Category Archives: Book Reviews

Review: The Light in the Prison Window

The Light in the Prison-Window: The Life Story of Hans Nielsen Hauge (1926) by Wilhelm Pettersen is a biography of Hans Nielsen Hauge, a Norwegian evangelist and social reformer who had a tremendous impact on the Scandinavian religious landscape.

In the late 1700s, as described by Pettersen, Norway was Protestant (Lutheran) in name, but steeped in cold scholasticism and hypocrisy. The Bible was treated as a mythology or a mere handbook for tradition. Pettersen names several priests and bishops of the time that had no concern for Christian piety, and some influential leaders did not even believe basic Christian doctrines like the bodily resurrection of Christ. In churches one might hear lectures on Greek classics instead of the Bible.

At the age of 25, Hans Nielsen Hauge had a lone conversion experience in an open field—a moment he described as his “spiritual baptism”. Though Hauge was definitely evangelical, much of the language he used has even pentecostal overtones.

Hauge in time became a force in evangelizing Norway’s villages, and many joined him in his task, including many young women, who preached and evangelized.

Not content with an inward renewal alone, Hans Nielsen Hauge also sought social reform and worked as an entrepreneur. He is generally regarded to have had a tremendous impact on both religious and secular life in Norway.

Hauge did not reject Lutheran doctrines; rather, he sought to apply them where they had become merely the traditional intellectual background to their religion. As some tell the story, Scandinavia had joined the Protestant Reformation in name in the 1530s, but it had not yet reckoned with justification by faith. This living faith was renewed with the Haugean movement.

Hauge was imprisoned many times for lay preaching under the Conventicle Act. A “conventicle” was an unauthorized religious meeting, such as a house church, and Scandinavian countries, until long into the 1800s, were cracking down hard on unauthorized meetings. It would be many decades before such meetings were legitimized, and even longer before they were able to perform marriages and burials recognized by the government. (Since 2000, Sweden and Norway have both legislated for a separation of church and state—perhaps the final chain in a long history of decline in the state churches, growth in the free churches, and growth in the non-religious.)

On the European landscape, the scene had been set for all this change by groups like the Methodists and the Moravians. The Moravian revival had started in 1727, and the Methodists had begun to organize in the 1740s. Like Hauge, these groups appealed to lower classes, partially by having either looser hierarchies, or no hierarchy, compared to the corrupt priesthood they were accustomed to. The keynote, though, was individual conversions.

Hauge didn’t teach major doctrinal shifts from Lutheranism; but he invited his countrymen to a living and personal faith.

In a way, Hauge represents in his person the evangelical renewal of Norway. But there were many who joined his work, and likewise faced arrest and imprisonment for leaving the established churches.

One downside to The Light in the Prison Window was the very long roll call of Norwegian evangelicalism. It felt like being at a family reunion, but I didn’t know anyone. The sheer number of obscure Norwegian theologians and clerics mentioned boggles the mind. It is understandable, though, that the author wants us to acknowledge how many souls assisted and followed Hauge in the renewal of Norway.

Note: It is rather difficult to find biographies of Hans Nielsen Hauge. The Light in the Prison-Window is quite brief, and the only other biography I could find is Joseph Shaw’s Pulpit under the Sky (1955), which is quite rare. If you know of a substantial biography of Hauge, please share it in the comments!

Review: The Virgin Birth and the Incarnation

Author: Arthur C. Custance was a research scientist with an overflowing interest in anthropology, biology, theology, and biblical languages. He obtained his M.A. in Middle Eastern Languages in 1941, and completed his Ph.D. in Anthropology in 1954, though his degree was delayed five years by prejudice against Custance caused by his literal understanding of biblical creation. He conducted research in physiology for Canada’s Defence Research Board and wrote sixteen unique books, mainly on the intersection of biblical theology and modern science.

The Virgin Birth and the Incarnation (1976) is Book 5 of 10 in The Doorway Papers, a series of studies fusing biblical study with scientific research. Much of the series explores aspects of the Creation, Fall, and Flood in Genesis, but many other themes are included.

It is divided into essays, so the topics are related but you can easily read and enjoy any essay without the others. The individual essays are themselves divided into chapters, and some of them are quite long.

The essays in this volume are:

  • Longevity in Antiquity and its Bearing on Chronology: This is a great study of the genealogy of Genesis 5, with statistical and historical data to back up the claims of human longevity. While many claim that there is some numerical or scribal anomaly in the years of Genesis 5, Custance supports a literal reading.
  • The Nature of the Forbidden Fruit: It was probably not an apple—so what was the forbidden fruit? And how did it affect Adam and Eve when they ate it? Custance shows the effects that certain foods can have on humans.
  • If Adam Had Not Died: This essay reviews scientific concepts connected to the Incarnation of Christ. Included here are several intriguing and strange ideas about the physiology of Adam himself. Custance is looking at the immortal physiology of Adam as a precursor of the immortal life of Christ.
  • The Virgin Birth and the Incarnation: The titular essay connects the concepts of “the seed of the woman” in Genesis 3, the virgin conception of Christ, and the immortality found in Christ. This is one of the most important of the entire Doorway Papers series as it presents ideas related to core Christian doctrines (as opposed to, for instance, whether the flood was local or global).
  • The Trinity in the Old Testament: This is probably the best thing I’ve read on the Trinity. Custance shows that it was not a new idea to God, although maybe it was to man. Many great Bible references will show you that the Trinity is not a foreign concept to the Old Testament.
  • A Fresh Look at the Meaning of the
    Word ‘Soul’
    : Body, soul, spirit? It is not always clear in modern thought whether there is a difference between soul and spirit, but in the Old Testament there is a clear distinction. Custance offers a solid biblical study of how these terms are connected with bearings on the creation of Adam and the death of Christ. I don’t believe that Custance’s explanation differs too far from the detailed explanations offered, for instance, by Watchman Nee. For an interesting perspective from the Old Testament, look into the work of Robert Alter on this.
  • How Did Jesus Die?: This essay is a study of the physical causes of the death of Christ, centering on the possibility that Jesus died of a burst heart, an idea promulgated in 1871 by William Stroud. (Pioneer Library published Stroud’s book as an ebook.)
  • The Resurrection of Jesus Christ: In three chapters, Custance treats the “historical”, “theological”, and “experiential” aspects of the bodily Resurrection of Christ. This study is mainly theological.
  • The Unique Relationship between the First and Last Adam: This essay continues to develop some themes from the titular essay about Adam and Christ.

The Virgin Birth and the Incarnation is an important volume within The Doorway Papers, and in many ways it is a predecessor to Custance’s magnum opus, The Seed of the Woman.

Read: You can read The Virgin Birth and the Incarnation and Arthur Custance’s other works for free over at custance.org.

I read this book in 2006 and finished this review in 2021. I guess that tells you how memorable and unique the book was.

