Author Archives: A.A.

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Review: Spiritual Authority

Author: Watchman Nee was a Chinese church leader and teacher. In addition to serving tirelessly in the Chinese church, he was an extremely prolific translator, and a huge quantity of his talks were transcribed into books.


Spiritual Authority (1972) is a series of twenty messages originally delivered in Chinese in 1948 in Guling (Kuling), China, for the training of Christian workers. The book has been translated into Korean, French, Portuguese, Spanish, Romanian, Hungarian, and Finnish. The first half of the book was reprinted from 1988 as Authority and Submission.

Spiritual Authority begins with a famed quotation from Romans, which is integral to the book:

Let every soul be in subjection to the higher powers: for there is no power but of God; and the powers that be are ordained of God . . .

Romans 13:1, King James Version

Nee establishes authority first and foremost as an attribute of God (ch. 1), and then reviews a series of instances of rebellion against God’s authority (ch. 2–3). He finds godly submission exemplified in King David (ch. 4), in Jesus to the Father (ch. 5), and in our obedience (ch. 6). God’s kingdom is established by obedience (ch. 6). God’s authority has three types (ch. 7), all of which believers are called to obey. Nee later goes over rebellion in even more detail (ch. 8–9). The second half of the book (ch. 11–20) goes over qualifications of delegated (spiritual) authority and is essentially an extension of what is found in the first half; at some point, the book gets quite repetitive once you have accepted its main premise that we are called to (almost unconditionally) obey both “God’s authority” and “delegated authority”.

The conceptual problems with this book, as I see it, fall into three groups:

  1. The conflation of different types of authority;
  2. The contradiction of different types of authority;
  3. The conditions of human authority.

All Authorities Lumped Together

The crux of the book is the wholesale conflation of various different types of authority. In chapter 7, he explains the concept of “delegated authority” or “representative authority”. He says that delegated authority falls into three types:

  1. Authorities in the world (i.e. civil authorities)
    “God is the source of all authorities in the universe. Now since all governing authorities are instituted by Him, then all authorities are delegated by Him and represent His authority. God Himself has established this system of authority in order to manifest Himself. Wherever people encounter authority they meet God.” (p.59)
  2. Authorities in the family (i.e. husbands over wives, parents over children)
    “God has set the husband as the delegated authority of Christ, with the wife as representative of the church.” (p. 63)
  3. Authorities in the church (i.e. elders, and men generally)
    “God sets in the church authorities [i.e., elders, ministers]. . . They are the ones whom everyone should obey. The younger ones in age must also learn to be subject to the older ones.” (p. 65)

There is no recognition by Nee that different authorities obtain in different areas of life—though God supersedes all of them. Throughout the book, Nee toggles freely between God, parents, priests, prophets, kings, magistrates, and others as broadly comparable examples of “authority”. This painting with a broad brush is highly problematic—surely obeying civic authority should not be viewed as equal to obeying your priest or pastor. Look at his list of examples of rebellion from chapters 2 and 3:

  • The fall of Adam and Eve (Gen. 3)—against divine authority
  • The rebellion of Ham (Gen. 9)—against parental authority
  • Strange fire offered by Nadab and Abihu (Lev. 10)—against divine authority
  • The reviling of Aaron and Miriam (Num. 12)—against Moses
  • The rebellion of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram (Num. 16)—against Moses and Aaron

You may notice two things: first, these rebellions are against several different types of authority; second, they all take place under the Old Covenant.

Obviously, disobeying God’s own words may be viewed as rebellion (Adam and Eve, Nadab and Abihu). Moses carries multiple types of authority and had a very special status in the entire Old Covenant, as the giver of the Covenant of the Law itself. It is no surprise that disobeying Moses carries divine wrath; he was to be “as God” to Pharaoh. I’m not sure “rebellion” is the right category for the sin of Ham, however shameful. It is difficult to draw a direct line from any of these stories to my own position relative to my pastor.

It is no coincidence that all Nee’s examples of rebellion take place in the Old Testament. Nee is formulating principles towards church practice in respecting ministers, but he’s using examples that have little to do with delegated authority in the New Testament church. This is rather out of place, since Nee and his movement put so much stock in making their church just like the New Testament.

When Authorities Contradict: Righteous Disobedience

The entire argument also unravels when one type of authority is in contradiction of another. The prophets routinely preached against kings and went to spiritual battle against civic authorities and even wicked priests, at great danger to themselves (e.g., Jer. 1:18, 26:12, Ezek. 21:25–26). Were they in “rebellion”, too, since they disobeyed delegated authority?

Moreover, why would God himself set up these wicked kings and priests? And why does he call his prophets to prophesy against “his delegated authority”? Why does one God-given authority contradict another God-given authority? Nee offers no answers here. And it is not only relevant for long-dead prophets: Nee barely touches righteous civil disobedience such as that enacted repeatedly by Brother Andrew.

There are only two passages in Spiritual Authority where Nee mentions instances of righteous disobedience:

“The whole New Testament stands behind delegated authority. The only exception is found in Acts 5:29 when Peter and the apostles answered the Jewish council which forbade them to teach in the name of the Lord Jesus. Peter answered by saying, ‘We must obey God rather [than] men.’ This was due to the fact that the delegated authority here had distinctly violated God’s command and trespassed against the Person of the Lord.” (p. 72)

“Now was it right for Martin Luther to stand up and speak for the fundamental principle of justification by faith? Yes, for he was obeying God in standing for the truth.” (p. 109)

The first passage merely begs the question: how do we determine whether an authority has “distinctly violated God’s command”? Nee offers us no guidance there. He assumes that we can all agree on what “God’s command” is—whereas, respectfully, I would say that God’s Word needs to be interpreted, and it can be interpreted wrongly.

The commandment of God may frequently cause us to be in direct contravention of civic laws. Even today, as Nee himself experienced, millions of Christian believers live in areas where churches are illegal. Is there a “distinct command” to go to church on Sunday? How are these believers to obey both authorities, that of God and that of the government?

