Monday, April 4, 2016

on Leave a Comment

Moses, Deuteronomy and Josiah: Part 3 of 3

          Hilkiah, a priest, made a critical discovery relatively early in the reign of Josiah of Judah. The discovery of a scroll during repairs to the temple suggests that it might have been a foundation document (2 Kg. 22:3-8//2 Chr. 34:8-16). Foundation texts were well-known in the ancient Near East, documents including royal inscriptions and information to any king who might undertake a restoration of the building in future days. The Book of the Law might have been enshrined in such a foundation box or concealed in the temple walls. Alternatively, it could have been found in the temple archives. In the Kings record, it was simply called the “book of the Torah,” a title that is somewhat ambiguous, since presumably all the books of Moses were single scrolls (2 Kg. 22:8-10; cf. 2 Chr. 34:14ff.). However, when the scroll was read to Josiah and later read and interpreted by the prophetess Huldah, the king’s reaction was immediate and visceral. It was apparent from what was rehearsed that the national life of Judah was in serious violation of the statutes contained in this scroll, and the contents of the scroll became a powerful incentive for Josiah’s reforms, including a heart-felt renewal of the ancient covenant (2 Kg. 23:1-3). In accord with what was written in this scroll, Josiah directed a nation-wide purge of pagan elements. He burned all the implements dedicated to Ba’al and Asherah and did away with their priests. He dismantled all vestiges of the astral cult. He destroyed the shrines and altars of paganism, smashing them to bits, and he even carried his reforms beyond his national borders to the ancient high places of northern Israel. Finally, he instituted a Passover celebration that was unlike anything the citizens of Judah had seen since the period of the judges. All this sweeping reform was prompted by “the requirements of the Torah written in the book that Hilkiah the priest had discovered in the temple of Yahweh” (2 Kg. 23:4-24). The assessment of Josiah’s work was that “neither before nor after Josiah was there a king like him who turned to Yahweh as he did—with all his heart and with all his soul and with all his strength, in accordance with all the law of Moses” (2 Kg. 23:25).

          While no title to the newly discovered book of the law was given in either 2 Kings or 2 Chronicles, virtually all interpreters conclude that it must have been some form of Deuteronomy. None of the scrolls of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus or Numbers seemed likely to have caused such distress. The king’s anguished reaction to its contents, especially the threat of severe divine reprisals for disobedience, seem consonant with the curses of Deuteronomy 28. Further, the language “book of the Torah” is used in Deuteronomy about itself (Dt. 28:58, 61; 31:26; cf. Jos. 1:8). The law of the king in Deuteronomy 17:14-20 made the king liable for maintaining moral leadership for the nation. Combined, all these factors makes Deuteronomy the most likely candidate for what was discovered by Hilkiah. The fact that the assessment of Josiah’s reforms was framed in words directly taken from the language of Deuteronomy 6:5 (cf. 2 Kg. 23:25) only strengthens this conclusion.

          How came this book to be deposited in the temple and effectively lost? Here, there are several theories. Some suggest that technically it was not lost at all but was a fresh composition. Collins and others bluntly conclude that “the finding of the book [was] a fiction, designed to ensure its ready acceptance by the people.” While he concedes that some earlier material may have been edited and incorporated into the book, the larger composition was the product of Josiah’s own scribes. Both Deuteronomy and the traditions in Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings were either composed or edited from a Deuteronomic perspective at this time, and the process went on for some years even after Josiah’s reign ended at his death. Such a reconstruction not only would provide a rationale for Josiah’s reforms, it would explain the similarities between the Book of Deuteronomy and the vassal treaties of Esarhaddon, which are from about the same period.

          Other scholars, however, are reluctant to sever Deuteronomy so completely from the older traditions. Some suggest that the larger corpus of Deuteronomy was composed earlier in the northern kingdom before its Assyrian exile. Here, Deuteronomy’s origin was believed to be among priestly Levites or northern prophets who, in light of what was happening in the north, set down traditions in opposition to the prevailing Ba’al cult in order to stem the tide of apostasy. Fleeing southward after the fall of the northern kingdom, they brought with them their text, which was hidden in the temple, possibly during the dark days of Manasseh’s kingship in Judah, when Manasseh’s so thoroughly reversed the reforms of his father Hezekiah (cf. 2 Kg. 21:1-9). Indeed, during Manasseh’s reign, Jerusalem was filled “from end to end” with the innocent blood of all who opposed him (2 Kg. 21:16), which certainly would have been an understandable context for hiding a Torah scroll whose very existence might have meant life or death. The scroll presumably was hidden in the temple for preservation and only rediscovered during the safer period of Josiah’s reign when workers were refurbishing the central sanctuary.