Review: Earliest New Testament Translations

Earliest New Testament Translations is “an interlinear comparison of the [six?] earliest English translations 1382 to 1611, updated to modern English.” My edition includes:

  • Wycliffe’s 1382 translation, which was done from Latin, not Greek;
  • Purvey’s 1395 revision of Wycliffe’s New Testament;
  • Tyndale’s 1530 New Testament, which was translated from Greek;
  • The Geneva Bible (1560), which was translated by a group of Reformed scholars in Switzerland;
  • The King James Version, completed in 1611.

This was put together and self-published by Clayton Porter. Porter has expanded to include other translations over time, so there are a number of volumes and versions out there, both digitally and in print.

This is an excellent parallel translation. I like that the spelling has been updated; reading Wycliffe without it is both unnecessary and a pain, even for a linguist. (It is very seldom that the outdated spelling creates any lexical ambiguity, but very often that a modern reader cannot guess what word is meant.)

In addition, the introduction was helpful in highlighting the differences between the translations.

Reading this brings to light how much we owe to Wycliffe and Tyndale, whose works are not so easy to get a hold of even now. Versions that pre-date the King James are extremely important to English history, but sadly do not appear on most Bible study websites like BibleHub, BibleGateway, or Blue Letter Bible.

This is an important addition to my digital library and I highly recommend it for anyone who wants to explore why a New Testament verse has always been translated “this way” and not “that way.” Below I’ve given a few things I learned and some examples from the book.

Committee or Single-Scholar?

A key question to consider in reading a Bible translation is whether or not it is the product of group effort. As a kid I always imagined that translations are done by one dude with a very good dictionary, but since Geneva, nearly all have been done by committee. Single-scholar translations do not generally get a lot of attention anymore: Young’s Literal, Darby’s, Weymouth’s, Moffat’s, Wuest’s, and The Passion Translation are hardly considered by academics. I do see Young’s Literal sometimes referenced as a baseline for a purely literal translation (not a “reading” translation), and Weymouth’s work is highly regarded by some. Moffat’s was quite fashionable around the time of World War I, but enthusiasm waned. Robert Alter’s work is probably the biggest exception to the rule. Almost any modern Bible translation, regardless of the language, is done by committee.

So the work of Wycliffe and Tyndale is exceptional in this regard. It means that their personality “colors” the New Testament text. This sounds like a negative assessment, but I hardly mean it that way. Each individual brings out shades of meaning in the text that give us new lenses of interpretation and help us see the Word with fresh eyes. There is a wonderful novelty to reading Wycliffe and especially Tyndale. Their work required tremendous creativity, a virtue not often praised in Bible scholars or translators.

The Originality of Tyndale

Tyndale is exemplary in many respects, and may have contributed more neologisms and original wording than the King James—for instance, we are indebted to him for the words “scapegoat” and “passover”. He translates ekklēsia as “congregation” instead of “church”, and has many other eccentricities.

He also just stands out as someone with many novel (but tenable) readings of the Greek. For example, Tyndale—in my opinion, correctly—translates 1 Corinthians 14:34a this way:

Let your wives keep silence in the congregations.

The Greek phrase αἱ γυναῖκες ὑμῶν is awkwardly translated “your women” in quite a few versions, both old and modern, starting with Geneva. I can only guess that the intended meaning is the church’s women. Others only have “women” or “the women”, which make it sound like Paul is making a very broad prohibition. But the plural possessive pronoun ὑμῶν (“y’all’s”) and the universal use of “husbands” in the very next verse mean that we are most likely dealing with a situation involving specific Corinthian wives, not all women for all time. Theologian Michael F. Bird writes that this is the case in his booklet on women’s roles.

Of all the translations I found, only Tyndale, Coverdale, and the WEB version use “wives” in this verse.

A Committee of Centuries

Modern Bible translations are heavily influenced by tradition, and, for good or for ill, it is very difficult to break free of. Translators are not only bound to the work of their translation committee and revision committees, they are bound to a committee of centuries. It is not hard to find verses in which either Wycliffe or Tyndale set a tone that has never been broken.

Observe 1 Timothy 2:5:

For one God and one mediator is of God and of men, a man Christ Jesus … (Wycliffe, Wycliffe-Purvey)

For there is one God, and one mediator between God and man, which is the man Christ Jesus … (Tyndale, Geneva)

For there is one God, and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus … (King James)

This verse exemplifies the awkwardness sometimes found in Wycliffe’s version. Like Slavic languages, Latin has no definite or indefinite article (“a” or “the”), which is why we have “a man Christ Jesus.”

You can also see that Geneva is identical to Tyndale. Bible versions are almost never made with a clean slate; translators basically revise past versions rather than reinventing the wheel.

It is very rare to find examples where all four translations disagree. Here is one that I find intriguing (Galatians 2:21):

I cast not away the grace of God; for if rightwiseness is by the law, then Christ died without cause. (Wycliffe, Wycliffe-Purvey)

I despise not the grace of God: For if righteousness come of the law, then Christ died [is Christ dead] in vain. (Tyndale, brackets showing a later revision)

I do not abrogate the grace of God, for if righteousness be by the Law, then Christ died without a cause. (Geneva)

I do not frustrate the grace of God: for if righteousness come by the law, then Christ is dead in vain. (King James)

In the last phrase, Geneva followed Wycliffe and King James followed Tyndale, showing that they are not just revising the most recent version; later translators had access to multiple translations and compared to choose the preferred reading of a phrase.

But they cannot agree on how to “English” this word ἀθετῶ, with various attempts shown in bold. It is notable that they differ so widely. Here are some more modern translations of the same phrase:

I do not make void the grace of God. (Young’s Literal)

I do not nullify the grace of God. (Weymouth, RSV, ESV)

I do not set aside the grace of God. (Darby, NIV, NKJV)

I do not treat the grace of God as meaningless. (NLT)

I hope that this review helps others to understand some of what I have learned from this wonderful parallel New Testament, so that we can better live by God’s Word and edify God’s people.

Review: The Openness of God

The Openness of God: A Biblical Challenge to the Traditional Understanding of God (1994) is an introduction to “open theism”, known to some “dynamic omniscience”.

For those new to the concept: open theism is the idea that the free future choices of accountable moral agents (read: humans) are not in any meaningful sense knowable—if future choices were known with any certainty (as in Augustinianism or Molinism), then they could not be free future choices. It relies, then, on an intuitively linear view of time in its metaphysics. Time as measured by us is a mere construct; but time as a directionality and causality is basic to all existence, including God’s, and it would be logically absurd to argue that anyone was ever “outside time”. Time is not a physical reality that you can enter or exit. Open theism, then, involves both philosophical and theological considerations, and both are handled at some length in The Openness of God.

The Openness of God, despite its length, felt to me like a fly-by. The biblical chapter did not have many new things to say to me, as someone who had reviewed these arguments for many years, but the “historical considerations” was much more relevant to me since I am weak in that area.

