, making them angry and argumentative. This is the fruit of a toxic atmosphere of false teaching + sexual and moral asceticism—something foul is in the air in Ephesus!  

ἡ δὲ γυνὴ ἐξαπατηθεῖσα. What is Paul’s point when he says Adam was not deceived, but the woman was? There are at least five options available:

  • Women are spiritually or morally weaker. Allegedly, if the woman had listened to Adam, her functional superior, all would have been well. Harvey writes, “Eve, the first woman, is here regarded as representative of her sex, showing in her weakness the relative inferiority of woman in that form of intellectual and moral strength required for leadership and the exercise of authority …”[30] Women make up most of our churches. They also likely pray more. This option is incorrect. I admit I refuse to accept this option on principle.
  • Women are emotionally fragile. You can try and make that work for 1 Peter 3:7, but it will not work here. The implication is that women are intellectually stunted, no matter how hard you nuance it. Eve was too emotional to sort the thing through; she got confused. Paul never says anything about that here. He simply says she was deceived, and Adam wasn’t. There was no emotion clouding Eve’s judgment.
  • Women are intellectually inferior. No nuance, Eve just was not as smart as Adam. I work with female investigators and attorneys every day in my other life. To believe women are intellectually inferior is sinful, absurd, and insulting.  It is ridiculous. It is wrong and I refuse to accept it.
  • This is what happens when women ignore male headship. Schreiner takes this position, disclaiming any implications of functional inferiority. “In approaching Eve, then, the Serpent subverted the pattern of male leadership and interacted only with the woman. Adam was present throughout and did not intervene. The Genesis temptation, therefore, stands as the prototype of what happens when male leadership is abrogated.”[31] I simply do not see this as reality in the world, and therefore cannot take it seriously. With no malice intended, it makes as much logical sense as arguing that burgers must always be served on pretzel buns. My response to the pretzel bun and to Schreiner is to ask, “says who?” In my professional life in civil service in federal and State government, I have seen no ill-effects from a lack of “male headship,” and my own marriage has never adhered to the Danvers framework.[32] I simply see no warrant for Schreiner’s position, or for pretzel buns. And, to be blunt, the text says nothing about Eve sinning because she failed to let Adam lead her—nothing at all. To adopt that interpretation is to predicate it on something that does not exist (see Linda Belleville, “Women in Ministry: An Egalitarian Perspective,” in Two Views on Women in Ministry, rev. ed., James R. Beck (ed.) (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005), p. 91).
  • Paul is basically saying “women aren’t always right—remember Genesis!?” In the context of criticizing certain domineering tyrant women in the Ephesian church who are influenced by false teaching, Paul points to the penultimate example of woman making an error. This need not be a sexist remark. Paul may simply be saying, in essence, “Hey, anyone can be wrong! When we go it alone we can make bad decisions—just look at what Eve did. You guys are making the same mistake!”[33]

There are no good options. I cannot accept any position which emotionally, spiritually, or intellectually denigrates women. This leaves me with no choice but to accept the last option, even though I admit it is not perfect. I think this is the best option. The others simply make less sense experientially and logically.

The true meaning in vv. 13-14 (as I understand it) cannot be brought out in translation unless you opt for a paraphrase. Here is mine: “This is what I mean—men and women are partners and so a domineering attitude towards men is wrong. Also, Eve was deceived while Adam wasn’t—we need one another!

1 Timothy 2:15

But women will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety (NIV)

This is a very difficult verse. The conjunction marks a contrast; instead of being a domineering tyrant who harangues her pastor, women will be saved through childbearing, etc., etc.

What does “saved through childbearing” mean?

  • The act of giving birth accomplishes salvation. The preposition expresses means. This is absurd and cannot mean that.
  • A veiled reference to Jesus. She will be saved by the childbearing; that is, the birth of Jesus.[34] The preposition expresses means. In this case, Eve morphs into Mary (Eve’s offspring; cp. Gen 3:15), who brings the Messiah into the world and is thus spiritually saved. This is such a veiled reference that I find it improbable. Also, Paul is writing after the cross, so this future assurance (the verb “will be saved” is indeed future) would be functionally meaningless to Christian women in Ephesus—Jesus has already come and gone! Some try to drive a wedge into the middle of the verse, whereby the “will be saved” refers to Eve (cp. Gen 3:15), and the present “if they continue” teleports us to Eve’s collective offspring in the here and now. This seems forced, but the closest antecedent to the verb “will be saved” is indeed Eve, from v.14.
  • A reference to proper roles. The women will be rescued from this aggressive and domineering ethic in connection with bearing children. The preposition is attendant circumstance, and the “saving” is not spiritual but temporal—there is no way on earth the “saving” could be spiritual and still fit the rest of Scripture. So, this would be a summary swipe against the entire worldview of these immature Christian women, who are evidently embracing the sexual asceticism Paul will soon mention (“they forbid people to marry,” 1 Tim 4:3). It is tempting to see a proto-feminism at work here, but I think that is too fraught with anachronisms and the potential for misunderstanding and knee-jerk rejection to use profitably, even if it does communicate well when properly understood. The fact is that these women are being domineering, arrogant, overbearing, contemptuous of men, and do not respect authority—they do not know what they do not know. They can be saved from this road that leads to misery by embracing their role as prospective mothers rather than shunning it.[35] This does not mean a woman is only complete if she is pregnant; it just means it is wrong to deliberately hate the gender God gave you, and the defining characteristic of female gender is the ability to conceive life.
  • Childbearing as a temporal trial to be overcome. Henry Alford suggests this one. This childbearing is a woman’s particular cross to bear (Gen 3:16), if she passes through this test and yet perseveres in faith, love, etc. The childbearing is the woman’s hinderance in the way of salvation, but if she pushes through (no pun intended) she shall be saved. 

