Category Archives: Book Reviews

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’.”

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: Song of Songs (Parker)

Joseph Parker was utterly consecrated to one question: What does the Bible narrative mean for us today? He treats all questions of criticism and systematics as secondary to dealing with the text before him. He cross-references abundantly and appropriately, not to bolster theological argument, but to multiply the effect on his listeners of the narrative before us.

It is difficult to find an appropriate treatment of Song of Songs. Some old-time preachers and Church Fathers made it purely allegory; post-modern preachers can be preoccupied with metaphors; but Joseph Parker starts with the story itself, how it fits into Scripture as a whole, and moves into its relevance for the Church today.

This was an enjoyable portion of The People’s Bible, and I look forward to more of Parker’s sermons on Old Testament Wisdom.

Review: First and Second Timothy and Titus (Interpretation)

Thomas C. Oden (1931–2016) is a renowned Methodist theologian. He wrote numerous theology books and was editor of the monumental Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture.

The Interpretation Series

The Interpretation series of Bible commentaries was created with the purpose of assisting “preachers and teachers”, focusing on the homiletical applications of the biblical text. It is a very useful series both for personal use and for teaching. I recommend this series it highly. The series includes many prominent theologians among whom I’ll mention: Thomas C. Oden (this volume), Terence Fretheim (Exodus), Walter Brueggemann (Genesis & 1 & 2 Samuel), and Richard B. Hays (1 Corinthians).

Oden’s Method

Oden’s method in this commentary is primarily to synthesize his own applications from Church Fathers and classical Protestantism. Among Church Fathers, he quotes most widely from Chrysostom and Augustine. Among Protestant authors, he quotes most from Martin Luther, John Calvin, and John Wesley.

My intention is to provide a modern commentary on the Pastorals grounded in the classical, consensual tradition of interpretation of these texts. (p. 2)

The author does cite modern commentaries in many cases, but he quotes the classics much more extensively. This lends an enduring interest to Oden’s commentary. Perspectives from the Fathers are often stunningly fresh, coming as voices from outside our culture and our zeitgeist. His focus on speaking from “consensual tradition” means he tends to dwell outside modern polemical arguments.

Arrangement of the Book

Oden’s volume on First and Second Timothy and Titus (1989) is unique in its arrangement. Passages are grouped thematically, rather than in canonical order, so that the book is less repetitive when read cover-to-cover. The Pastorals can be studied in canonical order using the index. For example, all three Bible books are introduced together, but the section that follows covers 2 Timothy 3:14–17 and 2 Timothy 1:3–7, grouped under “The Authority and Traditioning of Scripture”.

As the Pastoral Epistles are read and studied, Oden’s arrangement becomes more intuitive; but it takes some getting used to.

I think in such a commentary, although it is not long, it would be unproductive to try to cover the entire outline, so I will just point out some of the major contributions that I thought were insightful.

Who Wrote the Pastoral Epistles?

Historical evidence for Pauline authorship is a little weaker for the Pastoral Epistles than for the General Epistles. None of the Pastoral Epistles is mentioned in Marcion’s canon, the earliest New Testament canon. Oden argues, though, that the Church Fathers were unanimous in attributing these letters to Paul and ascribing apostolic authority to them. The historical sequence is also messy, comparing Acts to the Pastorals. But for Oden (p. 8), it is simplest to believe that the events related to these epistles occurred after Luke’s authoring of Acts, than to argue that the Pastorals are inauthentic, merely because we don’t have enough data to fit them together into a neat timeline. The Pastorals also differ thematically from other epistles because they differ in audience. Paul is addressing “long-term associates who did not need to be instructed on elementary teachings” (p. 13).

I do not put much stock in studies that seek to identify the author of a text based on vocabulary. Shakespeare, for instance, wrote much more than Paul, in language much closer to ours, and debates still rage about whether he could have written all the plays attributed to him. But, ultimately, they circle back to the man himself, because it takes very hard proof for speculation to oust tradition.