I should add, Acts 5:29 is far from the only case of Christian disobedience in the New Testament. We also have, before that, Peter and John to the rulers, elders and scribes (Acts 4:19–20). Jesus disobeyed the Pharisees by healing on the Sabbath (Mark 3).The martyrs of John’s Revelation certainly do not obey the “authority” of the beast (Rev. 13:7, 15). In the Old Testament, we also have the Hebrew midwives (Exodus 1:17) and Daniel’s prayer (Daniel 6:13). I’ve already mentioned the prophets who preached against wicked leadership. Finally, I can’t see a reason why Nee cherry-picks his examples of righteous rebellion from the New Testament and his examples of wicked rebellion from the Old Testament.

When Authorities Contradict: Wicked Obedience

Many passages in the book point to a dangerous concept of obedience that is static and unthinking, and for Nee, this includes delegated authority, meaning our pastors and Christian leaders.

“All who serve God must categorically refrain from making decisions on the basis of their own thoughts; rather, they are to execute the will of God.”

Spiritual Authority, p. 102

Such statements become rather extreme when the thrust of the argument is taken as a whole. 1) All authorities, including my pastor, are delegated authority. 2) I am never to rebel or talk back. 3) I should not even think about making decisions before obeying. This pattern obviously leads to a slippery slope of cult-like obedience.

He even goes on to thoroughly discourage believers from ever criticizing anyone in authority, since they would then be in the beginning stages of rebellion:

“He who is truly obedient will find God’s authority in every circumstance, in the home, and in other institutions. . . . Special attention must be paid each time words of reviling are uttered. Such words should not be idly spoken. Reviling proves that there is a rebellious spirit within; it is the germination of rebellion.”

Spiritual Authority, p. 32

This should certainly raise the hackles of many American readers, who are raised to believe that we can criticize even our our commander-in-chief with great freedom. There are principles here that are correct—in general, we should respect leadership, inside and outside the church—but Nee’s principles are given with no moderation whatsoever. This extreme position is what makes this book a dangerous form of teaching, and one that I cannot commend to any Christian disciple. We should not revile our pastors or leaders, but we are not under a yoke of law in which we can never disagree with them or speak ill of them. Pastors are human.

Conclusion: Authority Is Conditional

At its best, Spiritual Authority teaches Christians to respect established authority, including our church leaders and government leaders. At its worst, it has the power to prop up abusive, exploitative, pseudo-Christian leaders with an insidious double command to obey what they ask and not to complain or gossip against them. I remind all my readers that all Christian discipleship has an element of disobedience in it—”against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places” (Eph. 6:12). Choosing to obey God at all costs often necessitates disobeying worldly systems and wicked leaders; this sometimes even includes Christian leaders, when they have gone astray.

The end of the matter is that all obedience to human authority should be considered as conditional. In general, I obey civic authority and follow the law; but if it contravenes my Christian convictions, I do not hesitate to disobey, especially in core matters of devotional life, Christian community, and preaching the gospel. Likewise, in general, I obey church authority and respect my church leadership. There are several issues in which I disagree with my church leadership, and these are open for discussion, but I do not constantly press the issue or work against my own pastor, like a mutineer. While we are working together for the gospel, I maintain a bond of peace and trust between us. But Nee rightly points out, if anyone in authority rebels against the authority that is above them, then by their action, that person loses my respect, and may lose his good standing or even position—and hopefully this would be proportionate to the disobedience. No one is above accountability, and that has never been the correct understanding of spiritual authority. May we rightly understand the conditions of spiritual authority.

Afterword: The Influence of Nee’s Culture

Though it does not fit with the rest of my review, something needs to be said about how Nee’s home culture influenced his biblical interpretation in this regard. China is known as being a culture that values honor and thinks somewhat collectively. In fact, these values have been measured by Geert Hofstede in his important work on cross-cultural communication. In Hofstede’s model of cultural dimensions, China ranks very high for power distance (80/100), and very low for individualism (20/100). The United States is somewhat opposite, ranking low for power distance (40/100) and very high for individualism (91/100). “Power distance” is a dimension for how cultures differentially honor and obey leadership. It also correlates with appreciation of hierarchies. China’s very high rank means that Nee’s enforcement of hierarchies is following the stream of thought of his upbringing.

It stands to reason, then, that Watchman Nee wrote so strongly about authority because of his Chinese upbringing. His writings, though they are mostly good, plain teaching, are severely lacking in any cultural awareness, breadth of opinion, or tact. Or, as a friend once said, “Nee is great, but with him, everything is ‘my way or the highway’.”

This Day in 1770

May 27, 1770 is a day John Howard considered his spiritual birthday. Howard was imprisoned by a French privateer in 1755 while performing disaster relief for the Lisbon earthquake. His imprisonment led him to a systematic, statistical inquiry of European prisons. In time, these efforts led to widespread prison reform. He visited hundreds of prisons, travelled tens of thousands of miles, and died after contracting typhus in Kherson, Ukraine, at the age of 63.

Naples, May 27, 1770.—Lord, I believe; help Thou mine unbelief! Here, on this sacred day, in the dust before the Eternal God, I cast my guilty and polluted soul on the sovereign mercy of the Redeemer. Oh, compassionate and divine Lord, save me from the dreadful guilt and power of sin, and accept my solemn, free, and unreserved surrender! Look upon me, a repenting, returning prodigal! Thus, O Lord God, am I humbly bold to covenant with Thee! Ratify and confirm it, and make me the everlasting monument of Thy mercy. Glory to God—Father, Son, and Holy Ghost—forever and ever. Amen and Amen.

John Howard’s Journal, as quoted in F. W. Boreham, A Temple of Topaz.

What’s Cooking (May 2023)

We will have a number of new books and ebooks coming out this summer. The highlight of this summer will be the two-volume biography of Gustav Herbert Schmidt, Songs in the Night. It tells the tale of a Pentecostal missionary who was captured by the Gestapo in 1940. His harrowing ordeal will tells us how to find hope in dark times.