The third option is the best, because it fits contextually, but it relies on a bit of work from the reader. However—and this is critical—it would not have been a chore for Timothy to get what Paul meant! After all, it was a letter to him, about his problems, in his church. He knew exactly what Paul meant. We must put ourselves into Timothy’s position, in light of the context we can glean from the letter, to discern what Paul must have meant. Of these three options, the third is frankly the only one which makes sense.

A rendering would look like this: “But women will be rescued from all that false teaching about men and sexual abstinence by embracing their role as mothers—if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety.”

My Rendering of the Passage

Here is my full rendering of 1 Tim 2:11-15, in light of everything I have discussed:

“Woman must learn in a calm and peaceful manner—with complete obedience. I don’t permit woman to be to be lecturing or being a domineering tyrant to man. Instead, she must be calm and peaceful. This is what I mean—men and women are partners and so a domineering attitude towards men is wrong. Also, Eve was deceived while Adam wasn’t—we need one another!

But women will be rescued from all that false teaching about men and sexual abstinence by embracing their role as mothers—if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety.”

Dangerous Waters?

It is difficult to analyze this passage and set aside the freight which comes along with it. One the one hand, Wayne Grudem declares “evangelical feminism” is the slippery road to ruin. “[T]he egalitarian position ultimately bears various kinds of destructive fruit in people’s lives.”[36] On one recent podcast featuring two speakers from the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood and a seminary president, one man remarked that egalitarianism had its “toes pointed” in the direction of another religion.[37]

On the other hand, the editors of Discovering Biblical Equality protest that males do not have unilateral leadership authority simply because they are males—“[t]hat is the main argument of this volume.”[38]

Grudem (et al) suggests liberalism and sexual and gender confusion await us all if we fail to hold the line.[39] This is perhaps why like-minded scholars have banded together to produce three editions of a book devoted to 1 Timothy 2:9-15. The barbarians are at the gates, and so the complementarian fort must be held. Au contraire, I’m not convinced that one’s interpretation of this passage is a short-hand for liberalism, a slippery slope to drag queen story hour, or imputes the full freight of complementarian or egalitarian perspectives.

[1] William Hendriksen, Exposition of the Pastoral Epistles, in NTC (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1957), pp. 108-112.

[2] Linda Belleville, “Exegetical Fallacies In Interpreting 1 Timothy 2:11-15,” Priscilla Papers 17:3 (Summer 2003), p. 9.

[3] “The naming of the animals, a scene which portrays man as monarch of all he surveys, poignantly reveals him as a social being, made for fellowship, not power: he will not live until he loves, giving himself away (24) to another on his own level. So the woman is presented wholly as his partner and counterpart; nothing is yet said of her as childbearer. She is valued for herself alone,” (Derek Kidner, Genesis, in TOTC (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1967), 70).

For examples of where this word certainly doesn’t connote a subordinate assistant kind of role, see (1) Ex 18:4: God is Moses’ “helper,” which surely doesn’t indicate a subordination; (2) Deut 33:7 (cf. 33:29): Moses blesses tribe of Judah, and prays for God to be its “helper”―again, not a subordinate concept; (3) Isa 30:5: Isaiah taunts Israelites for seeking “help” from Egypt―not a subordinate relationship!; (4) Ezek 12:14: God taunts the King of Judah and promises to thwart all his “helpers” who plan to help him escape the coming captivity―not a subordinate relationship = he is lost without them; (5) Hos 13:9: God is Israel’s “helper” = not a subordinate relationship; (6) Ps 20:2: God sends “help” from his sanctuary when God’s people pray = not a subordinate relationship; (7) Ps 70:5: God is the psalmist’s “help;” (8) Ps 89:19: God gives “help” to David when He chooses Him to be king; (9) Ps 121:1-2 (cf. Ps 124:8; 146:5): The psalmist lifts his eyes up to the hills and wonders from where his “help” comes = it is from God!; (10) Dan 11:34: God will give the wise ones “help” during the time of tribulation.

I could go on, but this sampling makes the point. The woman is not a “helper,” but a partner without whom the other is incomplete—and vice versa.

[4] This is a redemptive-movement approach. “Relative to when and where the words of Scripture were first read, they spoke redemptively to their given communities. Yet, to stay with the isolated words of the text instead of their spirit leads to an equally tragic misreading. To neglect reapplying the redemptive spirit of the text adds a debilitating impotence to a life-transforming gospel that should be unleashed within our modern world. Such an approach truncates the application process; it severely dwarfs the positive potential of Scripture,” (William J. Webb, Slaves, Women & Homosexuals: Exploring the Hermeneutics of Cultural Analysis (Downers Grove: IVP, 2001), p. 50).