Do Not Rebuke a Mocker

At many points in the book, Oden helpfully points out how Paul dismisses false teachings rather than attacking them. This comes up repeatedly in the Pastorals. Timothy is to “give no heed” to conspiracy theories (1 Tim. 1:4); “spurn” old wives’ tales (1 Tim. 4:7); “flee” fake preachers who profit from the gospel (1 Tim. 6:11); “avoid godless chatter” (2 Tim. 2:16); Titus is to “give no heed” to Jewish fables (Titus 1:14); “avoid foolish questions” (Titus 3:9). Oden argues that even in our dealings with heretics, we should “refuse further dealings”:

This is not the same as excommunication. It is far more passive than that. If you enter into dialogue, you will inadvertently lend legitimacy to the false teacher by granting that his premise is tenable.

Oden, p. 86

Women in Ministry

Many readers will be interested in Oden’s comments on women in leadership in relation to 1 Timothy 2:11–15. On 1 Timothy 2:12, Oden quotes Chrysostom, arguing that women are called to “quietness” (ἡσυχίᾳ) rather than “silence” (σιγὴ), and that this “quietness” is a virtue enjoined upon both men and women. Other New Testament uses justify this: Acts 22:2, 1 Thess. 4:11, 2 Thess 3:12, 1 Peter 3:4. The cognate term in 1 Timothy 2:2 is usually translated “peaceable”. Oden’s conclusion: “It is not that women in general cannot teach but that a woman cannot teach in such a way as to usurp authority over teachers already duly designated.” (p. 97) The juxtaposition is not between “holding authority” (αὐθεντεῖν) and “being in silence” (εἶναι ἐν ἡσυχίᾳ), which are not very good antonyms; rather, the juxtaposition is between “usurping authority” (perhaps, “domineering”) and “quietness” (or something like “being at peace”).

In his comments on 1 Timothy 2:12, Martin Luther wrote that he believed this verse to pertain to “wives”, not “women”—the two senses are expressed by the same word in Greek, as also in Arabic and many other languages. For Luther, a “wife” (not “a woman”) should not usurp authority over her “husband” (not “a man”). The same lexical problem comes up in treatments of 1 Corinthians 11:3 (see here) and 1 Corinthians 14:34 (see here and here).

Bring the Parchments

Oden writes that Paul’s request, “bring the parchments”, is the most interesting passage in the Pastoral Epistles, and I tend to agree. It certainly sparks the imagination.

Bishops, Presbyters, Elders, Pastors, Deacons … ?

I had planned to write a little about Oden’s ecclesiology and church leadership, which is a major theme in the Pastoral Epistles. He delves at some length into questions such as the distinction between “elders” and “pastors” (hint: for him, there is none). I disagreed with some of Oden’s ideas here and the arguments got a little tricky for me to follow. Many have pointed out that Titus 1:5 and 1:7 seem to collocate “elders” and “bishop” as synonyms, and 1 Timothy 3 only outlines “bishops” and “deacons”, probably because elders were not a third category, but a synonym for “bishops”. This is a frequent argument used in documents that defend congregationalist ecclesiology, which has a flatter hierarchy than most Methodist denominations, in that it has no bishoprics presiding over multiple churches.


I’ve finished three volumes from this series and all have been very good. My main problem with getting through Oden’s book was how it was organized. It is a difficult task writing a commentary that covers portions of scripture that are somewhat repetitive, and yet maintaining readable prose. But his use of classical commentators, in my opinion, made up for this defect. And in spite of his self-proclaimed “fogey”-ness, his style is mostly quite accessible. This book is a refreshing mix of old and new.

Review: Genesis 1–11 (ACCS)

The Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture is a cross-denominational effort to compile the best passages from the first millennium of Christianity, organized canonically (verse by verse). The series was painstakingly created using digital databases of the Greek and Latin Fathers, as well as some sources in Syriac and other languages. The result is a very readable, accessible compendium of quotations from a variety of Church Fathers.

The first volume is necessarily weighted towards the creation and Paradise (Adam and Eve) narratives. In fact, half of the volume covers Genesis 1–3; the second half covers Genesis 4–11.

The Value of ACCS

I found this book extremely useful. Here is why:

Last year, I decided to read every commentary I could find on Genesis. It was easy to get around 100 in English, from after 1700. Luther was difficult to find in English; Melanchthon is out of print and only in Latin. But I could find almost nothing in English from Church Fathers before 1500. It is beyond doubt many times more difficult.

I knew (and know) very little about Church Fathers. I could not afford a seminary education. It has been very difficult to get started from scratch, as a Pentecostal—sometimes Pentecostals act like the church started at Azusa Street. The only Church Father I hear about with any frequency is Augustine.