          An even more conservative alternative to the above scenarios is the suggestion that Deuteronomy was composed in the time of Solomon as a direct rebuke to Solomon’s self-exaltation and apostasy (cf. Dt. 17:14-20; 1 Kg. 11:1-13). Deuteronomy is clear: the king of Israel must not elevate himself (he must be a “brother” Israelite), he must not amass a large chariot corps, and he must not surround himself with a large harem. All these things Solomon did! Deuteronomy, by contrast, shows that power in Israel would not be concentrated in any single individual, but spread through other officials, such as, judges (Dt. 16:18), priests (Dt. 18:5) and prophets (Dt. 18:15) as well as a king (Dt. 17:14ff.). Those who held offices as judges or kings were to be appointed by the people themselves, not some central figure (Dt. 16:18; 17:15), and the real authority for the nation lay not in any single person, but in the Torah itself (Dt. 31:10-13). Hence, the nation of Israelites was to be a true brotherhood living under the covenant of Torah. This primacy of the Torah explains the central role of Moses, who mediates God’s will by his speeches (cf. Dt. 4:14), and it is to be carried out by the people within their families (Dt. 6:7-9). Such a setting for Deuteronomy would be earlier and different in orientation than the context of the Josianic reforms. That Deuteronomy fulfilled an important role in Josiah’s reform need not be discounted, but the ideas in Deuteronomy are older and more primitive than a 7th century BC context.
on Leave a Comment

Moses, Deuteronomy and Josiah: Part 2 of 3

The upshot of all this is that there are several theories about the date of Deuteronomy’s literary composition, some of them compatible with a high view of Scripture and some not so compatible. Until the modern period, the Jewish and Christian consensus was that it was composed in the Mosaic Period, either by Moses himself or by those close to him. Indeed, when Hilkiah found the “Book of the Torah” in the temple, the Hebrew text describes it as having been given “through the hand of Moses” (2 Chr. 34:14). Only since the late 18th and early 19th centuries has this consensus been seriously questioned. Many conservative scholars still maintain this position, especially since Christ and other New Testament writers cite Deuteronomy as simply “Moses” (e.g., Mt. 19:8//Dt. 24:4; 1 Co. 9:9//Dt. 25:4; He. 10:28//Dt. 17:6). Of course, such references would still be true, even if Deuteronomy was compiled at a later date, so long as the historicity of the sayings were not called into question.

A second theory is that while Deuteronomy probably contains substantial units that go back to the time of Moses himself, the final form of Deuteronomy was not achieved until perhaps the time of Samuel or David. It is in this period that the centrality of the priest disappears and the centrality of the king appears (cf. Dt. 17:14-20). The political union of the Israelite tribes under a single king made the centralization of worship both possible and desirable, perhaps inevitable (cf. Dt. 12).

The third theory is currently the most widely accepted among historical-critical scholars—that Deuteronomy belongs to the 7th century BC, where it became the motivating force behind Josiah’s reform. While many scholars hold to this position, they do not all carry the same assumptions. Some continue to attribute substantial portions of Deuteronomy to the time of Moses, preserved by oral tradition, and finally supplemented and compiled in the 7th century. Others, more negatively, regard Deuteronomy as a pious fraud—that the speeches of Moses essentially were concocted and put into his mouth. Either way, the similarity between the suzerainty structure of Deuteronomy and the vassal treaties of Esarhaddon, who also was in the 7th century, lend weight to this conclusion. The laws concerning the king (Dt. 17) and the centralization of worship (Dt. 12), not to mention the blessings and curses (Dt. 28), figure prominently in Josiah’s reforms. As mentioned earlier, some scholars argue that much of Deuteronomy was composed by Levites in the northern kingdom and brought to Judah after the exile of the northern tribes. Others theorize that it was composed in the south.

The most radical theory is that Deuteronomy was composed after the exile of Judah. Here, Deuteronomy is viewed as an idealistic, imaginative work composed after the kingdoms of Israel and Judah no longer existed. In reaching a conclusion about Deuteronomy’s author and date, two factors are very important to conservative scholars. While the book is formally anonymous (i.e., it does not name its composer outright), the essential historicity and authenticity of its narratives and speeches must be maintained. Such a view seems essential for regarding Deuteronomy as divinely inspired. To be sure, evangelical scholars are not opposed to seeing oral or written sources that may underlie the present form of Deuteronomy as well as the rest of the Pentateuch. Indeed, they are not necessarily opposed to an editorial process that extended from the time of Moses into the late monarchy. Still, they are not free to bring into question the historical claims of its content. If Deuteronomy says that Moses said such and such, then Moses said it. One should not assume, of course, that the words attributed to Moses are the equivalent to some sort of tape recording. It is more important to acknowledge that we have the voice of Moses in Deuteronomy if not the precise words of Moses. Perhaps an appropriate analogy may be found in the gospel sayings of Jesus, which vary from gospel to gospel and originally were uttered in Aramaic, though we have them in Greek. We accept that we have the voice of Jesus if not always the precise words of Jesus. Whenever and however Deuteronomy reached the final form in which it has been passed down to us, conservatives remain committed to the Mosaicity of the Pentateuch in general and Deuteronomy as a constituent part of it. J. Barton Payne, an older evangelical scholar but one who was sensitive to the broader issues, is representative when he says, “The term Mosaicity may refer to those parts composed by Moses—whether actually written down by him or not—such as the address in Deuteronomy 1:6—4:40 or the song in 33:2-39.” And again, “Still, it means that the rest of the words, which Scripture does not specifically assign to Moses, need not be attributed to him. These include [among other things]…the description of his death.”
on Leave a Comment