The writers argue that certain attributes of God in “classical” theism were derived from Greek philosophy, not from the Bible or Judeo-Christian thought. This is a key argument, because followers of the early church father such as Augustine have maintained for many centuries that God is outside time, and some regard this as the only orthodox position.

The research probably benefits from multiple authors, but I also felt that it made the discussion feel slow, and sometimes repetitive. The book is organized around the different kinds of arguments used to defend open theism.

I did not like that in some chapters the discussion is framed around “rejecting” or “accepting” universal foreknowledge as such. I prefer the language of Samuel Fancourt, who must have been the first Englishman to articulate open theism in the 1720s. He denied that God foreknew our free moral choices in advance, but he always maintained that God’s foreknowledge is absolute. Open theists simply have a different view of time, so certain things cannot be foreknown. (Edit: In a 2021 podcast, Greg Boyd and Thomas Jay Oord have agreed that the grounding fact of open theism is not that God voluntarily limits his omniscience or omnipotence, but that God does not need to predict what is merely possible, not certain.)

If you want to think about ideas like the suffering of God and how we see God’s activity in time, I would recommend something more practical and biblical. Many authors (as I mentioned above) have written on these topics without making dogmatic arguments that tend to remove focus from the application of biblical truth. This is an important debate, but it is primarily important because we need to balance our metaphors about God in the same way that the Bible does and live in light of that truth. Expository writing can meet those goals. However, this book is intended as a theological introduction to a way of thinking. I guess it would meet that goal pretty well if you wanted a clear introduction to “open theology”; though, something like Michael Saia’s Does God Know the Future? or Greg Boyd’s Letters from a Skeptic might be less time-consuming and more palatable for those who are not academics.


This review was written around 2013 and posted in 2021.

Review: Bourgeois Babes, Bossy Wives, & Bobby Haircuts

Author: Michael F. Bird is an Australian New Testament scholar and author of many books. His books and teachings mainly pertain to core Christian doctrines such as justification, Jesus’ divinity, and Jesus’ messiahship.

Overview

Bourgeois Babes, Bossy Wives, & Bobby Haircuts: A Case for Equality in Ministry (2012) is Michael F. Bird’s defense of women in ministry, including a brief account of how he changed his mind on this issue.

In describing why he changed his mind, Bird cites two growing concerns he had: 1) Paul’s co-workers in the gospel included many women; 2) Prohibitions on women in Bird’s church far exceeded those of Scripture, and women were forbidden even from leading songs at co-ed small group meetings.

Then Bird breaks the false dichotomy by showing that there is a spectrum of opinions involving women in leadership.

Though the back cover uses the phrase “taking a stand”, Bird’s position in this debate is stubbornly moderate—I was going to say, annoyingly moderate. His exposition of key texts will not satisfy complementarians or thoroughgoing egalitarians. (Bird opts for the more conventional terminology here, though I prefer the more transparent terms, hierarchicalist and mutualist.)

Like complementarians, Bird allows that men hold authority in households, since “man is the head of the woman”. He tempers this by stating that the New Testament household codes are all framed by commands involving mutual submission. In Bird’s view, this transforms—but does not negate—male headship.

Like egalitarians, Bird allows that many women ministered, taught, and preached alongside Paul, and the two key prohibitions (1 Corinthians 14:34 and 1 Timothy 2:13) are not transcultural. Though he considers himself a moderate egalitarian, I’ll discuss ways that his position on these passages differs from many or most egalitarians.

Key Passages

Bird states that passages like 1 Corinthians 11:2–16 (on veiling women during worship), 1 Corinthians 14:34–36 (on women remaining silent in church), and 1 Timothy 2:11–15 (on women “teaching or exerting authority”) relate to local social and spiritual conditions, and are not mandates for all churches in all time. But that does not make them irrelevant.

1 Corinthians 11:2–16

In 1 Corinthians 11, a number of befuddling statements are made involving women wearing (or not wearing) veils during Christian worship. Bird points out that this passage cannot be used to silence women in church, since it states that women may “pray and prophesy” publicly, if they meet the conditions of appropriateness and modesty.

He argues throughout the booklet that, though Paul appeals to the creation order, veils were clearly related to local customs regarding modesty. This connection between the creation order and local custom is an important one for Bird, because this can determine how we treat both 1 Corinthians 11 and 1 Timothy 2.

Bird does not require any special pleading or wrangling of the text. He simply states that in this passage “Paul intends to correct male behavior just as much as female behavior” (p. 25). Paul mentions Christ as the head of man and then the husband as head of the wife, but he is not setting a “chain of command” according to Bird:

There is indeed a hierarchy of relations between the persons mentions in the various couplets [1 Cor. 11:3], but one that must also be understood in light of the gospel, where Paul affirms mutuality, reciprocity, and the value of others in the relationships that characterize the new creation.

Michael F. Bird, Bourgeois Babes, Bossy Wives, and Bobby Haircuts, p. 25

1 Corinthians 14:34–36

On 1 Corinthians 14:34–36, Bird does not adopt either the “interpolation” argument or the “quotation” argument, often appealed to by egalitarians. But he points out that 1 Corinthians 14:34 blatantly contradicts 1 Corinthians 11:5, in which women can pray and prophesy. The weight of evidence seems to show that women can pray and prophesy (and teach) in public worship. But Bird (p. 29) writes that this passage relates to the relation of husbands and wives during public worship. (Incidentally, Tyndale translates 1 Corinthians 14:34 this way, but no other major English translation has done so.)

1 Timothy 2:11–15

Bird is not satisfied by the most common arguments on either extreme concerning this passage. Complementarians would say that it is transcultural and women cannot teach or lead men in spiritual ministry. Egalitarians frequently appeal to the local Artemis cult, which was led by women, as a source of false teaching and social issues in the Ephesian church where Timothy led. This second argument was popularized by the Kroegers’ book I Suffer Not a Woman (1994), but Bird writes that it was disproven by Steven Baugh. (He does not elaborate.)

Instead, Bird writes that women were involved in some heresy that involved a deviant view of creation. In my opinion, Bird is taking the same scheme as the Kroegers’ book but omitting all reference to Artemis. He chooses this stance, however, as a way of privileging the text over speculation about historical context.

Firmly choosing the middle of the road, Bird tempers all this by stating that Paul still prohibited women from ministry in Ephesus, and so there is a transcultural principle that must be gleaned from that. We cannot simply dismiss passages that are transcultural.

How Important Is It?

In his conclusion, Bird states that this is a second-order issue, not a first-order issue. Affirming women in ministry should not bar us from fellowship with those who reject them. In their 1991 edited volume, Grudem and Piper disagree, stating this is a first-order issue (meaning that they would not hold fellowship with those who disagree!).

It is strange to me that Grudem puts not preparing women for leadership on the level of Jesus’ messiahship, the Trinity, the gospel of salvation, the authority of Scripture, and the forgiveness of sins.