Eventually, I found four relevant works by Augustine, three of them in Latin. I was so excited that I made it through quite a bit of his commentary. And I saw references online to Ambrose’ On Paradise, Chrysostom’s Homilies on Genesis, Basil the Great’s Hexaemeron, Gregory of Nyssa’ works on creation, Ephrem the Syrian’s commentary on Genesis, and others.

Any one of these was not available online in a citable form or a reputable translation. Altogether, I was looking at hundreds upon hundreds of dollars to collect these important works (only 10 or 12 of them!), whereas I had spent almost nothing collecting 100+ English commentaries. Ironically, the original works would be in the public domain; but translated volumes from Church Fathers are both expensive and copyrighted.

After much difficulty, I noticed the Glossia Ordinaria, from the 12th century, but it does not name its primary sources, and I did not find Nicholas of Lyra very enlightening (and the Latin was a little cumbersome!). I wanted to read what Lyra had read!

The ACCS volume on Genesis 1–11 has opened up a wealth to me. After reading the whole volume, I have a very clear direction about which Church Fathers are the most important, readable, and interesting to me.

Patristic Interpretations of Genesis 1–11

Some of the interpretations are pretty boilerplate. In quite a few places, they preserve wisdom from Jewish interpretations of Genesis. Others are fresh, Christological readings of the Old Testament that I have never heard before despite reading quite a bit on Genesis.

For instance, the story of Noah’s ark was consistently regarded as a type of Christ’s salvation, down to the smallest details of the narrative.

Other interpretations were mere speculation or tradition, but even these were still interesting as they preserve for us the Fathers’ ways of thinking. Perhaps they should be regarded as cultural imbalances more than hermeneutical failures; our own cultures have their own ideological imbalance.

I am very much looking forward to reading other volumes from the ACCS and slowly piecing together a library of favorite patristic readings of the Bible, from the best works I discover through ACCS.

Review: Evil and the Justice of God

N. T. Wright is a New Testament scholar and theologian, as well as bishop of Durham. His writings on the resurrection of Christ and Pauline theology are considered among the most influential theological writings in recent decades.

Evil and the Justice of God (2007) is a series of five lectures on the “problem of evil” that were expanded into book form. Wright is very skeptical, though, about the entire task of theodicy—that is, Christian attempts to explain the existence of evil in its relation to God’s perfection. Pitfalls abound: we either accuse ourselves, or we absolve ourselves. Teachings that over-explain suffering can lead us to the embarrassing implication that there is no such thing as evil, or that God is unconcerned. It would be better to acknowledge the reality of evil, as well as the reality of God’s thorough involvement in this world’s redemption. In Wright’s words, we must continue to acknowledge that ‘evil’ is a four-letter word.

What the Gospels offer is not a philosophical explanation of evil, what it is or why it’s there, nor a set of suggestions for how we might adjust our lifestyles so that evil will mysteriously disappear from the world, but the story of an event in which the living God deals with it.

N. T. Wright, Evil and the Justice of God, p. 93

In the first lecture, Wright re-frames numerous aspects of the discussion. At various points, he delineates what we should require from a theodicy (p. 34–39):

  • A theodicy should include a practical, Christian response—that is, it should not be an abstract or theoretical discussion.
  • A theodicy should not be blind to the political realities of injustice.
  • A theodicy should acknowledge the reality of sin and the demonic.
  • A theodicy should not trivialize sin by labeling some people “good” and other people “bad”.

In the second and third lectures, he seeks to show how God responds to evil in concrete ways, in the Old and New Testaments, respectively.

The overarching picture is of the sovereign Creator God who will continue to work within his world until blessing replaces curse, homecoming replaces exile, olive branches appear after the flood and a new family is created in which the scattered languages can be reunited. That is the narrative which forms the outer frame for the canonical Old Testament.

N. T. Wright, Evil and the Justice of God, p. 53

The third lecture includes many ideas that are core to Wright’s theology, as it relates the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus to the theological problem of evil. In Wright’s view, part of the problem with theological discussions of evil is that they treat atonement and theodicy in separate boxes; for him, they belong in the same discussion. This is much more obvious when you take a Christus Victor approach to the atonement, which Wright has a wonderful way of articulating.

The Gospels tell the story of Jesus’ death as the story of how the downward spiral of evil finally hit bottom with the violent and bloody execution of this man, this prophet who had announced God’s kingdom.