Moses, Deuteronomy and Josiah: Part 1 of 3

Evangelicals have long had a struggle with the authorship of the books in the Pentateuch. Because they are called the “Books of Moses” and because various passages in the New Testament quote from them as “Moses”, they bristle when there is any suggestion that Moses may not have written every word or that the final form of these books may have had a lengthy redactional history. I remember when teaching at William Tyndale College, where I taught the course on the Torah, that this was a perennial issue fraught with uneasiness, not only from students coming from fundamental churches, but also from their parents and pastors. Unfortunately, even sincere Christians with a Biblicist point of view do not always pay attention to the actual texts themselves, sometimes giving a knee-jerk reaction that betrays a less than careful reading.

It should first of all be understood that a distinction should be maintained between historical events themselves and the documentation of those events in writing. The two may or may not be coincidental. If, for instance, a 21st century writer sets down the history of India during the British Commonwealth, the modern reader would not suppose that he had fabricated his material out of thin air just because he was not old enough to have seen it personally. Similarly, there is no necessary requirement that the narratives about Moses and his teaching must have been codified while he was still alive or necessarily set down by Moses himself. Indeed, there are reasons for thinking this might not be the case, not the least of which is the account of his death at the close of Deuteronomy (cf. 34). Further, the closing verses of Deuteronomy that “since then no prophet has risen in Israel like Moses” presumes a hand later than Moses (34:10-12).

Sometimes, the point of view in Deuteronomy is as though the writer were standing in the mainland of Israel and looking over to the Transjordan, a perspective that seems to assume entry into the land. This point of view is especially to be seen in the handful of “across Jordan” passages that seem to speak of the land to the east of the Jordan as across the river (cf. 1:1, 5; 3:8; 4:41, 46-47, 49). Such language seems to presuppose occupation west of the Jordan, which of course could not have been possible until after the death of Moses. At the same time, there are even more passages using the same Hebrew expression that reflect the vantage point of standing in Moab to the east of the Jordan (cf. 2:29; 3:20, 25, 27; 4:14, 21-22, 26; 6:1; 9:1; 11:8, 11, 30-31; 12:10; 27:2, 4, 12; 30:18; 31:2, 13; 32:47). What should be recognized is that both these perspectives are embedded in the same book, the former in narrative sections that seem to have been written after the entry into the land, and the latter in speech sections that quote words that Moses said. This is no more than what one would expect for a document that describes the speeches of Moses but was compiled after Moses died.

The language in the covenant renewal section (Dt. 29) suggests that at least the exile of the northern kingdom was already complete when this passage was codified.


Therefore, Yahweh’s anger burned against this land, so that he brought on it all the curses written in this book. In furious anger and in great wrath Yahweh uprooted them from their land and thrust them into another land, as it is now.

                                                                                                Dt. 29:27-28


The editorial clause “as it is now” (literally, “as on this day”) clearly suggests a time far removed from Moses. Hence, it is not required that Deuteronomy be composed as a literary piece by Moses for it to contain authentic history about Moses.

At the same time, there are some passages describing Moses as writing, such as, 31:9, which refers to an unspecified section of law codes, 31:19, 22, (referring to chapter 32), and 31:24ff. (likely referring to the Decalogue). Such references suggest that portions were written out as smaller segments prior to the compilation of the whole. The rabbinical custom of referring to everything in the Pentateuch as the words of Moses, of course, was adopted by the writers of the New Testament, but this convenience of speech does not necessarily support the view that Moses personally penned the entire corpus. One can only speculate how long elements in Deuteronomy and other books in the Pentateuch may have been preserved as oral tradition before being codified. A generation later, Joshua is commanded to obey the “book of the Torah” (Jos. 1:7-8), a reference that seems to refer to the contents of Deuteronomy 5-26 or 5-30. Joshua is familiar with the law code that altars were not to be fashioned using an iron tool (Jos. 8:31; Dt. 27:5), and indeed, the whole ceremony in the Shechem Pass is based on the anticipation of this ceremony as described in Deuteronomy (Jos. 8:30-35; Dt. 27). Even later, Joshua is said to have drawn up decrees and laws which then were recorded in the “Book of the Law of God” (cf. Jos. 24:25-26), so it seems that Joshua, also, had a hand in the composition. Even later references also cite the “Book of the Torah,” expressions that clearly seem to refer to at least portions of Deuteronomy (cf. 2 Kg. 14:6//2 Chr. 25:4; Dt. 24:16). Certainly some of the prophets knew of law codes that are preserved in Deuteronomy (cf. Hos. 5:10//Dt. 19:14; Am. 8:5 and Mic. 6:10ff.//Dt. 25:13ff.; Am. 4:4//Dt. 14:28; Hos. 4:4ff.//Dt. 17:12), but whether all these things were from oral memory or references to a written document is unclear.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

on 5 comments

John 3, New Birth, and the Rabbis

Jesus answered and said to him, "Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God." Nicodemus said to Him, "How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother's womb and be born?" Jesus answered, "Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. (John 3:3-5 NKJV)

When I was a teenager, I remember my pastor, O. C. Crabtree, teaching about the "new birth" passage in John 3 and emphasizing the confusion experienced by the Jewish leader Nicodemus about this powerful metaphor. Nicodemus asked "Must a man reenter his mother's womb?" Jesus chided Nicodemus' response:

"Are you the teacher of Israel, and do not know these things?"
(John 3:10 NKJV)

Seeing a teachable moment, the Rev. Crabtree asked his listeners, "Why should Nicodemus have been expected to understand what it means to be born again?"