[5] By this, I mean prejudice, stereotyping, or discrimination against women on the basis of sex. See “sexism, n.2”. OED Online. September 2022. Oxford University Press. https://www.oed.com/view/Entry/177027 (accessed December 02, 2022). 

[6] Craig Keener, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament, 2nd ed. (Downers Grove: IVP, 2014), p. 600.

[7] Walter Lock, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Pastor Epistles, in ICC (reprint; Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1959), p. 29. 

[8] “The passage addresses women (2:9-15) in considerably more detail than men (2:8) here, perhaps because women are erring more severely in this congregation,” (Keener, Bible Background, p. 605).

[9] Thomas Schreiner says we lack enough information to make this conclusion (“An Interpretation of 1 Timothy 2:9-15,” in Women in the Church, ed. Thomas Schreiner and Andreas Kostenberger (Wheaton: Crossway, 2016), p. 125). I think Schreiner is being rather too careful, here. 

[10] Schreiner’s analysis is correct (“An Interpretation of 1 Timothy 2:9-15,” pp. 126-127). Lock disagrees (Pastoral Epistles, p. 32).

[11] BDAG, s.v. “ἡσυχίᾳ,” p. 440.

[12] Timothy Friberg, Barbara Friberg, and Neva F. Miller, Analytical Lexicon of the Greek New Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2000), s.v. “ἡσυχίᾳ,” p. 193.

[13] Johannes P. Louw and Eugene Albert Nida, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament: Based on Semantic Domains (New York: United Bible Societies, 1996), s.v. 88.103, p. 753.

[14] I. Howard Marshall and Philip H. Towner, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Pastoral Epistles, in ICC (London; New York: T&T Clark International, 2004), p. 453.

[15] I’m tempted to see the conjunction as explanatory, but Richard Young cautions that this is a very rare usage (Intermediate Greek, p. 183). BDAG doesn’t even list the category (p. 213).

[16] Al Wolters, “The Meaning of αὐθεντεῖν,” in Women in the Church, p. 80. Wolters’ article is a long word study and this approach (while helpful) is incomplete. The word means “authority” of some sort, either in a positive or negative sense. Wolters seeks to take the negative sense off the table because it conflicts with his complementarian convictions. Fair enough, but word studies can only take one so far. Context is very suggestive for meaning, and it’s here that Wolters fails to establish his case. Allies often cite his article as an allegedly definitive take on the issue, but it’s simply a word study which advocates a conclusion based on what Wolters admits is a weak dataset, while neglecting a study of meaning based on context. I believe the complete context of 1 Tim 2:11-15 supports the conclusion that the word more likely bears a negative meaning here (“domineer,” etc.).

[17] BDAG, s.v. “αὐθεντέω,” p. 150.

[18] Henry G. Liddell and Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon, revised by Henry Jones and Robert McKenzie (Oxford: OUP, 1968), s.v. “αὐθεντέω,” p. 275.

[19] Timothy Friberg, Barbara Friberg, and Neva F. Miller, Analytical Lexicon of the Greek New Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2000), s.v. “αὐθεντέω,” p. 81.

[20] William Mounce (ed.), Mounce’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old & New Testament Words (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2006), s.v. “αὐθεντέω,” p. 1101.

[21] James H. Moulton and George Milligan, The Vocabulary of the Greek New Testament (reprint; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1974), p. 91. See also (1) G. Abbott-Smith, Manual Lexicon of the New Testament, 3rd ed. (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1937), p. 68; (2) A.T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament, vol. 4 (Nashville: Broadman, 1931), 1 Tim 2:12; (3) Henry Alford, The New Testament for English Readers: A Critical and Explanatory Commentary, New Edition., vol. 2 (London; Rivingtons; Deighton, Bell and Co., 1872), p. 521; (4) Marshall and Towner, First Letter to Timothy, p. 457; (5) also the discussion by Belleville, “Teaching and Usurping Authority,” in Discovering Biblical Equality, pp. 210-221; (6) Lock, Pastoral Epistles, p. 32.

[22] “In the context the fact that Eve was deceived is cited as a parallel, and this strongly suggests the conclusion that behind the present prohibition lies some particular false teaching by some women. Otherwise, the reference to Eve’s being deceived and sinning is pointless,” (Marshall and Towner, First Letter to Timothy, p. 458).

[23] Linda Belleville, “Teaching and Usurping Authority: 1 Timothy 2:11-15,” in Discovering Biblical Equality, 3rd edition, ed. Ronald Pierce, Cynthia Westfall, and Christa McKirkland (Downers Grove: IVP, 2021), pp. 222-223. 

[24] Some scholars also claim the two infinitives (“be lecturing … being a domineering tyrant”) convey a single idea. This is desperate reasoning. The concepts Paul communicates are separate, though related. They are certainly not the same. 

[25] Efforts to make the conjunction not be explanatory are very weak and cannot be taken seriously. 