Conclusion

Finally, I would like to mention the difficulties of the position chosen by Bird.

There are logical difficulties attached to a moderate position, which is perhaps why it is seldom defended. What does it mean to affirm husband’s headship and women as leaders? Are the church and the home to be treated as totally separate spheres? If women are creationally unfit to lead the home, how are they fit to lead the church? Conversely, they can make decisions for the church, which is made up of many families, why can’t they make decisions for their own family?

Bird handles the biblical text quite well and covers quite a bit of the contemporary textual arguments found in the academy—and that in a very short space. He brings up some fantastic points about 1 Corinthians 11, but that section did leave me wanting more, since the passage is so obfuscated. Personally, I admire Lucy Peppiatt’s treatment of this passage; in my opinion, Bird does not have adequate space in this small book to address its manifold difficulties.

I’m also a tad annoyed at the typos that appeared in this staple-bound booklet from Zondervan. It was originally only an ebook.

It would be great to hear Bird again on these issues. He is an engaging and persuasive writer, and this is an impressively tactful treatment of a moderate egalitarian position.

Review: Leadership Is Male

Author: David Pawson was a Charismatic Bible teacher, known especially for his book Unlocking the Bible and the related teaching videos.

Overview of the Book

Leadership Is Male: What Does the Bible Say? (1988) is a systematic account of biblical complementarianism, or the view that men should take leading and teaching roles in the church, and are also “heads” over their wives.

Pawson begins with the nature of God. He points out that God himself is almost uniformly described as male throughout the Bible, and female language is only occasionally used. This is true, but I believe this great numerical difference is quite mitigated if you look at the preponderance of gendered metaphors rather than just mechanically counting the pronoun “he” as an indication of “maleness”.

The existence of male and female figures and language in relation to the being of God is something we have to become accustomed to, but is not describing an essential aspect of God’s nature.

Lucy Peppiatt, Rediscovering Scripture’s Vision for Women, p. 22

Since God is a spiritual being, I did not take Pawson’s first line of argumentation to be very helpful.

In chapter 2, Pawson then moves into Genesis. He argues that men and women are created with “vertical equality” towards God in Genesis 1, but “horizontal inequality” towards each other in Genesis 2. He finds justification for inequality in the method, purpose, and sequence of Adam and Eve’s creations.

Woman was made from man. Woman was made for man. Woman was made after man.

David Pawson, Leadership Is Male, p. 17; cf. John Angell James, The Marriage Ring (1842)

He also points to Adam naming Eve as an “expression of authority” (p. 18), citing the English custom of wives taking their husbands’ names. We are almost the only culture that does this, though. Children often take their father’s name, but sometimes both parents; and in much of the globe, women do not change their name at marriage.

There is not much indication of “male leadership” in the Adam and Eve cycle, though. Pawson uses only slight hints in the Genesis text, as I’ll show below; he also supports his argument with 1 Corinthians 11 and 1 Timothy 2, two of the most problematic passages in the entire New Testament, even if we leave the “gender debate” aside.

Pawson then argues that both Testaments are essentially patriarchal, since Jesus only appointed male apostles.

The patriarchal nature of government among the people of God continues from the old into the new covenant.

David Pawson, Leadership Is Male, p. 40

In chapter 5, Pawson handles Pauline passages, beginning with Galatians 3:28, where Paul writes that in Christ there is “neither male nor female”. He argues that Paul uses ethnicity, slavery, and gender because only a free, Jewish male could benefit from Abraham’s covenant. That’s why in Galatians 3:29, we are “Abraham’s seed”, and that makes us “heirs”. The passage pertains to salvation, then, not leadership. Michael F. Bird and Lucy Peppiatt argue that it would be hair-splitting to limit this verse to salvation, as if salvation has no ethical implications; but Pawson does make some great points in expositing this text.

Pawson then goes through Pauline passages that limit women’s roles. He correctly notes that 1 Corinthians 14:34 “directly contradicts” 1 Corinthians 11:5—can women pray and prophesy in public, or do they have to remain silent? He admits the confusion of these passages, but writes that women are forbidden from questioning teachers.

The crucial point to note is that Paul appeals to the original order of creation [in 1 Cor. 11 and 1 Tim. 2], to the ‘very nature of things’ and to the universal practice of the churches; but he never mentions the social conditions in Corinth or the national culture of Greece. Enough said!

David Pawson, Leadership Is Male, p. 59

Pawson’s main defense for excluding women from leadership is basically that it is the most obvious (“literal”) way to read the Bible; thus, when Paul writes, “wives, submit to your own husbands”, Pawson takes this at face value. It is transcultural: that is, it stands as a word to the church for all time.

Literal Inspiration, Literal Interpretation

Regarding the household codes of the New Testament, Pawson sees the inspiration of Scripture as the crucial issue: either Paul was inspired, and we must obey it, or Paul was not inspired, and it does not matter for our lives. He does not address household codes as an ancient genre, perhaps because this was written in 1988.

Pawson is right that inspiration is a crucial issue. Egalitarians take several liberties with the New Testament text, and their arguments can be a little convoluted. But, as a reviewer of Pawson has pointed out, his reading is not entirely literal either! There are serious interpretive problems on both sides of the debate. Invoking a “literal interpretation” is not an escape hatch that saves us from interpretive problems.

I think the point I found least convincing in the book was that “prophecy” was not authoritative and did not involve teaching. He describes a prophetess as “passing on divine words”. But this is merely verbal dictation, as opposed to verbal plenary inspiration or dynamic inspiration. In the words of one Bible commentator, “no respected evangelicals maintain that God dictated the words of Scripture.” I doubt any Old Testament scholar would be satisfied with Pawson’s reduction of prophecy to dictation!

Here I’d like to point out a few places where Pawson is interpolating from his bias.

Pawson’s Not-So-Literal Moments

I Will Make Thy Suffering Great

Unto the woman he said, I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children . . .

Genesis 3:16, KJV

First, like Peppiatt, Pawson sees Genesis 1 to 3 as crucial to any view of gender relations. He sees the difference in roles mentioned in the curse as a continuation of existing roles. He defends this by noting that Eve’s pain in childbirth would “multiply” (Gen. 3:16); in his view, it could not multiply if it was not there before.

This may be a “literal” interpretation, but only in English. In Hebrew, the verb translated “multiply” means simply to “make great” and has no reference to a previous state. (“Multiply” is probably chosen because in translating a word it is preferred to use a single word, where possible.) The Hebrew phrasing is identical, for instance, in the angel’s promise to Hagar in Genesis 16:10: “I will multiply thy seed exceedingly.” This in no way implies that Hagar’s seed was already great, and does not function in that way in Genesis 3:16, as Pawson contends.

For Your Man Shall Be Your Longing

. . . and thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee.

Genesis 3:16, KJV

Pawson writes that the first phrase contains

“an unusual Hebraism which means an ambition to control, manipulate, possess someone (as its occurrence in Genesis 4:7 clearly shows). That is, having led her husband into sin, she must now live with a continuing urge to subordinate him to her wish and will.”