I immediately - and I think unexpectedly - answered that Jesus borrowed the language of renewing by water and Spirit from the prophecies of Ezekiel. In Ezekiel 36 and 37, the prophet utilizes the language of cleansing water and resurrecting spirit to describe the restoration of the exiled Israel.

That was a pretty good answer - except that it missed the first and guiding metaphor of John 3 - birth, or more specifically, rebirth.

Historically, most exegesis of the "new birth" passage centers on biblical images of bodily resurrection - thus my reference to Ezekiel 37 (The Valley of the Dry Bones). This is the most obvious biblical parallel, but resurrection is not exactly the same thing as rebirth. While there is certainly no suggestion of reincarnation found in the Hebrew Bible, the image of rebirth seems - at least to me - to be a richer concept than just reanimation of the physical body.

A closer parallel comes from the Jewish rabbis of the second century C.E. Rabbi Yose - no doubt Yose ben Halafta, the student of the great Rabbi Akiva and the teacher of Rabbi Judah the Prince, the compiler of the Mishnah (circa 200 C.E.) - offers this insight regarding converts to Judaism.

A proselyte who has converted [to Judaism] is like a child born (i.e., a newly born child).

Quite simply, the Jewish convert is "born again."

The rabbis of the Mishnah and Talmud taught that the proselyte performed or submitted to three distinct acts of conversion: offering sacrifice, circumcision, and immersion in water (a washing ceremony for ritual purity).

Rabbi Yose seems to imply that such conversion brought a brand new start to the life of the convert. That is, the legal status of the convert completely changed. The convert is no longer accountable for past transgressions, neither is he any longer bound by former family obligations. Normal familial ties were severed - the convert was no longer considered the offspring of his biological parents, but now a child of Abraham and Sarah - thus a child of promise, a full participant in covenant blessing and obligation.

This proclamation was so bold - so revolutionary and potentially socially disruptive - that later rabbis were forced to add "restrictions" on this complete realignment of social relationships. Specifically, the rabbis restricted marriage to "former" family members even though these social ties had been severed.

The "born again" imagery of Rabbi Yose seems to parallel Jesus' teaching about the coming kingdom of God and the severing of family ties.

Then His brothers and His mother came, and standing outside they sent to Him, calling Him. And a multitude was sitting around Him; and they said to Him, "Look, Your mother and Your brothers are outside seeking You." But He answered them, saying, "Who is My mother, or My brothers?" And He looked around in a circle at those who sat about Him, and said, "Here are My mother and My brothers! For whoever does the will of God is My brother and My sister and mother." (Mark 3:31-35 NKJV)

So Jesus answered and said, "Assuredly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or lands, for My sake and the gospel's, who shall not receive a hundredfold now in this time-houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions-and in the age to come, eternal life." (Mark 10:29-30 NKJV)

Then He said to another, "Follow Me." But he said, "Lord, let me first go and bury my father."  Jesus said to him, "Let the dead bury their own dead, but you go and preach the kingdom of God." (Luke 9:59-60 NKJV)


While the parallel between the "newly born child" imagery of Rabbi Yose and the sayings of Jesus in John 3:3 regarding "new birth" is interesting and perhaps even informative, I must offer one caveat.

In seeking parallels between New Testament writings and rabbinic Judaism, there is always the prospect of anachronism. The New Testament was written between 30 and 100 C.E., whereas the first written records of the rabbinic teaching is the Mishnah around 200 C.E. and the final collection occurred with the assembly of the Babylonian Talmud around 600 C.E.

Clearly, the collective rabbinic writings refer to Jewish teachers before 70 C.E. (the destruction of the Jewish Temple). Specifically, we know of Hillel and Shammai (and the "houses" of their followers) as well as Gamaliel who is also referenced in New Testament writings. But Jacob Neusner, the great scholar of rabbinic Judaism, reminds us that we cannot know the exact form or language of the teachings of these early rabbis. All records of these rabbis came from later writings which expand, elucidate, and comment on their teachings. Neither the Mishnah nor Talmud attempts to recover the "historic rabbis" in their pre-70 C.E. context nor in the exact language of their teachings.

So New Testament parallels with rabbinic teaching can be suggestive and informing - but one should never solely interpret any New Testament passage by later passages from the Mishnah or Talmud.