[26] BDAG, s.v. “πρῶτος,” 1, 2; pp. 892-894.  

[27] William Mounce, Pastoral Epistles, in Word Biblical Commentary, vol. 46 (Nashville: Nelson, 2000), p. 130.

[28]  “If the sense of verse 12 is that women are not permitted to teach men in a domineering fashion, then verse 13 would provide the explanation, namely, that Eve was created as Adam’s ‘partner’ (NRSV Gen 2:24) and not his boss,” (Linda Belleville, “Exegetical Fallacies In Interpreting 1 Timothy 2:11-15,” Priscilla Papers 17:3 (Summer 2003), p. 8).

[29]  Schreiner remarks, “The complementarian view has the virtue of adopting the simplest reading of the text,” (“An Interpretation of 1 Timothy 2:9-15,” p. 138).

Some interpreters think Paul is correcting a proto-gnostic heresy that perverts the real creation story and may be the root of the false teaching. This may be possible, but I’m not convinced. See Marg Mowczko, “Adam and Eve in Ancient Gnostic Literature and 1 Timothy 2:13-14,” 09 March 2015. https://margmowczko.com/adam-and-eve-in-gnostic-literature/.

[30] H. Harvey, Commentary on the Pastoral Epistles, First and Second Timothy and Titus, and the Epistle to Philemon, in American Commentary, ed. Alvah Hovey (Philadelphia: American Baptist Publication Society, 1980), pp. 34-35. 

[31] Schreiner, “An Interpretation of 1 Timothy 2:9-15,” p. 145.

[32] I disagree with the concept of male headship as described in Danvers, Affirmation 5. Rather, I agree with Application 3 from the “Men, Women, and Biblical Equality” Statement from CBE International (https://bit.ly/3isOyyZ).  

“In the Christian home, husband and wife are to defer to each other in seeking the fulfill each other’s preferences, desires, and aspirations. Neither spouse is to seek to dominate the other, but each is to act as servant of the other, in humility considering the other as better than oneself. In case of decisional deadlock they should seek resolution through biblical means of conflict resolution rather than by one spouse imposing a decision upon the other.”

This is not the forum to litigate this understanding of mutual submission, but it informs my rejection of Schreiner’s “this is what happens when women ignore headship” proposal.

[33] Marshall and Towner propose much the same thing. “Later Gnosticism is not necessary as a basis for this in view of the foundation that a realised resurrection doctrine might provide (see Schlarb 1990). If it is teaching in a way that misuses authority and domineers and if women were forcing their way into the teaching rota on the basis of an enthusiastic understanding of the reversal of fortunes connected with the Eschaton, then v. 13 merely calls for balance and a respect for their first-created male counterparts (cf. Witherington 1986:123). If a claim to the women’s right to teach was being defended by appeal to the Adam—sinner representative model (Rom 5), then v. 14 counters with an effective illustration of longstanding precedent that parallels the Ephesian women with their present state of deception at the hands of false teachers.

The conclusion to be drawn is that two closely related things were happening. The women were associated with the heretical teaching of the opponents and they were exercising their role as teachers in a way that was not acceptable and that appears to have been based on the heretical teaching with a bizarre interpretation of Gen 1–3. The author responds to them by insisting that Gen 1–3 does not support their claim to have authority over men,” (First Timothy, pp. 466-467).

[34] Lock, Pastoral Epistles, p. 33. 

[35] Marshall and Towner write, “The point is probably directed against a belief that women should abstain from childbirth, just as they should abstain from marriage (cf. Kimberley*, who reads the text against a later Gnostic background). Though they may not teach, women will still be saved by fulfilling their Christian duty in motherhood,” (First Timothy, p. 470).

[36] Wayne Grudem, Countering the Claims of Evangelical Feminism (Wheaton: Crossway, 2006), p. 301. 

[37] Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary, “Complementarianism in the Church,” timestamp 14:30 – 16:00, 27 October 2022. https://spoti.fi/3ufe2Cl.  

[38] Ronald W. Pierce, Cynthia Westfall, and Christa McKirland (eds.), Discovering Biblical Equality: Biblical, Theological, Cultural & Practical Perspectives, 3rd ed. (Downers Grove: IVP, 2021), p. 6. 

[39] Grudem, Countering the Claims, pp. 282-284. 

On Bad Checks, “Mirror Reading” and the Mosaic Law

On Bad Checks, “Mirror Reading” and the Mosaic Law

Have you ever listened to just one side of a conversation? You know the kind I mean—someone near you is talking on the phone, you can’t hear the other person, so you try to figure out what’s going on by listening closely to what the person next to you is saying. If you’re able to ask the person about it afterwards, you might discover you figured it out right, or you might have got it all wrong!

We do stuff like this all the time. In my other life, I run an investigations team for a State agency. In one case, we had an insurance agent whom we suspected had stolen lots of money from commercial clients. These companies would write the agent checks for property and general liability insurance for one-year terms. The agent would then alter the payee field to say the consumer wrote the check out to his own personal, unrelated business account. He’d then deposit the checks, and provide fake certificates of insurance to the companies. He never placed the insurance. Nobody knew a thing—until someone tried to file a claim. Oops.