Pawson, Leadership Is Male, p. 25

Commentators are far from unanimous on the meaning of this phrase, and only a few are in concord with Pawson here. In citing Genesis 4:7, Pawson fails to mention Song of Solomon 7:10, which differs only slightly and is translated “his desire is toward me.” Robert Alter translates Genesis 3:16 literally: “for your man shall be your longing”.

According to the Pulpit Commentary, the phrase has been historically translated in three different ways using three cross-references already mentioned:

  • “Your desire will be against him”, following Genesis 4:7 (ESV, NLT);
  • “Your desire will be toward him”, following Song of Solomon 7:10;
  • “Your desire will belong to him”, following the Septuagint, in which case it accords with the following clause and is emphasizing woman’s subjection.

Some commentators also agree with Pawson that the woman’s subjection is God’s intentional design at creation; others, such as Matthew Henry, see it as a consequence of the fall. It is not “literally” clear from the text itself.

Peppiatt brings out these problems in her recent book. The possible translations, she writes, are opposite in meaning.

Suffice it to say, the problems of translation are many and varied, and that even in the ESV the editors have footnoted an alternative translation to “shall be contrary to” as “shall be toward.” This is quite a serious difference!

Lucy Peppiatt, Rediscovering Scripture’s Vision for Women, p. 53

Priscilla and Aquila Took Apollos Aside and Set Him Straight

Pawson also takes other liberties in historicizing a New Testament with no women in leadership.

And he [Apollos] began to speak boldly in the synagogue: whom when Aquila and Priscilla had heard, they took him unto them, and expounded unto him the way of God more perfectly.

Acts 18:26, KJV

Pawson writes that this verse did not involve teaching and that it occurred privately. In my opinion, both are suspect, and show that he is wrangling the text to iron out what he perceives as an inconsistency.

In Acts 18:26, the verb for “took him” (προσλαμβάνω) can mean “received him into their home”, but the context here also matches closely with Matthew 16:22 and Mark 8:32, where Peter “took” Jesus aside and rebuked him. Contra Pawson, the verb for “expound” (ἐκτίθημι) is hardly weaker than “teach”. Eminent expositors like Joseph Parker and Thomas C. Oden write that “teaching” is exactly what Priscilla did! In the Septuagint, this verb means to “lay down” a decree; in the NT, it involves taking time to set someone straight who is mistaken. Thus, Peter “expounds” his visions to the Judaizers (in Acts 11:4), and Paul “expounds” the kingdom of God “both out of the law of Moses and out of the prophets” (Acts 28:23). It is unconvincing to claim that “teach” differs categorically from “expound”, or that Priscilla was excused in correcting a prominent and well-versed male teacher because it was “private” (which is likely but not necessarily clear from the text).

Bias-Free Reading?

As I have shown here, Pawson takes his own liberties with the text, omitting the inconvenient variety of understandings of Genesis 3:16. He has stated, though, that he is taking Scripture in its plainest, most “literal” sense. He seems to mean by this that he is arriving at a reading that involves no bias.

We all have biases, though, from the place and time in which we live. We are flesh and blood. None of us approaches the text as a robot. It is better to acknowledge where our loyalties lie, and move on.

Conclusion

Pawson’s book is a short and clear exposition of the complementarian viewpoint. Someone unfamiliar with the debate (such as myself) can use it as a starting point, but it does not delve very deeply into the textual issues involved. It’s also frustrating that he tells his readers that they can consult the “many good commentaries”, but does not name a single author!

The book—along with much of complementarian writing—suffers from the “Golden Age” fallacy. It treats history as beginning with (conservative) patriarchy and ending with (progressive) feminism. But history is much more cyclical. Grudem and Piper see the debate about women’s roles as beginning in the 1960s—completely ignoring the debates on women’s ordination in the 1880s, and tautologically dismissing the many women ordained through history as “unorthodox”. (Eastern Orthodox, Montanists, Waldensians, Moravians, Quakers, Methodists, Pentecostals—God help them, they didn’t subscribe to the Westminster Confession!)

Pawson has methodically split a number of hairs in the biblical text to make it sound completely univocal regarding women. Paul freely acknowledges women as “co-workers in the gospel” throughout the New Testament, and this included key roles in house churches; but elsewhere, Paul apparently prohibits women from teaching or even speaking in church! Pawson has quite sanitized New Testament house churches from having any radical feminists in “teaching roles”. The correct way to handle these texts is to begin by acknowledging the inherent contradiction or tension between the New Testament’s narrative passages and its ethical teaching, and go from there.

Review: Women and Worship at Corinth

Author: Lucy Peppiatt is an evangelical charismatic minister, theologian, and principal of Westminster Theological Centre in Cheltenham, England. She has pastored churches in the Church of England alongside her husband, Nick Crawley. Her research focuses on the Trinity, 1 Corinthians, and Paul’s view on women.

Full title: Women and Worship at Corinth: Paul’s Rhetorical Arguments in 1 Corinthians

Overview:

Women and Worship at Corinth (2015) may be the most intriguing book-length contribution to the Christian theological debate on women’s roles since the Kroegers’ I Suffer Not a Woman (1992). It is a thorough defense of the idea that Paul was quoting his opponents at certain points in 1 Corinthians 11; thus, the passage about head coverings for women is a Corinthian argument Paul is opposing, not a command he is giving them. An overview of her argument is available from the OnScript podcast.

The setting of 1 Corinthians

On 1 Corinthians as a whole, Peppiatt writes:

The letter is written to admonish the Corinthians for ways in which they have begun to depart from Paul’s original teaching and practices, and is a response to their reply to his original epistle.

Woman and Worship at Corinth, p. 2

This means that there is a lot of missing context, and—like the similarly problematic passage in 1 Timothy 2—commentators and preachers resort to (rampant?) speculation with regard to the church situation Paul is responding to. In both passages (1 Cor. 11, 1 Tim. 2), Pauline teaching on women seemingly contradicts Pauline practice (e.g., Rom. 16, Acts 18).

In this book, Peppiatt defends what she calls a “rhetorical reading” of both 1 Corinthians 11:2–16 and 1 Corinthians 14:34–36, asserting that Paul is quoting his opponents in both passages. She is not dogmatic, however, and begins the discussion by freely admitting her biases. She writes that even a “flat” reading of these texts is circumscribed by the limits of the reader’s imagination in reconstructing the context, and thus, there is no unproblematic (“literal”) way to read the text without coping with contradictions and difficulties (contra, among others, David Pawson).

What is the rhetorical reading?

It is already universally accepted that [Paul] quotes some Corinthian slogans in 1 Corinthians in order to make a point. These verses include 6:12, 13; 7:1; 8:1, 8:4; 10:23; and 15:12.