Friday, March 25, 2016

on 4 comments

Oneness Pentecostal Theologies of God

I recently received an email from Dave Ferrell - a Ph.D student who is researching the history and thought of Apostolic (or Oneness) Pentecostalism - with a couple of questions about my dissertation. Specifically, he asked that I clarify my use of the terms "Father-Son Christology" and economic modalism in my assessment of the Oneness Pentecostal theology of God. To this request, I wrote the following response.


I think that there are several versions of the Oneness Pentecostal theology of God - all of which center on the undivided and indivisible unity of God's being and all of which privilege the Hebrew/Old Testament presentation of God as the interpretive framework/foundation for dealing with all New Testament language regarding God's person and work. Perhaps different "versions" is too strong a term; for it implies that each position is clearly delineated from the others and is mutually exclusive. Nevertheless, I think it is possible to describe several different - perhaps competing - conceptualizations in Oneness Pentecostal thought about God. These are not just "variations on a theme." Rather they are distinguishable strategies for explaining how the creator God was also present in the life and death of Jesus and is still present today in the life of the Christian believer and the worship of the gathered Christian community.

I also think that some of the contemporary Oneness Pentecostal theological expressions parallel historic positions that were taken in the post-apostolic, pre-Nicene/Constantinople period. I say this with a little trepidation because the historic sources of some of these early Christian views - especially those that were later labeled heretical - are slim and are available to us only in the context of the polemic writings of their opponents.

Let me also say that I am restricting my comments to the truly theological thinking about God's being rather than more popular Oneness Pentecostal views. While it would be interesting to list some of the popular expressions of Oneness Pentecostal teaching - ranging from the unique to the truly bizarre - such an entertaining exercise would not further this discussion.

The first common version of Oneness Pentecostal thought about God is by far the simplest and in many ways the most profound: embracing the mystery of God in Christ. This view simply adheres to powerful scriptural proclamations - like "God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself" and "without controversy great is the mystery of godliness: God was manifested in the flesh, justified in the Spirit, seen by angels, preached among the Gentiles, believed on in the world, and received up in glory." - all without consciously recognizing any theological problem, contradiction, and/or difficulty with these passages. For those holding this view, Christological debate is a non-starter. This view bluntly affirms that the selfsame creator God was present in Christ and is equally present as the Holy Spirit in the church today - without any attempt - or even a felt need - to delve into the challenging questions rising from biblical language and its Christological interpretation, a concern that dominated Christian debate in the first centuries of church history.

This view does not acknowledge any problem with its overly simple Christological interpretation of biblical language or attempt to engage in any debate or defense of its position. I am tempted to say - without any concrete evidence to back up my statement - that this is probably the majority view among Oneness Pentecostals today.

The second common version of Oneness Pentecostal thought about God is what I have labeled the "Father-Son Christology." This view takes a Chalcedonian understanding of the two natures of Christ as the solution to the "Father-Son" language in the New Testament. This view originates in the New Issue dispute in the Assemblies of God (1914-1916) about baptismal formula that relegated the terms "Father" and "Son" to mere titles rather than names - titles that point beyond themselves to the true divine name, Jesus. (This logic seems to follow the progression of Frank Ewart's thinking in the fall and winter of 1913-1914.) "Father" comes to represent the divine side of the incarnation and "Son" the human. The total incarnate God - Jesus - was both Father (God) and Son (man) at the same time.

This view reconciles all New Testament Father-Son distinctions - especially in John's Gospel - by an appeal to the dual nature of Jesus. The solution is particularly helpful in dealing with scriptural passages that show inequality between Father and Son - especially in clear subordination passages like "The Father is greater than I" and those passages that speak of the limitation of the Son's knowledge in contrast with the Father's. Problem passages that seem to confer the power and privilege of deity on the Son are understood to refer to the entire incarnate Christ who is both God and man.

This view distinguishes Father and Son qualitatively - one is God and one is man - and also spatially. God is physically inside the man Jesus. Colossians 2:9 is a great proof text of the Father-Son Christology. "For in him (Jesus) dwells the fullness of the Godhead bodily."

The chief shortcomings of this view are twofold. First, while the term Father is used consistently of God, equivocation occurs regarding the term Son. Sometimes the Son refers to the human or physical side of Jesus; while at other times, it refers to the entire incarnation (the God-man). The shifting definition of the term Son allows Oneness Pentecostal exegetes to sidestep many problem passages that seem to distinguish Father from Son. Second, the underlying Chalcedonian conceptualization of Christ's dual nature - that underpins the Father-Son Christology - often devolves into a somewhat-Nestorian affirmation of two separate and distinct persons within the incarnate Christ - at least in practical terms. The prayers of Jesus - where the bodily side of Jesus prays to God inside him - is the best example of this sundering of the incarnation into two distinct beings bound together in only the loosest way. The "departure" of Christ's spirit (the Father) from the physical body of Christ (the Son) at the death of Jesus is another example of this strict "dichotomy of being" in the incarnate Christ.