But, there was something weird. The agent also wrote a few checks out to his agency from that same unrelated business account, but he’d falsify the payer field to say it was from a commercial client. We had no idea why he did this—he refused an interview with our investigators. So, we had to do what theologians call “mirror reading.” This means we have to guess at the context which prompted the action—we have to speculate, just like you did with that one half of a phone call you listened to.

In this case, we guessed the agent felt pressured to send at least some of the money he stole along to the agency, so people wouldn’t grow too suspicious. There were smarter ways to do it, but that was our best guess. Nobody ever said this guy was a genius!

My point is that when we read ch(s). 3-4 from the Book of Galatians, we also have to do a bit of mirror reading. We have to take what we know about God, the Gospel, salvation, and relationship with God, and bring it to bear to decipher what Paul is saying. Here, we’ll see why the “key question” I mentioned before is so important.  

This is part of a commentary series through the Book of Galatians. It began with Galatians 3:1-6. This series will progress until the book is finished, then circle back and cover ch. 1-2. This article covers Galatians 3:7-14.

This passage (Galatians 3:7-14) is perhaps the most difficult portion of Paul’s letter–the relationship of the Mosaic Law to saving faith. Before we begin, I’ll restate some principles from the first article that will help you understand the position this commentary takes. Here they are:

  1. Paul is not arguing against the Mosaic Law as it was. He was arguing against the perverted understanding of the Mosaic Law that was common in his day (and Jesus’ day, too).
  2. The Mosaic Law is not a vehicle for salvation, and it was never intended to be one.
  3. The Law was given to teach God’s people (a) how to worship Him rightly, which includes instructions about forgiveness of sins (moral cleanness) and ritual uncleanness, (b) to have a written moral code that is fairly comprehensive, but not exhaustive, and (c) to live as brothers and sisters in a particular society for a particular time.
  4. The Law is a tool for holy living, a guardian to keep people in a holy “holding pattern” while the plane circled the airport, waiting for Jesus’ first advent so it could “land.”
  5. It is incorrect to believe the shape of a believer’s relationship with God has ever been about anything other than wholehearted love, which ideally produces loving obedience (Mk 12:28-32; cf. Deut 6:4-6; Lev 19).
  6. Some flavors of pop dispensationalism have done incalculable damage by confusing Christians about the relationship between the Mosaic Law and the Gospel.

Now, to the Scriptures!

Understand, then, that those who have faith are children of Abraham. Scripture foresaw that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, and announced the gospel in advance to Abraham: “All nations will be blessed through you.”

Galatians 3:7-8

Who is a child of Abraham? Well, it certainly isn’t about biology. About genetics. About who your parents are. John the Baptist understood that (Mt 3:7-10). No, it isn’t about race or ethnicity—it’s about common faith in Jesus. If you have Abraham’s faith, then you’re one of his children. Easy. Simple.

In fact, Scripture foresaw that the “child of God” concept wasn’t really an ethnic thing at all. God announced the Gospel to Abraham in advance when He announced that “all nations will be blessed through you,” (cf. Gen. 12:3; 18:18; 22:18).

This is extraordinary. The false teachers skulking around the area are Judaizers—folks who push the rules-based legalism we noted, before. The apogee of their “faith” is to be as Jewish as possible which, in their warped understanding, means to follow the rules and traditions of the elders very strictly (cf. Phil 3:4-6). Thus, you violate the Sabbath if you put spices into a pot, but all is well if you add spices to food served on a dish![1] 

Not so, says Paul. Your pedigree before God has nothing to do with this. It only has to do with whether your relationship with God is based on faith and trust in God’s promise, and love—just like Abraham’s.

So those who rely on faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith.

Galatians 3:9

Paul is making a conclusion based on what he’s just said. It could be translated as something like, “this means, then, that those who rely on faith are blessed with Abraham.” If you want to be one of Abraham’s children, then follow his lead and rely on faith!

Now, we get down to the hard part. Remember that question about which I said you must have an opinion? Let’s ask ourselves again:

  • Did God intend the Mosaic Law to be a way of salvation?

The answer is no. Never.

This means that, however difficult Paul may be to follow from here on out, he cannot be agreeing with the false teachers that the Mosaic Law was a vehicle for salvation. Never. It isn’t an option. God doesn’t change the terms of salvation. It’s always been by faith.

So, remember this question and the right answer, because here we go …

For all who rely on the works of the law are under a curse, as it is written: “Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law.”

Galatians 3:10, quoting Deuteronomy 27:26

If the Mosaic Law was never about salvation, then Paul is not seriously suggesting the Mosaic Law means this. He can’t be. Rather, his point relies on you understanding everything he just wrote, in vv. 7-9.

  • Salvation is by faith—always has been.
  • Abraham had faith and was counted righteous.
  • That’s how you become one of Abraham’s children—faith in the promise.