Women and Worship at Corinth, p. 4

A rhetorical reading of 1 Corinthians 11:2–16 will be unfamiliar to some readers, but we know that quotations were not always signalled by ancient writers, and that Paul quotes others many times in 1 Corinthians. A rhetorical reading in 1 Corinthians 14:34–36 has also been proposed convincingly for some decades.[1] Here I’ve bolded the verse where Paul is apparently quoting his opponents. The disjunction is obvious in verse 36.[2]

Let your women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak; but they are commanded to be under obedience, as also saith the law. And if they will learn any thing, let them ask their husbands at home: for it is a shame for women to speak in the church.
What? came the word of God out from you? or came it unto you only?

1 Corinthians 14:34–36, KJV, emphasis added to show proposed quotations

Given a rhetorical reading of 1 Corinthians 14:34–36, it is likely that Paul was dealing with some sort of misogynism in the church at Corinth (unlike those at Philippi and Ephesus, where women apparently held great influence). If we follow the “flat” reading of both passages, Paul truly intended for women to be veiled, at least in Corinth, during Christian worship, in which they pray and prophesy (11:5); but he also (somewhat confusingly) instructs women to be silent in church (14:34). The overlapping contradictions in these chapters, along with their contradictions to the early church’s recorded practices, require further explanations, and Peppiatt points out that scholars are routinely confused by many aspects 1 Corinthians 11:2–16.

A rhetorical reading of 1 Corinthians 11 was first proposed by Thomas Shoemaker in 1987, in a single “underdeveloped” article. Peppiatt has fleshed this out and found that quite a few contradictions result from a “flat” reading of 1 Corinthians 11.

Below is 1 Corinthians 11:2–16, showing the proposed quotations from Pauline opponents in bold.

Now I praise you, brethren, that ye remember me in all things, and keep the ordinances, as I delivered them to you. But I would have you know, that the head of every man is Christ; and the head of the woman is the man; and the head of Christ is God.
Every man praying or prophesying, having his head covered, dishonoureth his head. But every woman that prayeth or prophesieth with her head uncovered dishonoureth her head: for that is even all one as if she were shaven.
For if the woman be not covered, let her also be shorn: but if it be a shame for a woman to be shorn or shaven, let her be covered.
For a man indeed ought not to cover his head, forasmuch as he is the image and glory of God: but the woman is the glory of the man. For the man is not of the woman: but the woman of the man. Neither was the man created for the woman; but the woman for the man. 10 For this cause ought the woman to have power on her head because of the angels.
11 Nevertheless neither is the man without the woman, neither the woman without the man, in the Lord. 12 For as the woman is of the man, even so is the man also by the woman; but all things of God. 13 Judge in yourselves: is it comely that a woman pray unto God uncovered? 14 Doth not even nature itself teach you, that, if a man have long hair, it is a shame unto him? 15 But if a woman have long hair, it is a glory to her: for her hair is given her for a covering. 16 But if any man seem to be contentious, we have no such custom, neither the churches of God.

1 Corinthians 11:2–16, emphasis added to show proposed quotations

Why do we need a rhetorical reading of this passage?

  1. Paul himself had long hair when he was in Corinth. Why then would he condemn long hair in men?
  2. Paul contradicts himself within the passage: Are men independent of women, or are they interdependent?
  3. Paul contradicts his own words later in the letter: Do women have to stay silent, or can they pray and prophesy with correct attire?
  4. “Apostleship for Paul is marked by public dishonor and disgrace.” (p. 70) Why then does Paul appeal to shame and honor? Did he not say in the same letter that the apostles were disgraced before angels (1 Cor. 4:8–13)?
  5. Even if we believed this was motivated by some local custom, historians do not point to any coherent custom in ancient Corinth regarding veils or hair.
  6. Paul does quote his opponents elsewhere. “In sum, it seems that Paul does quote texts from others when composing his letters, and that he does not always signal those overtly with written cues . . .” (Campbell’s Deliverance, p. 541).
  7. Paul mentioned the headship of Christ over men first. The order is not insignificant.
  8. Paul used the word “nevertheless” (Gk. πλήν) in between two apparently contradictory passages.
  9. Practically no church obeys the letter of 1 Corinthians 11, even though its argumentation is apparently rooted in the creation order, and therefore—according to Lucy Peppiatt and Michael Lakey—its commands should be considered transcultural if we choose the flat reading of the text.
  10. Interpreting male headship as meaning “authority” (in v. 3) requires us to apply the same language to the Trinity, which leads to eternal functional subordination (EFS), which has been historically condemned as heresy.
  11. Finally, we have no idea what is meant by the phrase, “because of the angels”! The line of thought drops off quite abruptly.

One final note

In his booklet on the topic, Michael F. Bird writes that 1 Corinthians 11 cannot be used to keep women out of ministry anyway, because the point of the passage is that women can “pray and prophesy” publicly if they follow culturally appropriate guidelines of modesty and unostentatiousness.


For more on this topic, see Peppiatt’s 2019 book, Rediscovering Scripture’s Vision for Women: Fresh Perspectives on Disputed Texts, which is a more thorough defense of Christian egalitarianism.


[1] Pepiatt cites: Allison, “Let the Women Be Silent in the Churches” (1988); Flanagan and Snyder, “Did Paul Put Down Women in 1 Cor 14:34–36?” (1981); Manus, “The Subordination of Women in the Church: 1 Cor 14:33b–36 Reconsidered”; Odell-Scott, “In Defence of an Egalitarian Interpretation of 1 Cor 14:34–36″ (1987).

[2] Some scholars, such as Murphy-O’Connor, have also argued that a scribe who disagreed with Paul added the bit about silencing women in 1 Corinthians 14:34–35; thus, it is a scribal “interpolation”. This is supported by some manuscripts in which the verse order is rearranged, with verses 34 and 35 being moved after verse 40 (though verses 34 and 35 are never omitted in the existing manuscript tradition). Odell-Scott argues that this was a scribal re-arrangement which lent to us a more positive interpretation of the verses about silencing women.

Review: The Reset

Author: Jeremy Riddle is a worship pastor at Anaheim Vineyard and was formerly part of the Bethel Music collective. As a songwriter, some of his best-known works are “Sweetly Broken” (2007) and “This is Amazing Grace” (2014, co-written). Riddle was formerly a member of the Bethel Music collective. He runs a podcast about worship with Matt Redman.

Overview:

The Reset (2020) is Jeremy Riddle’s manifesto calling for purity of worship in the church, especially in the evangelical and Charismatic movements. The Reset begins with a call for repentance:

The sound is huge. The personalities are large. The stages are bright. The crowds are enthused.
But so often, all I can hear is noise. All I can feel is grief.

The Reset, pp. 1–2

Riddle is raw, but he has not issued this book without profound thought on the subject. He shows keen discernment in pointing out that much of our worship is driven by entertainment, emotions, and personalities.