Other titles in the works include more sermons by Louis Albert Banks, and a number of new biographies:

  • The Sinner and His Friends (Louis Albert Banks)
  • A Gentleman in Prison (Tokichi Ishii, with Caroline MacDonald)
  • Thinking Black: 22 Years in the Long Grass of Africa (Dan Crawford)
  • Back to the Long Grass: My Life with Livingstone (Dan Crawford)

From the Prescience Papers series of rare theological works, we have just released two new ebooks:

I hope to have several more coming soon:

  • Samuel Fancourt, An Essay Concerning Liberty, Grace, and Prescience (1729)
  • Samuel Fancourt, Apology, or Letter to a Friend Setting Forth the Occasion, &c., of the Present Controversy, 2nd ed. (7/27/1730)
  • (Anonymous), The Divine Prescience of Free Contingent Events, Vindicated and Proved (1729)
  • (Anonymous), Free Agency of Accountable Creatures (6/6/1733)

Please comment and let us know what books you are looking forward to most!

Fancourt’s Wager

Is it ontologically and ethically 'safer' to believe in free will rather than determinism? Samuel Fancourt thought so. Here is a passage from one of his many books on free will theology.

Were we to err in this matter, it were infinitely more safe (even in our fallen State) to err on the side of Liberty than against it. … If we are not free, but wholly passive, it can do us no hurt to think ourselves free. What I am under a Necessity to do and be, I shall do and be notwithstanding. But if we are really free, and think we have no Freedom, it may do us much Hurt, it may turn to our infinite Hurt, as it may tempt us to neglect that Part upon which Life and Immortality depend. Ay, it may not only prove an Injury to our selves, but to the World about us, whilst those valuable Talents, which were given for the publick Good, are either wickedly imploy’d against it, or slothfully buried, for want of a Vigorous and timely Resistance against the Flesh, the World, and the Devil.

Source: Samuel Fancourt. An Appendix to a Letter to the Reverend Mr. Norman, in Two Parts. Now available on Kindle.

The Prescience Papers: The 300-Year-Old Open Theism Debate We All Forgot About

The Prescience Papers is my name for an early 18th-century debate (1725–1735) that involved seven(?) English ministers and revolved around the (in)compatibility of God’s foreknowledge with human liberty.

This bibliography has the power to reshape the debate about divine foreknowledge, as we see the diversity of both Calvinist and Arminian views that were held by fellow ministers. As the works are perused, the debate becomes eerily similar to debates that swirled around North America in the 1990s:

  • One group proposes that God cannot foreknow the decisions of a libertarian free will;
  • Another responds that this is a misconception, as God clearly foreknows all things, and foreknowledge does not imply causation or decree;
  • A third group replies that foreknowledge does mean causation, that God in fact has decreed all things, including sin, but is not therefore accountable for sin, which he hates.

Here follows the bibliography of the debate, with titles clipped for readability. I’ve linked a few books to my own Kindle editions, with hopefully more to come. I am indebted to Tom and Christine Lukashow who have done a lot of the hard work of discovering these books.

  1. Samuel Fancourt, The Greatness of the Divine Love Exemplified and Displayed, in a Sermon on 1 John 4:9 (1725)
  2. Samuel Fancourt, The Greatness of the Divine Love Vindicated in Three Letters (1727)
  3. Samuel Fancourt, Appendix on Original Sin (1729)
  4. (Anonymous), The Divine Prescience of Free Contingent Events, Vindicated and Proved (1729)
  5. Samuel Fancourt, An Essay Concerning Liberty, Grace, and Prescience (1729)
  6. John Norman, God’s Foreknowledge of Contingent Events Vindicated (1729)
  7. Samuel Fancourt, What Will Be Must Be, or Future Contingencies No Contingencies (3/10/1730)
  8. John Norman. An Appendix to a Letter to the Rev. Mr. Fancourt in Vindication Of God’s Foreknowledge of Contingent Events (1730)
  9. Anthony Bliss, A Letter in Vindication of God’s Prescience of Contingencies (1730)
  10. Samuel Fancourt, Apology, or Letter to a Friend Setting Forth the Occasion, &c., of the Present Controversy, 2nd ed. (7/27/1730)
  11. David Millar, All Future Free Actions: Future Contingencies (1731)
  12. David Millar, The Principles of the Reformed Churches (1731)
  13. Samuel Fancourt, Greatness of the Divine Love Further Vindicated (1732)
  14. David Millar, The Omniscience of God, Stated and Vindicated (1732)
  15. Samuel Fancourt, Appendix to a Letter to the Rev. Mr. Norman (1732)
  16. (Anonymous), Free Agency of Accountable Creatures (6/6/1733)
  17. Joseph Burroughes(?), The Certain Futurity of Free Actions No Contradiction; or, God’s Foreknowledge of All Events Not Inconsistent with Human Liberty (1733)
  18. David Millar, The Prescience of God Well Agreeing with the Liberty of Created Agents (1735)

Amazingly, this is not even all of the pamphlets and books that circulated during this period on the compatibility of human free will with divine foreknowledge. Here are three others worth looking into; the second and third, like Fancourt, defend a position corresponding to modern open theism.

  1. J. Greenup, A Vindication of Human Liberty (1731)
  2. John Jackson, Some Reflections on Prescience: in which the Nature of the Divinity is Enquired Into (1731)
  3. (Anonymous), An Essay on the Divine Prescience and Man’s Free-Agency (1741)

Edit: Of the 21 books listed above, we’ve now published six as Kindle editions. Be on the lookout for more!

Man-Centered Leadership and God-Centered Leadership (Notes)

I'm sharing here a few sermon notes that I took this week. May they bless someone.