The “for” at the beginning of the sentence is explanatory. It’s translated a bit stiffly, as if Paul is a Victorian gentleman—and he ain’t one. It could be rendered as something like, “so, this is what I’m saying—everyone who relies on the works of the law …”

He means, “look, if you wanna go that route and try to earn your salvation, then have at it—here’s a quote from Moses that you can chew on!” He accurately quotes the text of Deuteronomy 27:26, but must be deliberately subverting the meaning. Moses didn’t preach salvation by works. When he asked the people to swear that promise in Deuteronomy 27:26 (along with a bunch of others), he presupposed that everyone understood that love was the driving force behind relationship with God (Deut 6:4-5; 10:12-16). I’m saying Paul misapplied Deuteronomy 27:26 the same way the Judaizers were doing. Paul is saying, “if you want to go that way, have fun trying to accomplish this …”

So, the “curse” Paul mentions isn’t the Mosaic Law as it really was. Instead, the “curse” is the impossible burden of trying to adopt the Judaizer’s perverted understanding of the Mosaic Law. Some Christians imagine Old Covenant life as an oppressive burden, a millstone dragging the believers to a watery grave … until Christ came! How absurd. They believe this because they take Paul literally in vv. 10-12—they believe he’s describing the Mosaic Law as it really was. They’re wrong.

As I mentioned, Paul adopts the Judaizer’s arguments to show how bankrupt they are. Read Psalm 119 and see if the writer is being crushed by the law! “Open my eyes that I may see wonderful things in your law,” (Ps 119:18). He isn’t! He loves God and loves His word (including the Mosaic Law). The Law is only a millstone if you think it’s a vehicle for salvation. But, it ain’t one, so it ain’t a millstone.

I’m comfortable suggesting this, because Paul then sweeps this silly idea of “earning my salvation by merit” aside.

Clearly no one who relies on the law is justified before God, because “the righteous will live by faith.”

Galatians 3:11, quoting Habakkuk 2:4

The law can’t make you righteous. Paul quotes Habakkuk 2:4, which indeed says that “the righteous will live by faith.” So, when he quotes Moses from Deuteronomy 27:26, he can’t really be saying Moses meant it that way. Paul just adopts the arguments from the Judaizers, or from similar sources floating about in the 1st century interwebs, and suggests they have fun trying to do the impossible. He now continues in that vein:

The law is not based on faith; on the contrary, it says, “The person who does these things will live by them.”

Galatians 3:12, quoting Leviticus 18:5

This accurate quote from Leviticus is ripe for misunderstanding. Again, he rightly quotes the text but suggests the wrong meaning. When Paul says “the law is not based on faith,” he assumes the perverted form of their argument. The “law” he mentions here is the wrong understanding of the Mosaic law, not that law as it really is. “You wanna have eternal life?” he asks. “Then, make sure you do everything in the law—just like it says. Have at it, boys and girls!”

Remember our magic question—did God intend the Mosaic Law to be a way of salvation? He did not. So, whatever Paul is saying, he cannot be suggesting the Mosaic Law has anything to do with salvation. This magic question is the key to understanding Paul’s argument. Some Christians fail to ask it, and so their explanations of this passage make little sense.

Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: “Cursed is everyone who is hung on a pole.”

Galatians 3:13, quoting Deuteronomy 21:23

I think we’re making a mistake if we think “curse of the law” is the Mosaic Law. The Law isn’t a curse. It isn’t a bad thing. It isn’t a burden, because it has nothing to do with salvation. The Mosaic Law is simply a vehicle for holy living, while God’s people remained in a holding pattern waiting for Christ. We’ve always obeyed from the heart because He’s already rescued us—not the other way around. “Give me understanding, so that I may keep your laws and obey it with all my heart … I reach out for your commands, which I love, that I may meditate on your decrees,” (Ps 119:34, 48). The man who wrote this didn’t think he was “under a curse.”

So, to return to our verse (Gal 3:13), from what “curse” did Christ redeem us, then?

I think it’s the curse of the capital punishment waiting for every one of us, because (in our natural state) we’ve rejected God. That’s what Deuteronomy 21:23 is about—a person guilty of a capital offense is to be hanged on a pole. We’ve each committed the “capital offense” of rejecting God, so we’re under that death sentence, but Christ has come to free us from that. After all, we can’t free ourselves—we can’t be good enough (cf. Gal 2:21).

So, rather than try and dig our way (i.e. “earning” salvation by merit) out of a situation from which there is no escape, we should rely on Jesus. He became a curse for us. He suffered for our capital crimes by being hanged on a pole. The word “redeem” has lost its original force, in English. It means something like “buying back from slavery.” We can’t bribe our way out of our mess, so Jesus gave Himself to buy us out of Satan’s clutches.   

So, Paul isn’t making a negative assessment of the Mosaic Law at all. The “curse” here isn’t even about the Mosaic Law. But, if we think Paul is talking about that, then I ask this—are we really to suppose that God “cursed” His people from Sinai to Pentecost with a system whose design was to crush their souls? Is that the “average Christian life” vibe you get from Psalm 119? Is that what a circumcision of the heart is all about (cf. Deut 10:16)? Was the average Israelite like poor Pilgrim, struggling with that loathsome burden on his back?  