Many times, I have sensed a strange, inappropriate relationship beginning to form between worship leaders and the people they’re leading. I’ve observed when people become increasingly pulled into the tractor beam of someone’s personal charisma, and when that leader begins to feed on that (I believe mostly unknowingly), they begin to lead people into intimacy with “themselves” instead of intimacy with Him. The more the celebrity worship leader model grows, the more common this becomes.

The Reset, p. 30

He seeks to draw us back to the God we worship. We must get to know who it is that we worship by going back to the Bible. We must not confuse a God-sent revival with mere enthusiasm.

Again, Riddle sees church stage productions as following the lead of the secular entertainment industry. In my own opinion, the stage itself may be one of the greatest obstacles we have set in the place of worship. Historically, it is a Frankenstein’s monster cobbled from the Old Testament altar—which was unknown to the first-century church—and the stage, used in the secular rock concert. The use of cameras during prayer meetings and altar calls shows that our sense of reverence hangs by a very fine thread.

Heaven is going to a dazzling, colorful, bewildering, and mesmerizing place. But there is one massive difference between heaven and earth right now, and that’s who’s on the stage.

The Reset, p. 100

Riddle writes all this not as a bitter outsider, but as someone who is still a well-known worship leader in the American evangelical church. The book is published by Riddle’s church, which adds to its unpretentious flavor. Perhaps Riddle wanted to practice what he preaches by remaining accountable to a church, rather than a more financially-motivated institution such as a traditional publisher. I get a sense that Charismatic publishers like Destiny Image might not appreciate his message!

On that point, later in the book, Riddle steps “out of his lane” (p. 97) to address further practical issues within evangelical worship, including: the “Christian” music industry, worship time as a “performance”, stage production, worship leaders as “artists”, ticketed worship events, cameras during worship, and the role of social media. He sees “Christian” music as entirely unaccountable; we need spiritually-accountable content-creators if we want music that reflects Jesus in a broken world. I greatly appreciated these discussions, written as they were by someone who has seen “behind the curtain” of “Christian” record labels. Throughout the book, Riddle does not shy away from naming specific practices in modern worship that are ungodly and humanistic. In that sense, this book is truly prophetic.

Finally, Riddle sees worship as “the forerunner” within the church (p. 80). If our worship tells us the direction our Christian culture is drifting, what is it telling us? And is it something we are unwilling to hear?

In my own experience, ungodly musicians with no true discipleship are so often tolerated to keep the “ship afloat”; if Riddle is worth listening to, then worship is itself a form of discipleship, and we need to exercise great care in who we put behind the helm.

Review: The Welsh Revival

Rating: ★★★

Authors:

W. T. Stead (1849-1912) was a renowned investigative journalist.

G. Campbell Morgan (1863-1945) was a prolific Bible teacher and pastor of Westminster Chapel in London.

Overview:

The Welsh Revival (1905) is a brief account of some of the distinctives of the revival that occurred in Wales in the year of its publication. starting with Stead’s own revival experience in Wales in 1860, this little book follows with about 50 pages of accounts from the 1905 Welsh revival. Stead is by no means a theologian, but his account is straightforward and interesting nonetheless.

Morgan then writes on “The Revival: Its Power and Its Source”. Morgan visited Wales during the height of the revival, and attended a meeting which lasted hour after hour, long after he left.

I left that evening, after having been in the meeting three hours, at 10:30, and it swept on, packed as it was, until an early hour next morning, song and prayer and testimony and conversion and confession of sin by leading church-members publicly, and the putting of it away, and all the while no human leader, no one indicating the next thing to do, no one checking the spontaneous movement. (p. 81)

He describes the revival meetings as having no order of service and no thoroughgoing preaching—and yet so many lives were transformed, that crime rates plummeted in the wake of the revival.

These are the three occupations—singing, prayer, testimony. . . .

There are no inquiry rooms, no penitent forms, but some worker announces, or an inquirer openly confesses Christ, the name is registered and the song breaks out, and they go back to testimony and prayer. (p. 80)

Morgan has sometimes been construed as being anti-charismatic. This little book shows that he believed the Welsh revival, at least, to be a work of God.

This whole thing is of God; it is a visitation in which he is making men conscious of Himself, without any human agency. . . . God has given Wales in these days a new conviction and consciousness of himself. That is the profound thing, the underlying truth. (p. 86)

Morgan warns sternly against giving too much credit to any human agent. He speaks of the revival meeting he attended as having “no human leader”.

You tell me that the revival originates with [Evan] Roberts. I tell you that Roberts is a product of the revival. . . .

To my mind, Morgan’s warnings about the Welsh revival are reminiscent of Gamaliel’s warnings in Acts 5:

If their purpose or activity is of human origin, it will fail. But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men; you will only find yourselves fighting against God.
(Acts 5:38-39, NIV)

Below are more quotations come from Morgan’s contribution to the book:

As the meeting went on, a man rose in the gallery and said, “So and So,” naming some man, “has decided for Christ,” and then in a moment the song began. They did not sing Songs of Praises, they sang Diolch Iddo, and the weirdness and beauty of it swept over the audience. It was a song of praise because that man was born again.

Evan Roberts is no orator, no leader. What is he ? I mean now with regard to this great movement. He is the mouthpiece of the fact that there is no human guidance as to man or organization. The burden of what he says to the people is this: It is not man; do not wait for me depend on God; obey the Spirit. (p. 82)

When these Welshmen sing, they sing the words like men who believe them. (p. 82)

On the origin of the revival:

In the name of God let us all cease trying to find it. At least let us cease trying to trace it to any one man or convention. You cannot trace it, and yet I will trace it tonight. Whence has it come? All over Wales I am giving you roughly the result of the questioning of fifty or more persons at random in the week a praying remnant have been agonizing before God about the state of the beloved land, and it is through that the answer of fire has come. You tell me that the revival originates with Roberts. I tell you that Roberts is a product of the revival. You tell me that it began in an Endeavor meeting where a dear girl bore testimony. I tell you that was part of the result of a revival breaking out everywhere. If you and I could stand above Wales, looking at it, you would see fire breaking out here and there, and yonder, and somewhere else, without any collusion or prearrangement. It is a divine visitation in which God let me say this reverently in which God is saying to us: See what I can do without the things you are depending on; see what I can do in answer to a praying people ; see what I can do through the simplest who are ready to fall in line and depend wholly and absolutely upon me.

Review: The Idea of the Holy

Full title: The Idea of the Holy: An Inquiry into the Non-Rational Factor in the Idea of the Divine and its Relation to the Rational

German title: Das Heilige: Über das Irrationale in der Idee des Göttlichen und sein Verhältnis zum Rationalen

Overview:

The Idea of the Holy (1917; English edition, 1923) is a religious philosophy book that famously gave the world the term “numinous” to describe the non-rational experience of holiness.