N. T. Wright, Evil and the Justice of God, p. 83

The profound fusion of these two ideas, atonement and theodicy, in the dramatic view of the atonement, brings some needed correction to impractical, abstract, and theoretical explanations of the atonement of Christ.

[Jesus’ death] wasn’t a theory, we note, but an action (a warning to all atonement theorists ever since, and perhaps an indication of why the church has never incorporated a specific defining clause about the atonement in its great creeds). Perhaps, after all, atonement is at its deepest level something that happens, so that to reduce it to a proposition to which one can give mental assent is a mistake at a deep level (for all that such propositions may be accurate signposts to the reality), something of the same kind of mistake that happens when people imagine they can solve the problem of evil. Perhaps, in fact, it is the same mistake in a different guise.

N. T. Wright, Evil and the Justice of God, p. 91–92

The fourth lecture, “Imagine There’s No Evil,” deals with how Christians can deal with evil here and now. Wright begins by linking our definitions of “evil” and our mental image of “the new heavens and new earth” to our ongoing efforts to confront evil (or our lack thereof). When we imagine God’s new creation, we must not depict ourselves as disembodied (as in a Gnostic framework, wherein evil is material). We must work toward an understanding of the “principalities and powers” that allows us to picture a new creation in which Christ is all in all.

With that in mind, he gives a few ways that we can confront evil through prayer, holiness, and action. I suspect his political musings here sound quite approriate to British believers and quite inappropriate to Americans.

The final lecture in Evil and the Justice of God deals with forgiveness as the final victoral over evil.

This book, while brief, was very helpful in reorienting the conversation around the problem of evil.

Review: The Fatherhood of God

Robert S. Candlish was a key leader in the founding the Free Church of Scotland after separating from the Church of Scotland in May 1843. In 1862, he became the principal of the New College, Edinburgh. He is famed for his excellent work on Genesis, and his theological study on the atonement.

The Fatherhood of God (1865; 3rd ed., 1867) is a series of six lectures (the Cunningham Lectures) given in Edinburgh in 1864. Candlish argues that:

  • Believers become God’s children by identification with Christ in his sonship and “participation in the sonship of the uncreated” p.255.
  • The fatherhood of God is a free benefit for believers, and is distinctive from being created in the image of God (which applies to all humanity).
  • Our “adoption” in New Testament theology does not fully take place at regeneration or justification; rather, it is “a distinct and separate benefit” (p. 247).

Believers Are God’s Children

Though Jesus readily uses the word “Father” and even teaches his disciples to pray to “our Father,” Candlish argues that Jesus does not use the word to describe all humans’ relationship to God (p. 162–166). “I find no trace whatever, in all our Lord’s teaching, of anything like a universal fatherhood.” (p. 196)

Sonship is in Christ, who calls his disciples his brothers; he becomes “the firstborn among many brethren” (Rom. 8:29) not by the fact of creation, but by the act of the Father’s adoption of believers. “Brothers” is an in-group appellation across the early church, and not without reason.

In my own opinion, the only verse that plausibly suggests that all men are children of God is found in Paul’s speech at Mars Hill:

Yet he is actually not far from each one of us, for ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we are indeed his offspring.’ Being then God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone . . .

Acts 17:27b–29

Candlish points out that Paul is quoting a Greek poet, Aratus, not an inspired source. He is using a local writer as a rhetorical device. (I would add here that the use of γένος ‘offspring’, in the aggregate singular, is less personal than the usual word, υίοι ‘children’.) If Paul meant that all people were God’s children, he would be contradicting the words of John (1 John 3:10) and Jesus (Matt. 13:38; John 8:44), as well as his own words to Elymas the sorcerer, whom Paul himself called “son of the devil” (Acts 13:10)!

Adam is called a “son of God” in Luke 3:38, but this is used to speak of his immediate creation by God. It should not be equated with the New Testament doctrine of adoption/sonship. Candlish even points out (p. 56) that “the old and sound British divines” sometimes speak of a general fatherhood of God; but Candlish believes that these usages (along with Acts 17:27) should be taken as figurative usages referring to our status as God’s creatures and subjects.

Candlish extends this argument in the 129-page preliminary essay which was added to the third edition.

What Is Adoption in the New Testament?