No! Paul’s not even talking about the Mosaic Law. He’s just suggesting another way, a better way, the true way—“because if we become righteous through the Law, then Christ died for no purpose,” (Gal 2:21, CEB). You can (1) go the Judaizer’s route and try to earn your way into the kingdom, or (2) you can rejoice and trust that Christ has already redeemed us from our death sentence for rebellion (“the curse of the law”).

He redeemed us in order that the blessing given to Abraham might come to the Gentiles through Christ Jesus, so that by faith we might receive the promise of the Spirit.

Galatians 3:14

Why did Christ buy us back from slavery? So that Christ could be the channel for the blessings to Abraham to flow to the rest of the world. We receive the promise of the Holy Spirit by faith. Always have. Always will.

[1] Shabbat 3:5, in Mishnah.  

On Samantha Stephens and Salvation

On Samantha Stephens and Salvation

Samantha Stephens is a witch who fell in love with an advertising executive. Such was the depth of their love that Samantha is ready to cast aside spells, sorcery, and other dark arts to become a sweet suburban housewife. Her mother disapproved—how could her darling daughter marry a mortal man? She visited Samantha on her wedding night, as her anxious husband waited outside to consummate this blessed union, and tried to convince her daughter to see reason. But, Samantha wouldn’t budge. So, the happy couple started a life together.

The first installment of Bewitched featured the mother-in-law’s absurd attempts to ruin their wedding night and Samantha’s magical revenge upon catty guests at a dinner party. The episode closed with Samantha casting a spell upon the dinner dishes to clean themselves while she and her husband adjourned to the bedroom.

Samantha’s bewitching powers were benign, silly. They make us laugh. The idea, of course, is that an otherworldly force is at work to trick, to deceive. Samantha deploys this sinister force by twitching her nose. The Apostle Paul uses the idea in the same way, but in an infinitely darker context—the word he uses in his language conjured up images of “the evil eye.” Bad people have tricked the Christians in Galatia, to the point that Paul sarcastically suggests they’re under a spell of some sort. It’s the nature of this error that occupies Paul’s time throughout ch(s). 3-4.

This is a tricky issue, and it’s the heart of Paul’s message in this letter. But, there is a key—a simple question one can ask which will unlock the whole thing. It’s a question for which every reader of Galatians must have an opinion. How you answer this question will determine whether you rightly or wrongly understand this letter. Here is the question:

  • Did God intend the Mosaic Law to be a way of salvation?

That’s it. That’s the question. If you can answer it, then you’ve unlocked the key to this letter. No matter what happens, if you continually ask yourself this question and remind yourself of the answer, then you can understand this book. If you don’t ask the question, then you’ll likely go wrong. If you answer it wrongly, then you’ll take a bad turn pretty quick. I’ll explain by and by—let’s dive into the heart of this letter.

This is part of a commentary series through the Book of Galatians. It began with Galatians 3:1-6. This series will progress until the book is finished, then circle back and cover ch. 1-2. This article covers Galatians 3:1-6.

First, here are some presuppositions of mine, up front, so the reader can know the lay of the land:

  1. Paul is not arguing against the Mosaic Law as it was. He was arguing against the perverted understanding of the Mosaic Law that was common in his day (and Jesus’ day, too).
  2. The Mosaic Law is not a vehicle for salvation, and it was never intended to be one.
  3. The Law was given to teach God’s people (a) how to worship Him rightly, which includes instructions about forgiveness of sins (moral cleanness) and ritual uncleanness, (b) to have a written moral code that is fairly comprehensive, but not exhaustive, and (c) to live as brothers and sisters in a particular society for a particular time.
  4. The Law is a tool for holy living, a guardian to keep people in a holy “holding pattern” while the plane circled the airport, waiting for Jesus’ first advent so it could “land.”
  5. It is incorrect to believe the shape of a believer’s relationship with God has ever been about anything other than wholehearted love, which ideally produces loving obedience (Mk 12:28-32; cf. Deut 6:4-6; Lev 19).
  6. Some flavors of pop dispensationalism have done incalculable damage by confusing Christians about the relationship between the Mosaic Law and the Gospel.

Now, to the text!

You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? Before your very eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed as crucified. I would like to learn just one thing from you: Did you receive the Spirit by the works of the law, or by believing what you heard?

Galatians 3:1-2

They’ve been tricked. Fooled. Hoodwinked. They know the truth, but they’ve been convinced otherwise. Paul preached the truth to them—they saw him explain with their own eyes, heard with their own ears. They know better than this. As Paul asks his question in v.2, we should picture him holding up his hand to forestall any heated objection from his audience.

“No!” he says. “You listen! Lemme ask you one thing—did you receive the Spirit by doing things to gain God’s favor, or by just believing what you heard? Which one!?”

The question is rhetorical. They know the answer. They know what Paul taught them. There’s nothing to say. The Spirit is tied to salvation, and that has never been by works—by doing things from the Mosaic Law.

Are you so foolish? After beginning by means of the Spirit, are you now trying to finish by means of the flesh?

Galatians 3:4

Paul is deliberately provocative, here. To miss the Gospel and wander off into Jewish legalism is a terrible mistake. He’ll explain just how big a mistake it is, later (Gal 4:8-10). But, for now, he presses the point home with another rhetorical question. If they admit they did receive the Holy Spirit by simply believing the truth about Jesus (not by working to curry favor), then do they really suppose they have to add “things” to Jesus, to seal the deal? Add works? Add rules?