If you’re reading this review, you have probably read about Rudolf Otto in C. S. Lewis’ The Problem of Pain. Lewis aptly summarized our response to “the numinous” as holy fear by comparing our responses to two statements. The first statement evokes fear: there is a lion in the next room. But the second statement evokes a different kind of fear: there is a ghost in the next room.

Lewis was a Oxford philosophy don and more conversant with Otto than most. For many readers, this book will be tough going, and I suspect most would be bored to tears. But because he describes holiness with fresh perspective, I’ve taken some time to go over the useful theological concepts here, disregarding many passages which were either outdated in approach or simply inscrutable. (“Chew the meat and spit out the bones.”)

Rudolf Otto was a philosopher, not a theologian or a Bible scholar. Even ambitious readers will be quite satisfied with the first six chapters (a quarter of the book) which describe “the numinous”. But there is much more to his book than we find in that little paragraph by C. S. Lewis.

Rational and Non-Rational (ch. 1)

First, Otto sees both rational and non-rational elements as essential to religion. “Religion is not exclusively contained and exhaustively comprised in any series of ‘rational’ assertions.” (ch. 1) Again, in the words of Tersteegen which Otto quotes:

Ein begriffener Gott ist kein Gott. (A God comprehended is no God.)

Gerhard Tersteegen, quoted in The Idea of the Holy, ch. 5

For Otto, the holy has basically twin elements: the first, rational, moral, ethical; the second, non-rational, incomprehensible, conceived a priori (that is, by the very nature of things).

Describing the Numinous (ch. 2-6)

Otto takes pains to describe the non-rational experience of holiness as something that cannot be exhausted by mere analogy to religion’s rational aspects. “The absolute exceeds our power to comprehend; the mysterious wholly eludes it.” (ch. 17) Numinous emphatically does not mean unrevealed: there are elements of the universe that only grow in mystery as they are revealed!

Otto’s most powerful explanation of the numinous is found in the Latin phrase “mysterium tremendum et fascinans”, meaning roughly “daunting and fascinating mystery”. Contact with the holy has the power to repel and attract at one and the same time. Otto finds these connected but contradictory aspects in all religions—not just biblical Christianity—and also sees the numinous in the animal kingdom, as well as music, architecture, and art. He points out the “daunting” and “fascinating” in many Bible passages, including the following rather odd phrasing of Mark’s Gospel, leading up to the Holy Week:

Jesus went before them: and they were amazed; and as they followed, they were afraid.

Mark 10:32, KJV, emphasis added

This leads us into a brief look at how Otto explains various Bible passages using his philosophy.

The Numinous in Scripture (ch. 10-11, 19)

Though not a Bible scholar, Rudolf Otto compellingly links a number of Bible passages to “the numinous”. Here is an overview of the more memorable:

  • Genesis 28—Jacob knows by some other-than-sensory experience that God was present at Beth-el.
  • Job 38—In the Book of Job, God takes no pains whatsoever to answer Job’s rational questions. God answers by referring to the “numinous” in his creation: animals that are mysterious beyond our reckoning.
  • Isaiah 6—The calling of Isaiah is a key passage referenced throughout The Idea of the Holy. Isaiah’s self-abasement, like those of Job and Peter, is not just repentance for sin. Rather, he is overwhelmed in the face of God’s mysterious self-revelation.
  • Matthew 8:8/Luke 7:6—The centurion’s self-abasement before Jesus.
  • Matthew 16:17—The above is particularly in the case of Peter: “flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee”.
  • Mark 10:32—Believers’ apprehension of Jesus as the Messiah is non-rational.
  • Luke 5:8—Peter’s miraculous haul of fish is compared to Isaiah’s call.
  • Romans 8—For Otto, the Pauline concept of predestination is a simple result of “creature-consciousness”, expressing the unrevealed and non-rational of our salvation; as such, it has no bearing on freedom of the will (contra Zwingli).

Perceiving Holiness (ch. 14-18)

In later chapters of the book, Otto contends for the holy is “purely an a priori category” (ch. 14). A concept is known ‘a priori’ if we conceive of it without reference to any experience or instruction, by the very nature of things. For Otto, this includes both rational and non-rational elements of the holy.

This has important implications. First, it means that moral obligation (= the rational side of the holy) is something we are born into (cf. Romans 1). Second, it means that the numinous (= the non-rational side of the holy) is arrived at without any cognitive or sensory stimulus. Otto uses the term “divination” for such non-rational intuitions—perhaps there was some difficulty in translation, or this term is used generally in religious philosophy. In Christian theology, this term would be unacceptable, replaced by something like “spiritual intuition” or even in Pentecostal parlance, “God speaking”! In his own terms, he means—

. . . groping intimations of meanings . . . the glimpse of an Eternal, in and beyond the temporal . . . the apprehension of a ground and meaning of things in and beyond the empirical and transcending it. . . . They are surmises or inklings of a Reality fraught with mystery and momentousness.

Rudolf Otto, The Idea of the Holy, ch. 18

In chapter 18, Otto inexplicably contends (contra Schleiermacher) that this faculty of “divination” is not available to everyone. Later on, he clarifies this by stating that anyone is capable of perceiving holiness (a priori), but not everyone in fact does so. The language here can be confusing, since Otto’s terminology is often couched quite independently from Christian theology.

In chapter 19, Otto argues convincingly that Jesus’ Messiahship was apprehended non-rationally (i.e. by “divination”) throughout the Gospels, especially by Peter, as already noted. In chapter 20, the same is true of believers today; “the witness of the Spirit” means that we do not depend on philosophical argument or intellectual apologetics to legitimize our own experience of Jesus. We have personal knowledge of him, and that knowledge coalesces with our own intuitions about holiness.

Otto concludes chapter 21 with a wonderful passage in which he celebrates Jesus as the greatest of all prophets and the consummation of holiness in the flesh:

The ‘Spirit’ is only ‘universal’ in the form of [the internal witness of the Spirit] . . . The higher stage is the prophet. . . .

Yet the prophet does not represent the highest stage. We can think of a third, yet higher, beyond him, a stage of revelation as underivable from that of the prophet as was his from that of common men. We can look, beyond the prophet, to one in whom is found the Spirit in all its plenitude, and who at the same time in his person and in his performance is become most completely the object of divination, in whom Holiness is recognized apparent.

Such a one is more than Prophet. He is the Son.

Rudolf Otto, The Idea of the Holy, chapter 21

A Final Note: Measure Your Ministry

My favorite passage in the second half was one I will give here at length.

The degree in which both rational and non-rational elements are jointly present, united in healthy and lovely harmony, affords a criterion to measure the relative rank of religions . . . Applying this criterion, we find that Christianity stands out in complete superiority over all its sister religions.

Rudolf Otto, The Idea of the Holy, ch. 17

It is convicting to see our own churches appraised by Otto’s criterion here. In my own experience, I find almost exclusively one-sided churches. We tend to either reject spiritual gifts and emotive expression in worship, or elevate them at the expense of careful expository teaching. On that note, let us take a moment to measure our own ministries.