“Adoption” (υἱοθεσία) is only mentioned by name in five New Testament verses, all of them in Paul’s epistles: Romans 8:15, 8:23, 9:4, Galatians 4:5, and Ephesians 1:5. For this reason, it seldom receives specific attention in Christian theology, from the Fathers forward.

That makes sonship not merely a relation of adoption, but in a real and important sense a natural relation also. . . . The regeneration is a real communication to us on his part of ‘his seed,’ of what makes our moral and spiritual nature the same in character as his; perfectly so at last, and imperfectly yet as far as it prevails, truly so, even now.

Robert S. Candlish, The Fatherhood of God, 3rd ed., p. 233

John 1:12–13 and 1 John 2:29–3:1 link adoption to regeneration (p. 229–233; 2 Peter 1:4). Adoption is intimately connected with regeneration (being “born again”) whereby “God’s seed abides” in us (1 John 3:9). At the same time, adoption should not be confounded with justification (p. 237). “Neither our regeneration nor our justification constitutes our sonship.” (p. 228)

For Candlish, sonship has two distinctive characteristics: liberty (p. 261) and permanence of position (p. 262–265; see John 8:35–36). Thus, Paul frequently opposes sonship to slavery.

A New Testament Revelation

In the third lecture, Candlish points out that God’s fatherhood and the sonship of believers are part of the New Covenant. The fatherhood of God in the Old Testament is exhibited as his relation toward Israel (Ex. 4:22; Deut. 14:1; Hos. 11:1; cf. Rom. 9:4), Israel’s king (2 Sam. 7:14; 1 Chron. 17:13, 28:6; Ps. 2:7, 89:26–27), and toward the Messiah (Dan. 3:25), but not toward all mankind or even all believers. At best, a fatherhood of God toward all believers only appears in the Old Testament as an analogy.

For the Lord reproves him whom he loves, as a father the son in whom he delights.

Prov. 3:12, ESV

Are Angels ‘God’s Children’?

One interpretation that I disagreed with was Candlish’s literal understanding of “sons of God” in reference to angels in the Hebrew Bible. This is found in Job 1:6, 2:1, and 38:7; Candlish takes the other three instances as referring to the righteous. For Candlish, angels are sons of God, and this has some bearing on our own sonship, and that of Christ; in my opinion, this is just a Hebrew idiom, mostly irrelevant to the discussion of the proper sonship of believers.

Is It ‘Adoption,’ a Process—or ‘Sonship,’ a Status?

While I greatly enjoyed the book, I felt that Candlish’s definition of sonship could have been clearer. First, it entails liberty and permanence of position. But there is more that may be stated from the text.

First, as Candlish implies in a few places, ‘adoption’ is both a status and the process of receiving that status in Paul’s epistles. It is a status in:

  • Romans 8:15: “… you have received the Spirit of adoption …”
  • Romans 9:4: “… to them belong the adoption …”

It is a process in:

  • Romans 8:23: “… we … groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.”
  • Galatians 4:5: “… to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption …”
  • Ephesians 1:5: “… he predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ …”

In English, the word ‘adoption’ only denotes a process, and is therefore an inadequate translation. George MacDonald—who was influenced by F. D. Maurice, one of Candlish’s theological opponents—has argued in his Unspoken Sermons, that the Greek word Paul uses for “adoption” would be better translated “sonship”, which is equivalent to how Luther translated it. But this may fall into the opposite error, by meaning a state but not a process.

Second, Candlish does not adequately connect New Testament adoption to inheritance. Paul speaks frequently in the same breath of “sonship” and inheritance. He speaks of us coming into our full status and inheritance as God’s children (Eph. 1:11) and of us becoming heirs because we are sons (Gal. 4:7). Sonship, then, does not mean mere childhood. It is also an adult status of eligibility for inheritance; this much is obvious from New Testament usage, but is rarely elucidated.

Lastly, I felt that Candlish overemphasized the legal aspects of atonement and sonship. One cannot read passages like 1 John 3 without noticing that there is clear affectionate language! This brings me to another point, which bears on how we represent adoption in our preaching and teaching.

Western Child Adoption Falls Short

As an aside, I merely point out here the difficulties of comparing biblical adoption to modern, American adoption of children. If God’s seed (roughly, his DNA!) abides in us, this is a point of difference—one of several—between biblical adoption and Western child adoption. Western child adoption also does not convey any freedom as a counterpoint with slavery, but Paul frequently places the two side by side. Western child adoption may imply permanence, but it does not in any way imply inheritance. (On this see my own definition of adoption further down in this review.) In all these ways, New Testament adoption is pretty distant from an American adopting a child; it retains primarily the affectionate and caring aspects, but lacks other specific aspects.