The third and final common view of Oneness Pentecostal thought about God is economic modalism - the notion that there is no division of being or person in God, but rather there is only a progression of roles/manifestations - Father, Son, and Holy Spirit -  that God has played throughout salvation history. The selfsame God was - according to this Oneness Pentecostal understanding - Father in creation, Son in redemption, and Holy Spirit in salvation of believers. This view of the unfolding economy of God's actions, if seen consistently, must be progressive - the Father gives way to the Son and the Son, in turn, gives way to the Holy Spirit. (This may have been the historic position of Sabellius although all records of his teachings have been filtered by his opponents who may or may not have fairly and accurately understood or portrayed his views.)

With economic modalism, Jesus was not Father and Son at the same time - rather he was the one God who had been manifested as Father in creation and was now manifested as Son in first century Palestine. Likewise, to be consistent, the Son will one day "surrender" his role that God may be "all-in-all" - that is, the Son is only a temporary manifestation of God that began and will end in time. This temporary appearance of God in Jesus is especially troublesome to several of the most prominent Oneness Pentecostal defenders who reject any idea of progressive modalism. The Father-Son Christology is entirely incompatible with the progression of divine roles/manifestations in economic modalism.

Of these three commonly held views, I find the first to be the most compelling. (I am not being clever or facetious in saying this.) I am more persuaded by the appeal to the raw language of the New Testament proclamation that I am by the other reasoned arguments.  The "Father-Son Christology" (rooted in Chalcedonian dual natures of Christ) and economic modalism both have something profoundly in common with the Niceo-Constantinople Trinitarianism that these views seek to deny. All of these arguments  - Oneness and Trinitarian alike - recast Hebraic biblical language, symbols, and metaphors through the thorough-going Greek conceptual world of middle Platonism. Adolf von Harnack, the late 19th century church historian, labeled any such reformulations of biblical religion into Greek philosophical categories as the "Hellenization of the Christian church."

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

on 1 comment

Who Moved the Stone?

Good religion is never convenient.  It calls upon its adherents to sacrifice what is easy so that they may listen to a call that is more real. So it was with the Jews’ religion.  Of all the observances that were observed with meticulous care throughout the year, none was more frequent than the weekly Sabbath.  Shabbath was sacred.  The Torah said so.  The prophets said so.  The rabbis said so.

            By the first century, Judaism had developed to the point where all kinds of regulations attended Sabbath observance, but over them all was the basic directive of the Ten Commandments:  Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but on the seventh day you shall not do any work. Almost anything could be construed as work, and that rule certainly included caring for the dead.  So, it was a long Saturday for the women who had stood near the cross of Jesus late Friday afternoon. Sabbath began at sundown on Friday evening, and after Joseph had secured permission from the authorities to bury Jesus’ corpse, there was barely enough time to complete the simplest of details. The traditional anointing that the women had wanted to perform had to be postponed.  By the time darkness had fallen, they had left the garden tomb, pausing only to watch as the huge rolling stone was fixed over the entrance.  Later, of course, it was sealed with a heavy Roman seal and placed under guard.

            It must have seemed strange to the soldiers at the tomb. They had been called many times to guard prisoners, but this may have been the first time they had ever been called to guard a dead man. Meanwhile, at home the women prepared spices and perfumes. Their intentions were clear. When the Sabbath ended, they would go back and complete what they had been forced to postpone on Friday evening.

So, it was a long Saturday.  They determined to return to the tomb in the gray of Sunday morning before full daylight. The Sabbath ended at sundown on Saturday, but there was little they could do in the dark. In the half-light of early Sunday morning, they would be able to do what they could not have done on Friday night. One thought, above all others, occupied their minds.  It was the huge rolling stone that blocked the entrance. Whether or not the women even knew about the guards at the tomb, we don’t know, since the guards were more-or-less an afterthought. But they knew about the huge rolling stone. They had watched as it had been rolled into place. Could the three of them move it? They weren’t sure. The sun was just breaking over the Mt. of Olives as they entered the garden. They asked each other as they went, “Who will roll the stone away from the entrance of the tomb?” When they arrived, they discovered to their amazement that the stone was already rolled away. Upon entering the tomb, they discovered to their further amazement that the body of Jesus was not there. While there, they were confronted by a young man who said, “Don’t be alarmed.  You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified.  He’s not here!  See the place where they laid him.” Trembling, bewildered and afraid, the women fled from the garden and ran to tell the others.

The problem of the rolling stone is one of those small intersections between faith and history that is often overlooked but that give the account the ring of truth.  All four gospels speak of this great stone. Stones large enough to cover the entrance to a tomb would weigh several hundred pounds. The problem of moving one of them is obvious. Yet, the stone had been moved! Who had done this?