There are four types of attitudes that are characteristic of unhealthy of human-centered leadership:

  • Manipulative spirit
    Manipulative leaders try to make disciples like them instead of disciples like Jesus. “Any manipulative leadership is from Satan.”
  • Controlling spirit
    Controlling leadership is leadership that is harsh and cruel and does not allow opinions that they disagree with.
  • Political spirit
    A political spirit means you’d rather have a church with a thousand people with everything tidy and manageable than a hundred people where the Holy Spirit shows up” and interrupts.
  • Religious spirit
    A religious spirit means overcomplicating spiritual life with lots of meetings and hierarchies, rather than making church a space where Jesus is celebrated as Lord.

Healthy Christian leadership means:

  • Affirming people’s call from God (not manipulating them to fit your agenda)
  • Freeing people to minister (not controlling their devotional lives)
  • Truth-telling to a fault (not spinning narratives to keep people around)
  • Spiritual (not religious or concerned with the church’s image)

The Call of God Unbound

The call of God is not bound by method. It pulses through the words of Scripture to ears that hear. It comes unmediated in the sealing Holy Spirit and the word of knowledge. It rings from the inspired preacher, and it echoes in the mouth of the wicked. The call of God is not bound.

The call of God is not bound by person. He calls the poor and the poor in spirit by the power of his resurrection. He calls the unlovely and unloved to be proclaimers of his beauty. He calls the weak and the worldly to the way of holiness. The call of God is not bound.

The call of God is not bound by time. He breaks through to the wicked when they are not seeking him. He whispers to the wayward when they are unaware. He answers at the time we are not ready or expecting, while the prayer is still on our lips. The call of God is not bound.

The call of God is not bound by experience. He revealed his name to Moses though he was stubborn and slow of speech. He spoke to Amos to prophesy though he was not a prophet, nor had he the pedigree of a prophet. Jesus called the disciples from fishing and collecting taxes to the gospel of the kingdom. The call of God is not bound.

Argula von Grumbach’s Letter to the University of Ingolstadt

Argula von Grumbach wrote this letter (here translated from German and abridged) in 1523 when the University of Ingolstadt forced Arsacius Seehofer to recant his Protestant views. It became a sensation, going through 14 editions in two months, and launched Argula von Grumbach as the first female Protestant writer. I'm sharing it here on the occasion of International Woman's Day because it was difficult to come by the text.

The account of a Christian woman of the Bavarian nobility whose open letter, with arguments based on divine Scripture, criticizes the University of Ingolstadt for compelling a young follower of the gospel to contradict the word of God . . .

The Lord says, John 12, “I am the light that has come into the world, that none who believe in me should abide in darkness.” It is my heartfelt wish that this light should dwell in all of us and shine upon all callous and blinded hearts. Amen.

I find there is a text in Matthew 10 which runs: “Whoever confesses me before another, I too will confess before my heavenly Father.” And Luke 9: “Whoever is ashamed of me and of my words, I too will be ashamed of when I come in my majesty,” etc. Words like these, coming from the very mouth of God, are always before my eyes. For they exclude neither woman nor man.

And this is why I am compelled as a Christian to write to you. For Ezekiel 33 says: “If you see your brother sin, reprove him, or I will require his blood at your hands.” In Matthew 12, the Lord says, “All sins will be forgiven; but the sin against the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven, neither here nor in eternity.” And in John 6, the Lord says: “My words are spirit and life…”

How in God’s name can you and your university expect to prevail, when you deploy such foolish violence against the word of God; when you force someone to hold the holy Gospel in their hands for the very purpose of denying it, as you did in the case of Arsacius Seehofer? When you confront him with an oath and declaration such as this, and use imprisonment and even the threat of the stake to force him to deny Christ and his word?

Yes, when I reflect on this, my heart and all my limbs tremble. What do Luther or Melanchthon teach you but the word of God? You condemn them without having refuted them. Did Christ teach you so, or his apostles, prophets, or evangelists? Show me where this is written! You lofty experts, nowhere in the Bible do I find that Christ, or his apostles, or his prophets put people in prison, burnt or murdered them, or sent them into exile…Don’t you know what the Lords says in Matthew 10? “Have no fear of him who can take your body but then his power is at an end. But fear him who has power to dispatch soul and body into the depths of hell.”

One knows very well the importance of one’s duty to obey the authorities. But where the word of God is concerned, neither Pope, Emperor, nor princes – as Acts 4 and 5 make so clear – have any jurisdiction. For my part, I have to confess, in the name of God and by my soul’s salvation, that if I were to deny Luther and Melanchthon’s writing, I would be denying God and his word, which may God forfend forever. Amen…

I beseech you. Trust in God. He will not desert us, for every hair on our heads is numbered and in his care, as Matthew 10 says. I had to listen for ages to your Decretal preacher crying out in the Church of Our Lady: Ketzer! Ketzer!, “Heretic, Heretic!” Poor Latin, that! I could say as much myself, no doubt, and I have never been to university. But if they are to prove their case, they’ll have to do better than that. I always meant to write to him, to ask him to show me which heretical articles the loyal worker for the Gospel, Martin Luther, is supposed to have taught.

However, I suppressed my inclinations; heavy of heart, I did nothing. Because Paul says in 1 Timothy 2: “The women should keep silence and should not speak in church.” But now that I cannot see any man who is up to it, who is either willing or able to speak, I am constrained by the saying, “Whoever confesses me,” as I said above. And I claim for myself Isaiah 3: “I will send children to be their princes; and women, or those who are womanish, shall rule over them . . .

My heart goes out to our princes, whom you have seduced and betrayed so deplorably. For I realize that they are ill informed about divine Scripture. If they could spare the time from other business, I believe they, too, would discover the truth that no one has a right to exercise sovereignty over the words of God. Yes, no human being, whoever he be, can rule over it. For the word of God alone – without which nothing was made – should and must rule…

What have our princes done to merit such conduct from you? Is this the reward for their frequent generosity, bestowing wealth on the poor among you? How do you make them look? Why do you make them and this university of yours, which they are rightly praised for founding, the laughingstock of the whole world? Ah, what loyalty you return for the good they have done you! What gratitude! How dare you?…

I am quite convinced that, if they knew the truth, they would not continue to act on your requests as they have now done with Seehofer and would not have given permission for him to be murdered, as indicated in his oath. May God be their reward eternally. I hope things will improve. Who knows why they gave such an instruction?