Rules are fine. Rules are good. God has standards of conduct. But, these flow from a true love for God—not the other way around. This is the great tragedy of Judaism in Jesus’ day, and in Paul’s. It’s why Jesus was so unhappy with the religious establishment. It’s why they were so angry at Him. They spoke different languages, as it were—they had different faiths. They had a different God.

The Jewish establishment had a God of legalism, where relationship was predicated on right conduct (orthopraxy). To have a relationship with God, you gotta follow the rules. So, for example:[1]

  • A beggar who reaches inside a home on the Sabbath to receive a food gift has committed sin. The act of reaching inside the window makes it so.[2]
  • If you search your clothes for fleas on the Sabbath, you have sinned.[3]
  • On the Sabbath, you must only roast meat if there is time for a crust to form on the surface, during the daytime. If you fail in this, you have sinned.[4]
  • If you rise to extinguish a lamp because you’re afraid of Gentiles or thugs, don’t worry—it isn’t a sin![5]
  • God kills women in childbirth because they are insufficiently reverent when preparing the dough offering.[6]

I could go on. But, it’s clear there is little love in this kind of relationship. Where is the love? There can’t be loving obedience under this kind of system. This is why Jesus said, “They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders …” (Mt 23:4). One writer summed up this “other Gospel” pretty well:

Nothing was left to free personality. Everything was placed under the bondage of the letter. The Israelite, zealous for the law, was obliged at every impulse and movement to ask himself, what is commanded. At every step, at the work of his calling, and prayer, at meals, at home and abroad, from early morning till late in the evening, from youth to old age, the dead, the deadening formula followed him. A healthy moral life could not flourish under such a burden, action was nowhere the result of inward motive, all was, on the contrary, weighed and measured. Life was a continual tournament to the earnest man, who felt at every moment that he was in danger of transgressing the law; and where so much depended on the external form, he was often left in uncertainty whether he had really fulfilled its requirements.[7]

So, yes—it’s foolish to fall for this. To believe this is a real relationship with God. To believe the false teachers who are peddling this nonsense. That’s why Paul is upset.

Have you experienced so much in vain—if it really was in vain? So again I ask, does God give you his Spirit and work miracles among you by the works of the law, or by your believing what you heard?

Galatians 3:4-5

Is everything they’ve accepted about Christ pointless? Was it all worthless? For nothing? Paul repeats his question under a different cover with the same point—do we work to be rewarded with salvation’s blessings, or do we simply believe what we hear about Christ?

So also Abraham “believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.”

Galatians 3:6

This question is also rhetorical. The answer is “we believed what we heard about Christ.” Good! They’re in great company, then—because Abraham also simply believed God, and was counted righteous. We should all follow Abraham’s example! He had the right idea before the Mosaic Law became twisted up in knots and perverted by the Jewish establishment. So, Paul suggests, let’s go back to Abraham and see what he can teach us about real faith.

We’ll turn to this, next time.

[1] The Mishnah dates from approximately A.D. 200. But, it is a generally accurate compendium of tradition and rules that were around in Jesus’ day. We see a strong resemblance of its Sabbath regulations in Mark 7. Even if one wishes to quibble about the precise applicability of a compiled book ca. 170 years after Jesus’ death, it still captures the flavor and ethos of the relationship this system imagines God has with His people.   

[2] Shabbat 1:1, in Jacob Neusner, The Mishnah: A New Translation (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988), 178–179.  

[3] Shabbat 1:3, in Mishnah.  

[4] Shabbat 1:10, in Mishnah.  

[5] Shabbat 2:5, in Mishnah.  

[6] Shabbat 2:6, in Mishnah.  

[7] Emil Schurer, A History of the Jewish People in the Time of Jesus Christ, second division, vol. 2 (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1890; reprint; Peabody: Hendrickson, 2012), p. 125. See all of §28.  

How to Interpret Prophecy: A Guide for the Perplexed

How to Interpret Prophecy: A Guide for the Perplexed

I recently completed a massive project which I want to share with you all. I’ve produced a series of nine short videos explaining how to interpret biblical prophecy in a responsible way. Interpreting prophecy is hard! There’s often too much drama, too much speculation, and too much passion invested based on poor methods. This nine-part video series aims to address this problem. I’ve also written a 39-page booklet to accompany this video series, which goes into more detail.

I hope this project is of some use to Christians who are looking for a sane approach to prophecy that avoids the date-setting, “ripped from the headlines” approach which has characterized too much of the genre.

If you’re an “ordinary” Christian looking for a solid book to understand prophecy, perhaps the best I can recommend is an older work by R.B. Girdlestone, The Grammar of Prophecy: An Attempt to Discover the Method Underlying the Prophetic Scriptures. It’s a short book, and Girdlestone was an Anglican minister from an earlier era, but this is an excellent work on the subject. For my money, it’s the best thing a Christian can buy.

The videos are below, and here is the accompanying booklet. If you want more information about a subject I mention, please refer to the booklet.