Skeptics, as we all know, have had a field day with the resurrection narratives.  All sorts of suggestions have been offered as alternatives to the biblical account. Perhaps Joseph of Arimathea secretly removed the body to another place.  But why would he?  The tomb had been sealed and protected by a Roman guard. In any case, the garden tomb had been selected by Joseph in the first place.  Why would he want to change the burial site? Maybe the authorities moved the body, some suggest.  But again, the question looms. Why should they? Pilate had no reason to do so, since, after all, he ordered the guards to protect the tomb. In any case, Roman prefects were not known to be fearful of dead men! And as for the Jewish authorities, the last thing they would want to do would be to move the corpse. This crucified man was the one who said he would rise again, and the worst possible course of action would be to remove their very proof that he was still dead! Then, there is the “passover plot” theory that crops up every few years or so.  Here, Jesus did not really die.  His disciples drugged him, or he drugged himself, and later he would revive in the cool atmosphere of the tomb and stage a resurrection. The really surprising thing is that anyone with a knowledge of Roman crucifixion would ever buy such a thin argument. Romans were not known for bungling their crucifixions. The executioners were consummate professionals in the most grisly sort of way! Then there is the suggestion that in the darkness the women went to the wrong tomb.  This version sounds suspiciously like a subtle form of the chauvinism that Jesus rejected—the three women were so stupid they couldn’t be trusted to find the same place twice in a familiar city.

So, who moved the stone?  No one had even the slightest reason to move it!  Not Pilate, not Caiaphas, not the disciples, nor anyone else. It is Matthew, of course, who tells us that an angel of the Lord came down from heaven, and going to the tomb, rolled back the stone and sat on it.  He is the young man that the women mistook for the gardener. Regardless, even for someone who doesn’t believe in angels, the remarkable fact that the stone was rolled away is a single feature of the story that is never debated. Sometime between the hour that Joseph and the women left on late Friday evening and sunrise on Sunday morning, this great blocking stone had been moved!

I do not think it has been sufficiently realized how this simple circumstance—this one indisputable fact, unimportant as it may seem at first sight—contributes to the veracity of the story. The sealing of the stone had been a Roman action, prompted by the high priest but ordered by Pilate on Saturday. The women knew nothing of it, since it had occurred after the burial and on the Sabbath itself, when the women and the other disciples were sequestered in their homes. Had they known of the guard, they might never had gone to the garden tomb on Sunday at all. But they didn’t know—and their only concern was about the great rolling stone and how they might move it! But before they arrived, that stone had been moved! The Roman guards were no longer there. They had fled into the streets of Jerusalem early on Sunday morning to report to the high priests that something was amiss at the tomb of the Nazarene! Indeed, it was this feature of the story that years ago drove the English reporter, Frank Morison, to reexamine the gospels’ Easter story in such meticulous detail. And Morison, who began with the assumption that the accounts rested on very insecure foundations, found that in the end he had landed on an unexpected shore—a firm and unshakeable conviction that Jesus had truly risen from the dead.

Now, I don’t for a moment expect that faith in the resurrection of Jesus rests only on a single issue, the issue of who moved the stone.  Nor do I suppose that those who do not already accept Jesus’ resurrection necessarily will be persuaded to do so in view of this small point. At the same time, this is one small window of credibility in the witness of three women who came to the garden tomb early on Sunday morning. While their witness may not have carried much weight in the patriarchal culture of their own times, it has carried considerable weight in the judgment of Christians ever since! And it is surely in keeping with Jesus’ revolutionary evaluation of women that he would choose them to be the first witnesses of the gospel. And so, I say as Christians have expressed it since the very beginning: Christ is risen! He is risen, indeed!

Sunday, March 6, 2016

on 1 comment

Worship in Oneness Pentecostalism, Part 3

Oneness Pentecostal worship reaches it goal in the after service, when in the context of community prayer and ecstasy, a "divine epiphany" occurs which leads to individual conversion and congregational renewal. The excitement of charged preaching creates an ambience for the altar appeal. A blending of emotional background music and a rising "wall" of congregational prayer enhances the moment of expectation and exerts enormous pressure on the unconverted to respond. The calling of the uncommitted and the congregation to the altar by the pastor signifies—in an outward and visible way—the inward readiness to accept the grace of God. The altar symbolizes the dwelling place of God, the place in which he is expected to move in decisive ways in the lives of individuals. The altar appeal moves the congregation from hearing the proclamation of God's word of salvation into direct participation in this saving action.

All the elements of classical Pentecostal worship converge in the altar call to maintain pressure on the unsaved. Enthusiastic appeals by the pastor, moving musical accompaniment, and even physical demonstrations add to this tension. Such "overflows" of the Spirit's activities heighten the pressure on the unconverted and provide a release for building tensions in the congregation. Arthur Paris points out that this prolonged moment of tension is especially effective in persuading those who have "withdrawn their assent but not their conviction of the efficacy of the church" and "its claim to truth." Therefore, "prior conviction," the pressure generated by the atmosphere of enthusiasm, and the sense of guilt elicited by the sermon compel the uncommitted into response.22 Such pressures create a willingness to step out—despite the potentially embarrassing admission of sinfulness—and act upon the promises of salvation. This physical movement toward the altar is the initial step in the conversion process.