Have no doubt about this: God looks mercifully on Arsacius, or will do so in the future, just as he did on Peter, who denied the Lord three times. For each day the just person falls seven times and gets up on his feet again. God does not want the death of the sinner, but his conversion and life. Christ the Lord himself feared death; so much so that he sweated a bloody sweat. I trust that God will yet see much good from this young man. Just as Peter, too, did much good work later, after his denial of the Lord. And, unlike this man, he was still free, and did not suffer such lengthy imprisonment, or the threat of the stake . . .

Are you not ashamed that Seehofer had to deny all the writings of Martin, who put the New Testament into German, simply following the text? That means that the holy Gospel and the Epistles and the story of the Apostles and so on are all dismissed by you as heresy. It seems there is no hope of a proper discussion with you. And then there’s the five books of Moses, which are being printed too. Is that nothing? I hear nothing about any of you refuting a single article of Arsacius from Scripture…

I beseech you for the sake of God, and exhort you by God’s judgement and righteousness, to tell me in writing which of the articles written by Martin or Melanchthon you consider heretical. In German, not a single one seems heretical to me. And the fact is that a great deal has been published in German, and I’ve read it all. Spalatin sent me a list of all the titles. I have always wanted to find out the truth . . . My dear lord and father insisted on me reading [the Bible] when I was ten years old. Unfortunately, I did not obey him, being seduced by the afore-named clerics, especially the Observants who said that I would be led astray.

Ah, but what a joy it is when the spirit of God teaches us and gives us understanding, flitting from one text to the next – God be praised – so that I came to see the true, genuine light shining out. I don’t intend to bury my talent if the Lord gives me grace. “The gospel,” says Christ, Luke 7, “is preached to the poor, and blessed is the one who is not offended by me . . .”

I cry out with the prophet Jeremiah, chapter 22: “Earth, earth, earth! Hear the word of the Lord!” I beseech and request a reply from you if you consider that I am in error, though I am not aware of it. For Jerome was not ashamed of writing a great deal to women, to Blesilla, for example, to Paula, Eustochium, and so on. Yes, and Christ himself, he who is the only teacher of us all, was not ashamed to preach to Mary Magdalene, and to the young woman at the well.

I do not flinch from appearing before you, from listening to you, from discussing with you. For by the grace of God I, too, can ask questions, hear answers, and read in German. There are, of course, German Bibles which Martin has not translated. You yourselves have on which was printed forty-one years ago, when Luther’s was never even thought of.

If God had not ordained it, I might behave like the others, and write or say that he perverts Scripture; that is contrary to God’s will. Although I have yet to read anyone who is his equal in translating it into German. May God, who works all this in him, be his reward here in time and in eternity. And even if it came to pass – which God forfend – that Luther were to revoke his views, that would not worry me. I do not build on his, mine, or any person’s understanding, but on the true rock, Christ himself, which the builders have rejected. But he has been made the foundation stone and the head of the corner, as Paul says in I Corinthians 3: “No other base can be laid, than that which is laid, which is Christ . . .”

I have no Latin; but you have German, being born and brought up in this tongue. What I have written you is no woman’s chit-chat, but the word of God; and I wrote as a member of the Christian Church, against which the gates of Hell cannot prevail. Against the Roman, however, they do prevail. Just look at that church! How is it to prevail against the gates of Hell? God give us his grace, that we all may be saved, and may God rule us according to His will. Now may his grace carry the day. Amen.

Dietfurt. Sunday after the exaltation of the holy Cross. The year of the Lord One thousand five hundred and in the twenty-third year. My signature, Argula von Grumbach, von Stauff by birth.

To the reverent, honorable, well-born, most learned, noble and esteemed Rector and general council of the whole University of Ingolstadt.

Review: The Foreknowledge of God (Olson)

Gordon C. Olson was a Bible teacher influential in the early years of Youth With a Mission (YWAM). He taught evangelism and theology and often explored issues around Calvinism and Arminianism (but he is not to be confused with C. Gordon Olson, who wrote on remarkably similar topics, and is of no relation).

The Foreknowledge of God (1941) is a theological inquiry into the relation between divine foreknowledge and human freedom. Today, it is classified as an “open theist” stance, but it predates that terminology, as do Samuel Fancourt and Lorenzo Dow McCabe. People with YWAM links may consider Olson’s work to be seminal in this area, whereas in mainstream evangelicalism, most people learned (or learn) of open theism through modern theologians like Greg Boyd, Terence Fretheim, and John Sanders.

Gordon Olson writes from the point of view of denial of “absolute divine foreknowledge”—in other words, God plans and causes much of the future (as written in prophecy) but does not plan and cause all of it. Olson was not a professor or an armchair theologian, but a mobilizer of evangelism. He quotes extensively from certain classic writers of the Reformed period and some Wesleyan theologians. Olson himself quotes extensively from Lorenzo Dow McCabe’s work on the topic in the 1880s. Because he predated the modern debate on open theism by some fifty years, he does not interact with any authors now well-known for open theism; and he remains practically unknown to many of them as well because he mainly operated in the parachurch crowd, not in academia. It is interesting, then, that the arguments that they present are more or less the same.

The introduction has a stunningly long compilation of quotations from theologians asserting the total incompatibility between absolute divine foreknowledge and free will. This incompatibility is noted by Calvinists and Arminians alike, including conservatives and liberals, across centuries of the Christian church. This stream of quotations was a striking way to open the book, and in my opinion is itself worth the price of the book, since it justifies Olson’s line of inquiry. My favorite quotation here was Martin Luther: “Divine foreknowledge is a thunderbolt to dash free will to atoms!”