Responses Contemporary with Candlish

As you might imagine, the statement that only believers are God’s children creates some contention. The first edition of this book occasioned a lengthy response from Thomas J. Crawford, who wrote his own book The Fatherhood of God: Considered in Its General and Special Aspectswith a Review of Recent Speculations (1866). Crawford defends the idea that all people are God’s children in one (general) sense, but believers are God’s children in another (special) sense. For Crawford, the sonship of believers is also distinct from Christ’s sonship. Sin is also essentially filial and personal for Crawford.

In the third edition of his book, Candlish included a 129-page rebuttal of Crawford’s arguments. Many readers will skip this; if you are interested in whether God’s fatherhood is universal or not, it will likely interest you.

Candlish writes that the watering down of the fatherhood of God has made it, for some preachers, into practically his only attribute—at the expense of any legal mode of speaking of God. This is never more true than today. God’s fatherhood and our placement as his children are precious theological truth, worthy of disentangling from American assumptions about adoption.

It is pleaded that God must be held to act in this or that particular way towards men, because he is their Father; or otherwise, that he cannot be imagined to adopt such or such a course, inasmuch as it would be inconsistent with his Fatherhood.

Robert S. Candlish, The Fatherhood of God, p. 9

In a chapter of The Mind of the Master (1896), which does not name Candlish, John Watson (pen name Ian Maclaren) wrote the following:

People with dogmatic ends to serve have striven to believe that Jesus reserved Father for His disciples; but an ingenuous person could hardly make the discovery in the Gospels. One searches in vain to find that Jesus bad an esoteric word for His intimates, and an exoteric for the people, saying Father to Jobn and Judge to the publicans. It had been amazing if Jesus were able to employ alternatively two views of God according to His audience, speaking now as an Old Testament Prophet, now as the Son of God. It is recorded in the Gospels, “Then spake Jesus to the multitude and His disciples, saying, . one is your Father, which is in heaven” (St. Matt. xxiii. 1, 9). This attempt to restrict the intention of Jesus is not of yesterday; it was the invention of the Pharisees. They detected the universal note in Jesus’ teaching; they resented His unguarded charity.

John Watson

Watson’s language is forceful and persuasive, and his criticisms are well founded. On Jesus’ address in Matthew 23, I would be curious how he relates its “woes” to its Fatherhood. Candlish is far too concerned with the legal mode of speaking of God, as if Scripture sets up legal metaphors as the superior mode of speaking of God. On the other hand, Watson makes familial metaphors the supreme way of speaking of God. Ironically, Watson’s chapter ends with a sort of postmillennial vision of all the earth coexisting under God’s benevolent fatherhood, which clearly shows the eschatological problem of any universal fatherhood. Much of Western culture—or, at least what I call “Hollywood theology”—has spoken of a universal fatherhood of God for many decades, and it has not tended toward Watson’s vision.

Review: Deliverance to the Captives

Karl Barth (1886–1968) was a Swiss Protestant theologian, known for his involvement in the Confessing Church in Nazi Germany, as well as his commentary on Romans and his multi-volume work of systematic theology, Church Dogmatics.

Deliverance to the Captives (1959; Eng. tr., 1978) is a collection of sermons preached at Basel Prison in Barth’s later life. It is one of several small collections of spoken addresses and prayers by a man much better-known for his theological writings. Though Barth mostly wrote, preaching was no small part of his life-work. Those of his spoken addresses that I can find in English are the following:

  • A Unique Time of God: Karl Barth’s WWI Sermons (2016; sermons preached in 1914)
  • The Early Preaching of Karl Barth (2009; preached 1917–1920)
  • Come Holy Spirit (1933; preached 1920–1924)
  • The Word of God and the Word of Man (1928; lectures given c. 1922)
  • The Word in This World (2019; preached in 1934)
  • Prayer and Preaching (1952; seminars given 1947–1949)
  • Deliverance to the Captives (1978; sermons preached 1954–1959)
  • Call for God: New Sermons from Basel Prison (1967; preached 1959–1964)

Of these, two slender volumes contain Barth’s preaching to the prisoners at Basel Prison from 1954 to 1964: Deliverance to the Captives (German, Den Gefangenen Befreiung) and Call for God (German, Rufe Mich An = Call on Me).