After the altar appeal is concluded, the congregation gathers around those responding for a time of personal ministry. Congregation members and ministers "assist" the seeker through prayer, encouragement, and counseling. Fervent, loud corporate prayer, various positioning of the seeker, the clapping of hands, and the before-mentioned spiritual "overflows" maintain the atmosphere of expectancy at the altar. This scene often reaches its peak of intensity when ministers gather and lay their hands on the seeker in a special prayer. This action usually results in the first appearance of glossolalia in the seeker and an "overflow" of rejoicing in the congregation.

Unlike other Pentecostals who understand conversion as simple faith commitment, Oneness Pentecostals demand the full Acts 2:38 "plan of salvation"—repentance, water baptism administered to adults by immersion in the name of Jesus, and Spirit baptism evidenced by tongue- speaking—for conversion. Naturally, the altar service is expanded among Oneness congregations to include all of these activities. The after service, therefore, reduces the building tension of the service to an individual level and the congregation focuses on "praying through" the seeker. Although the act of repentance is emphasized in Oneness preaching and appeals, it plays only a small role in the altar service. Perhaps the act of responding to the altar call has come to replace the lengthy periods of repentance evident in early Oneness years. Seekers are almost immediately considered candidates for Spirit baptism when they respond to this appeal. In turn, the congregation directs its full attention and support to the respondent. Many seekers, however, do not immediately receive Spirit baptism. Some actually respond to altar appeals for years before finally personally experiencing a spiritual "overflow" manifest in glossolalia and physical demonstrations. In light of these cases, the notion of "tarrying" for Spirit baptism has been popularized.

Baptismal services, embodying another "essential" in the Oneness "plan" of salvation, often occur during or following altar services. Counselors admonish the seeker—whether he has manifested the spiritual "overflow" and speaking with tongues or not—to be baptized for the "remission of sins," thus completing and validating his experience of repentance. Baptismal tanks are kept full and warmed for spontaneous baptisms. The seeker, having admitted his guilt publicly and submitted himself to the pressures of the congregational "overflow" in the altar service, will seldom reject the admonition to baptism.

The entire Oneness service—its elements and order—gears itself toward initiating the unconverted. The action of God in the life of the individual always occurs in the context of the worshipping community. This stands as the distinct feature of Oneness Pentecostal worship. All experiences—repentance, water baptism, and Spirit baptism—gain meaning from the acts of public worship. The occurrence of these basic experiences in the uninitiated and the renewal of these experiences in the believer dominate the acts of worship and serve as sure tokens of God's action in the worshipping community. Such "crisis conversions" occur within the context of and as a result of corporate worship rather than subtle persuasion or theological instruction. Although Pentecostal writers affirm the possibility of isolated conversions, this contradicts denominational practices. Entering into normal Pentecostal life occurs within and is maintained within the arena of community worship.23

Conversions occur when the elements of worship are focused in such a way that the seeker is motivated to commitment. These elements highlight the need and availability of salvation. Oneness preaching largely consists of instructing the uncommitted of their present state and the salvation provided by Christ. The sermon motivates the seeker to bold decision, a public admission of sin and the need for salvation, and tangible acts of faith in responding to the altar call, repenting, and submitting to water baptism. The music during the altar call likewise enhances the appeal by presenting the basic doctrines of salvation, promising the desired effects of conversion, influencing the seeker toward decision and determination, providing an avenue of emotional release, emphasizing the expectancy of the congregation, and offering a background for exhortation, encouragement, and prayer. Altar hymns always focus on the "real presence" of Christ at the altar with terms like "here right now," "passing by," and "watching and waiting."24

At the altar, the seeker is invited to salvation, placed in the middle of believers, and bombarded by prayers, songs, and tangible manifestations of the spiritual "overflow." These elements occur simultaneously, resulting in a fevered pitch of ecstasy and the experience of the immediate encounter with Christ—not just part of God or an abstract notion of deity according to Oneness teaching, but the quantitative fullness of God's person—and his saving power. Together, the congregation and seeker share this explosive over powering of the "divine epiphany." After this initiation experience, the seeker enjoys full fellowship in the congregational family, passing from the individual life of sin to the corporate experience of salvation.

The Oneness Pentecostal worship service shares the basic elements and order of general Pentecostal worship, but the zeal to restore the Azusa purity which spawned the Oneness movement pushed these elements of worship to their extreme expressions. This is not to say that Oneness Pentecostal worship has yet to be institutionalized. On the contrary, Oneness churches have followed much the same pattern of denominational maturation as other Pentecostal bodies. But the forms of worship standardized in Oneness churches tend to reflect the more primitive, more demonstrative Pentecostal worship of the earliest revivals, whereas the other major Pentecostal expressions institutionalized the worship of second generation Pentecostalism. While lacking the true spontaneity of the early revivals, Oneness worship does welcome the more extreme physical demonstrations which accompany such spontaneity. This is clear in the after service due to the expansion of the "simple faith" rite of initiation to the complex three-step "plan" of Acts 2:38. Oneness worship captures the form, but not the continued revivalist zeal, of Azusa.


22Paris, Black Pentecostalism, p. 67.

23Ranaghan, "Rites of Initiation," pp. 292-93, 374, 402.

24Ibid., pp. 405-08.