For those who have not heard of open theism or have only heard secondhand, Olson offers a great introduction to the open point of view. His book is more accessible than McCabe or Fancourt.

Unlike Fancourt, Olson calls the open theist position “denying absolute foreknowledge” or for short, “denying foreknowledge”. This is, in my view, a weakness of Olson’s language. Fancourt stubbornly affirmed foreknowledge, but sought to redefine what was foreknowable on proto-Wesleyan terms. McCabe, a philosopher, spoke of “divine nescience of future contingencies”, which sounds too technical to be a heresy. Olson, Boyd, and most modern open theists, write and speak, in so many words, of “denying foreknowledge”, and this attracts the barbs of their opponents. But when they are describing theologically is justified from the same reasoning and the same Scriptures that led Fancourt and McCabe to their position.

I appreciate that Olson is able to lead us through the paradoxicality of the abstract “eternal now”, so foundational to many determinist viewpoints, as well as the more basic and practical problem of determinism: It makes us want to sit on our hindquarters and await the inevitable. All in all, Olson’s arguments may not sound particularly unique to those who are well-read on open theism; however, the time in which he made them, and the initial chapter which quotes many Calvinists, lend some interest to this book.

In a valuable appendix, Olson also gives an extensive table of Scriptures which support or deny “absolute divine foreknowedge”. Sola scriptura believers should grapple seriously with the many Scriptures that present seemingly contradictory views on foreknowledge. Reconciling foreknowledge with free will is a logical, theological, philosophical problem, yes, but for the Christian believer, it is also a biblical problem.

Chapter 3 is where Olson presents most of his argument in favor of the “open” worldview. Because of the somewhat odd outline of the book, Chapter 3 takes up a large portion of the book and is divided into six sections. Olson gives six reasons to “deny [absolute divine] foreknowledge”:

  • To provide for the duration of time necessary for human experience and relationship
  • To provide for God’s free will
  • To provide for man’s free will
  • To provide a tenable theodicy
  • To restore the spiritual and volitional energies of the soul
  • To satisfy Scripture

He recapitulates these six points in Chapter 4, which summarises his arguments. I’ll conclude with these quotations; if they whet your appetite, you may want to download Olson’s book, which is freely available in PDF, and is now quite cheap in print.

  1. To provide for the duration of time necessary for human experience and relationship
    If God lives in the past, present, and future all at once, which is commonly stated as an “eternal now”and generally admitted by prescientists (those believing in absolute foreknowledge), then there can be no succession of thoughts or acts or experiences in God’s existence, or, the all important element of time is not an element of His being. He therefore ceases to have personal characteristics and becomes to us an impersonal force, with the result that there is no common basis of fellowship with Him and we cannot say that we can know or experience the life of God.
  2. To provide for God’s free will
    Because the absolute divine foreknowledge of all events or acts from all eternity must result in the conclusion that God never originated a single choice. If everything conceivable existed with God from all eternity the will of God is not free and has never exerted a free choice to originate anything.
  3. To provide for man’s free will
    If God foreknows all the moral choices of His free beings, everything that ever has or ever shall come to pass has from eternity been a fixed certainty in the divine mind. In order to have proper freedom of the human will, it must have the power to determine for itself between two or more possible choices in a given instance. This freedom would make the future uncertain or contingent. Since certainty and contingency are incompatible, the certain foreknowledge of God and the contingent actions of men are incompatible. The foreknowledge of God therefore denies to moral agents their proper freedom of will.
  4. To provide a tenable theodicy
    If God foreknew before all creation, with absolute certainty, all the terrible suffering in this life, and all those who would suffer unspeakably throughout the countless ages of eternity, and He brought them into existence anyway, then we are tempted to question the good character and wisdom of God.
  5. To restore the spiritual and volitional energies of the soul
    Foreknowledge is denied because this doctrine creates in the mind, realized or unrealized, the idea that the future is a fixity. The Christian says within himself, either in honest words or suppressed thoughts, that since God knows the future and has determined everything that He will do throughout eternity, volitional acts of the spiritual life, or prayer, cannot change anything. This doctrine therefore becomes an impediment to the Christian and an excuse to the unsaved.
  6. To satisfy Scripture
    And finally, the above mentioned formidable difficulties have been the occasion for the inquiry into the teachings of Scriptures on such a momentous doctrine, (which is indeed the foundation stone of many other doctrines which stand or fall with it). It is found that the Bible gives very many positive testimonies against the doctrine of absolute divine prescience.
This review was written in 2020 and published in 2023. I had read the book many years earlier and went back over it for this review. Please leave a comment and let me know what you thought about Olson's book!

Review: The Samaritan Woman’s Story

Caryn A. Reeder is professor of New Testament at Westmont College in Santa Barbara, California. Her books include The Enemy in the Household: Family Violence in Deuteronomy and Beyond and Gendering War and Peace in the Gospel of Luke.

John 4 and … Sexual Abuse Scandals?

The Samaritan Woman’s Story: Reconsidering John 4 after #ChurchToo is a twofold response: firstly, to sexualised interpretations of the famous “woman at the well” story; secondly, to relatively recent confessions of widespread sexual abuse in Christian churches (popularised under the hashtag #ChurchToo). Reeder sees the two problems as linked by the marginalisation of women and their voices in our churches. That is to say, she believes biblical interpretations that demonise women (including the woman at the well) have the power to reinforce thought patterns that lead to sexual abuse. This link frames the book in the introduction and conclusion, with two major sections in the middle.

The first major section of the book explores the history of interpretation of John 4 through a series of case studies, from ancient to modern. The second section discusses historical social issues surrounding marriage and sexuality, culminating in a clearer understanding of the range of possible interpretations of the Samaritan woman’s story.

My biggest issue with this book was that it kept me hanging concerning what I see to be the core issue of the book: is the Samaritan woman immoral? Reeder’s presumptive answer is, No. If you are like me, this involves some serious suspension of disbelief. I felt that some bread crumbs of the argument could have been given in the introduction. Instead, Reeder introduced #ChurchToo and then launched into the history of interpretation of John 4, leading the reader under the presumption that there is some minority argument that the Samaritan woman is not necessarily immoral. Honestly, I was so unaware of how she could even make this argument, I had to skip to skimming Part Two before reading Part One so that I could engage with the book.