Barth preached at Basel Prison 27 times, usually on holidays such as Christmas or Easter. Those who knew him wrote that he relished these opportunities, and that the prisoners listened with gratitude. He was in his seventies when most of these were preached.

The sermons savor less of academia than many that I have heard on a Sunday. They are fresh and encouraging in their outlook, and they display what Barth himself called his “solidarity” with these prisoners. The sermons are evangelical in tenor and frequently include invitations to trust in Christ.

Themes prominent in his theology come out in the sermons from time to time, but he does not have many theological axes to grind.

The sermon “God’s Good Creation” gives us a brief look at Barth’s theology of creation, based on James 1:17.

“Teach Us To Number Our Days” was the most interesting with respect to theology. It outlines his explanation of the work of the atonement as God’s No to sin and death and God’s Yes to life.

What happened in the death of Jesus did not happen against us, but for us. What took place was not an act of God’s wrath against man. Quite the opposite holds true. Because in the one Jesus God so loved us from all eternity—truly all of us—because he has elected himself to be our dear Father and has elected us to become his dear children whom he wants to save and to draw unto him, therefore he has in the one Jesus written off, rejected, nailed to a cross and killed our old man who, as impressively as he may dwell and spook about in us, is not our true self. God so acted for our own sake. In the death of Jesus he has cleared away, swept out and let go up in flames, smoke and ashes the old man in us, that we may live a life of freedom. That he may himself say to us his divine ‘yes’, valid once for all and unconditionally, to this old companion who has no traffic with our true self, to our old ways and byways, and he did say ‘no’, unmistakably, in the death of Jesus as the substitute for us.

Karl Barth, Deliverance to the Captives, p. 122–123

Review: Always Enough

Author: Rolland and Heidi Baker are missionaries and itinerant speakers. They have planted churches in the United Kingdom and Mozambique. Heidi is also the CEO of Iris Global, a humanitarian organization they founded for work in developing countries.

Full Title: Always Enough: God’s Miraculous Provision among the Poorest Children on Earth


Always Enough (2003) is the story of Rolland and Heidi Baker, focusing on their experiences in Mozambique as missionaries.

In Africa they experienced not only disaster and poverty on a national level, but national repentance and revival as Mozambicans responded to God. Miracles attended their message and are a major part of their story—especially healing and miraculous provision.

Through the Bakers’ delegation of responsibility and leadership, at least five thousand churches were started in Africa in less than a decade. I thoroughly enjoyed this inspirational book and recommend it highly.

Review: Ventures among the Arabs

Ventures among the Arabs recounts the adventures of Archibald Forder, a missionary who worked among Arabs. Forder worked primarily in the lands we know as Jordan, Israel, and Palestine, but also travelled in many other areas, especially where Bedouins are found. He and his wife first went to Kerak, Moab (present-day Jordan) to fill a gap for William and Jane Lethaby while they travelled elsewhere.

Forder travelled alone into northern Najd, an area that was almost wholly untouched by Europeans. Alois Musil is perhaps the only explorer who overlapped closely with Forder in place and time, and they interacted with the same tribes.

Forder is known—like Musil—for adopting native language, dress, and lifestyle as much as possible. He lacked institutional backing and was forced by the Church of England to become independent, but he did not forsake his missionary outpost. He is refreshing for his lack of worldly prestige or ambition; he is simply a man with a message.

He pioneered among the Bedouin in present-day Jordan, and made visits to rural areas all over the northern Arabian Peninsula. Little or no missionary work was being done in most of the areas he visited, so that his accounts and his depictions, for the time in which they were written, were almost wholly unique.
In terms of day-to-day life, Forder did medical work, often aiding wounded Bedouin after tribal skirmishes. He also distributed Scriptures as a colporteur.

In his lifetime, readers of Forder’s books complained that he didn’t supply any personal details about his life, and he tried to remedy this in 1919 when he published In Brigands’ Hands and Turkish Prisons. Later books show how he pioneered a new mission among Palestine’s Bedouin (based in Jerusalem).

Ventures among the Arabs is a fascinating little collection of stories about Forder’s beginnings in his Arabian mission. I highly recommend all of his books for those interested in the history of missions among Arabs.