Perhaps this reversal was to keep the reader on their toes; perhaps I am not modern enough for the train of thought. Personally, I wanted more of a “thesis statement” at the beginning that would help me bridge the book’s many moving parts. In the interest of presenting the argument clearly, I’ve chosen to deal with the biblical “elephant in the room” first.

Is the Samaritan Woman a “Whore”?

In John 4:17–18, Jesus reveals the woman’s marital history:

16 He told her, “Go, call your husband and come back.”

17 “I have no husband,” she replied.

Jesus said to her, “You are right when you say you have no husband. 18 The fact is, you have had five husbands, and the man you now have is not your husband. What you have just said is quite true.”

John 4:16–18, NIV

First, it is odd that Jesus asks for her husband, ironically knowing she was unmarried. It seems like a “gotcha” moment to American readers. Having lived in the Middle East, I know that inquiring after male family members is polite in cross-gender interactions. It creates a boundary. Acknowledging a woman’s husband is meant to make her feel safe from abuse, which is an unmentioned link between John 4 and sexual abuse scandals. In my view, Jesus probably brings her husband to the conversation as a matter of politeness and safety.

At face value, in John 4, the woman is having extramarital sex (v.18) and is therefore an immoral fornicator. John Piper and Mark Driscoll have used the words “whore” and “prostitute” to describe the woman at the well, based on these verses. Let’s go over some of the key indicators that preachers have used to make her a sinner, and Reeder’s counterarguments:

1.Wasn’t she gathering water at noon because she was an outcast?

There’s no evidence that gathering water at noon meant she was a social outcast. This idea was promoted by D. L. Moody and has become a common preaching point, but it doesn’t have any basis in historical documents. Reeder routinely challenges people to produce any historical basis for this idea.

If the Samaritan woman was a social outcast, it’s also unlikely that her preaching would have been received so well, and this tension requires some maneuvering by interpreters. They overcome this by saying that the strange woman simply “roused their curiosity”; Calvin says she was like a “bell”. This downgrades the statement of John, “Many of the Samaritans from that town believed in him because of the woman’s testimony” (John 4:39).

2. Wasn’t it shameful for her to be outside the house, without a male chaperone?

Reeder offers specific examples from the first century of women operating in the public sphere, owning property, and speaking with men. She notes several times in the book that women’s seclusion in ancient times was “an ideal, not a reality”, something that is probably exaggerated in our efforts to differentiate our society from theirs. Having lived in the most gender-segregated societies on the planet, I agree with this assessment: women’s seclusion has many exceptions, especially when it comes to basic household chores like fetching water.

Later rabbinic traditions praised a women scholar named Beruriah for her intelligence, her ability as an interpreter, and her active participation in the community. According to one story, she used the words of Mishnah Avot 1.5 to tease a male rabbi for saying four more words to her than he needed to (Babylonian Talmud Eruvin 53b). Beruriah exemplifies women’s ability to engage despite the limitations imposed by men.

The Samaritan Woman’s Story, p. 167

3. Wasn’t it shameful to divorce many times?

Reeder points out that divorce was considered “common and casual” in the Roman Empire and could be unilateral from the man, or agreed upon by both. In Jewish sources, it could only be initiated by men, but Jews in the Roman Empire could also follow Roman custom. A Jewish midrash famously notes that the wife burning a meal is acceptable grounds for a divorce. So being divorced multiple times was not necessarily a poor reflection on a woman, and didn’t imply adultery. In fact, Reeder argues the opposite: men wouldn’t have kept marrying her if she was a known adulterer.

Adultery was one reason for divorce among Romans or Jews, but there is no reason to assume the Samaritan woman was divorced by her husbands for adultery. Rather, the fact of her remarriages suggests she was not suspected or convicted of adultery. Likewise, the evidence for divorce on account of infertility is slim (and again, the woman’s remarriages would argue against a reputation for infertility).

The Samaritan Woman’s Story, p.150

We also don’t know whether the Samaritan was ever divorced, or simply outlived all her husbands. In general life expectancy was much lower then than now; women married from around 12; and men were usually ten years older or more, and had a lower life expectancy; so it was common for women to outlive their spouses. So it is easily conceivable that a woman would have outlived more than one husband and/or been divorced by more than one husband. The Roman general Pompey outlived three spouses and divorced two others (p.149).

4. Wasn’t it shameful that she remarried so many times?

In a sermon on John 4, John Piper characterised serial marriage as a consequence of the Samaritan woman’s “cavernous thirst”—a phrase that has not aged well, by the way—and her tragically misplaced need for intimacy. If Reeder is correct, this way of understanding the story probably projects too much agency to an ancient woman, in addition to romanticising marriage.

Finances, housing, and children also constricted women’s ability to refuse a marriage, to divorce, or to remain unmarried following the end of a marriage.

The Samaritan Woman’s Story, p. 148

Ancient marriages were often arranged by family members, and even after one marriage ended, women sometimes reverted to living under their fathers’ authority. Marriage was both a social arrangement and an economic arrangement, and romantic and emotional bonds were thought to grow after cohabitation, not before. It is desperately anachronistic to characterise the woman as longing for intimacy, fleeing from one husband to another and divorcing them as she sees fit.

5. Finally, what about living with a man outside marriage?

This is really the lynchpin of Reeder’s argument, in my opinion. In a nutshell, throughout the Roman Empire, a type of “common law” marriage was in place, and probably had more standing than an American common law marriage, which is a frowned-upon legal technically. A mishnah says, “A wife is acquired by money, or by contract, or by sexual intercourse.”

Roman lawyers identified cohabitation as a form of marriage . . . This type of uncontracted marriage was just as legitimate as contracted marriage.

The Samaritan Woman’s Story, p.136–137

Cohabitation was an acceptable way of initiating a “marriage”, and there were many legal categories that couldn’t marry, like slaves and soldiers. The working classes couldn’t afford a great feast, and once the families had arranged a match for them, they would simply move in together and begin their life together. In some cases, this was a precursor to contractual marriage, and historical legal documents bear this out.

Romans, Jews, and likely therefore also Samaritans recognized a variety of noncontractual, permanent (or semi-permanent) relationships as acceptable alternatives to a formal, contracted marriage. The range of household situations reminds us that “marriage” is flexible. It is defined and practiced differently in different times, cultures, and spaces. In the first century, the lack of a contract did not make the marital relationship any less legitimate.

The Samaritan Woman’s Story, p.139

There’s one problem I see with this argument, which is the way it blurs too many categories that are integral to the interpretation of the story. She writes that cohabiting couples referred to each other as husband and wife (p.137), but this is expressly denied in the case of the Samaritan woman (John 4:17–18). In the same way, it’s a little confounding the way the book can alternately refer to the Samaritan woman as married and not married. Critics may consider Reeder to have merely muddied the water enough to make room for her pro-woman interpretation. In my view, her arguments are pretty strong, but this very last one, about cohabitation, is pretty difficult for me to swallow in view of my upbringing.

All in all, the second major section displays an impressive breadth of historical facts about ancient social life and family, substantiated by first-century sources, and this leads us to question the central role that sin usually plays in discussions of John 4. Sin is not mentioned in the story, and with power dynamics in place, it’s not at all clear whether Jesus’ words about her marital history were meant primarily to convict her of sin, or reveal the Messiah to her through supernatural knowledge.

History of Interpretation

The first half of the book goes over the history of interpretation. The range of interpretations is immediately impressive. Mark Driscoll calls the Samaritan woman “the leathery-faced town whore”; in contrast, Marie Dentière wrote the following:

What woman was a greater preacher than the Samaritan woman, who was not ashamed to preach Jesus and his word, confessing him openly before everyone, as soon as she heard Jesus say that we must adore God in spirit and truth?

Marie Dentière, Epistle to Marguerite de Navarre (1539)

I won’t recount this section in great detail here, but the interpreters covered include:

  • Tertullian
  • Origen
  • John Chrysostom
  • Marie Dentière
  • John Calvin
  • Clara Balfour
  • D. L. Moody
  • Liz Curtis Higgs
  • Barbara J. Essex
  • John Piper
  • Mary DeMuth

Some of these are included for their obvious historical weight; others are more or less illustrative of a minority viewpoint. Reeder is heavily engaged in social issues in her review of the modern authors. It was certainly interesting how she shows an interpretive gap between black women and white women, but I felt that race informed the discussion overmuch. Introducing a preacher in a book as a black or white person is a rather oddly loaded way to introduce someone, to my mind.

There are basically three modes: she is a harlot; she is a victim; and she is a disciple. Those that do not center the Samaritan woman’s story around her sexual sin are usually preoccupied with her as a victim of an unjust society. A few, though, see her primarily through her testimony. Many of the minority readings come from women, which shows how much the gender of the reader affects the interpretation. Men generally view her negatively; but some women throughout Reformed history at least have seen her as a tremendous witness in favor of women teaching.

The juxtaposition of Nicodemus (John 3) and the unnamed Samaritan woman (John 4) is an oft-referenced feature of the landscape of John’s Gospel. Nicodemus is honorable; comes at night; comes and goes without understanding. The Samaritan woman is nameless; speaks in broad daylight; takes in the revelation of Jesus and testifies to many.

Below is a short summary of some minority viewpoints from women:

We have reviewed similar interpretations from Marie Dentière and Virginia Broughton. This perspective is common among women writers: Christine de Pizan (writing in 1405), Argula von Grumbach (1523), Harriet Livermore (1824), Phoebe Palmer (1859), Elizabeth Baxter (1897). . . .

Marie Dentière wrote less than twenty years after Argula von Grumbach, but it is unlikely that she knew of Argula’s interpretation of the Samaritan woman, and neither woman would have known Christine de Pizan’s work. Margaret Fell would not have had access to these earlier interpreters. The women writing in the nineteenth century likely knew of each other, but not previous female interpreters. That these women independently found the same message in John 4:4-42 strengthens their challenge to the majority interpretation. (p.98)

The Samaritan Woman’s Story, p.98


The Samaritan woman’s story is a long, multifaceted two-way conversation with Jesus, and it is totally unique in many aspects. It is the only gospel ministry recorded among Samaritans, against Jesus’ general calling to the “lost sheep of Israel” (Matt. 15:25). It is the longest conversation that Jesus had anywhere in the Bible, let alone with a woman. The marital history is a single aspect of it that has probably been overinterpreted to become the lens for the whole narrative.

Reeder’s argument is extensively documented but accessibly written. Her book displays an impressive breadth of knowledge in several subfields, and she moves effortlessly between history, hermeneutics, and sociology. I especially enjoyed the weaving of biography and history of interpretation together. I love both biography and biblical studies, so I have been keeping an eye out for books that do this.

The Samaritan woman’s marriage history may conceivably be viewed as simply a “word of knowledge” (1 Cor. 12:8) that reveals the Messiah to her. The Pentecostal aspect of this story is generally overlooked by interpreters, the present author included.

If we see it as a Pentecostal revelation, this opens up another question about the text: was there something secret or unknowable about the woman’s marital history, or her present “relationship”? Is it possible that one of her past marriages involved an engagement and death that was not publicly recorded? Or that her ongoing relationship was kept under wraps because it was with someone whom it was impossible to marry for legal reasons, such as a soldier?

These proposals of mine are perhaps just as speculative as the going idea that she was “the town whore”. But Reeder’s review of the history and the history of interpretation of John 4 opens up these positive conceptions of the Samaritan woman and other possibilities, and certainly problematises the idea that she was an immoral outcast.